France boosting security measures at churches over Christmas

(Photo: REUTERS / Gonzalo Fuentes)French soldier patrols near the Eiffel Tower in Paris as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security plan after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo January 7, 2015. Gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, renowned for lampooning radical Islam, killing at least 12 people, including two police officers in the worst militant attack on French soil in recent decades. The French President headed to the scene of the attack and the government said it was raising France's security level to the highest notch.

Fearing attacks by Islamist terrorists France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has called on church authorities to reinforce security measures during Christmas when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Cazeneuve on Dec. 17 had called for strengthening security at churches during Christmas due to a lingering terror threats following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.

He sent a note to local authorities and police, calling on the heads of parishes to strengthen the protection measures next week.

Authorities sent a similar letter after a foiled attack against at least one church in Paris in April, RFI reported.

Parishes have received advice to make churchgoers open their coats and jackets before they enter churches especially for midnight masses on December 24 and on December 25.

Some 500 such services are set to take place in Paris alone, The Local reported.

"It's obviously mainly to reassure people, but the government can't afford not to step up security, because if something happened they would heavily criticized," French terrorism expert François Bernard Huyge told The Local.

Cazeneuve cited police sources in the note saying that similar to measures taken in department stores and museums, it will be necessary for church goers to open the coats.

He noted the very strong threat to France after the jihadist attacks that killed 130 people dead and hundreds wounded, adding churches had symbolic force as potential targets.

On April 19, a 24-year-old Algerian Sid Ahmed Ghlam 24, was arrested in Paris on suspicion of killing a woman who was found shot dead in the passenger seat of her car, and of planning an attack on a church in the Paris suburb of Villejuif.

Prosecutors found documents about Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State at his home.

The minister also called for churches to limit the number of entrances to churches and to "pay particular attention to abandoned packages or bags."

He also stressed "the need to report any unusual behavior to the police."

France has some 45,000 Catholic churches and around 4,000 Protestant churches.

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