MONTREAL: A Canadian Catholic priest was stabbed in front of dozens of stunned worshippers as he was celebrating mass Friday morning at Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory.
Montreal police said a 911 call was placed at around 8:40 a.m. local time. When officers arrived at the landmark church, a male suspect was already detained by security guards.
Philip Barrett, who was sitting near the front of the church, said he saw a tall man, who appeared to be a Caucasian in his 30s, rise from a pew and quickly walk to attack Rev. Claude Grou, the Oratory’s rector.
“He walked over behind the altar and he seemed to strike the priest’s body,” Barrett said. “I think the priest fell down at that time. I do remember the priest was moving away from the man but it happened so quickly there was almost no time to react.”
The service was live-streamed on a Catholic channel. Video shows a tall man in a dark jacket and white baseball cap rounding the altar and charging at Grou as he thrusts his right arm toward the priest. Grou runs backward a few steps before the assailant pushes him into a banner.
As screams are heard in the background, a group of people run forward, surrounding and blocking the suspect.
Barrett said people quickly restrained the suspect, who did not struggle. He said the suspect didn’t speak or call out during the attack.
Police spokeswoman Caroline Chevrefils says the victim suffered minor injuries to his upper body and was taken to the hospital.
The church was cordoned off, but services resumed later in the day.
The 26-year-old suspect, whose name was not released, was scheduled to appear in court on Saturday via videolink from a detention facility.
Police did not reveal a motive for the attack, but spokeswoman Caroline Chevrefils told AFP he is "known to police."
"This was an isolated attack, and there is nothing to link it to terrorism," she added.
Barrett said Grou crumpled to the ground after the attack, but he appeared to be conscious and alert about 15 minutes later when paramedics wheeled him to an ambulance.
He said members of the congregation immediately began praying.
Church spokeswoman Celine Barbeau said Grou was conscious when he was rushed from the scene.
"We are hopeful he will pull through," she added.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out to condemn the "horrible attack" while mayor Valerie Plante called the assault an "inexcusable act that has no place in Montreal."
"We are all in shock over this act of violence in a place dedicated to peace," Montreal archbishop Christian Lepine said in a statement, lamenting that places of worship could be targets of violence.
Saint Joseph's Oratory, built from 1920 to 1955, sits atop the north face of Mount Royal overlooking Canada's second-largest metropolis, and attracts some two million pilgrims and tourists each year.
The national shrine was founded by Brother Andre Bessette, a central religious figure among French-Canadians, who was canonized by Pope Benedict in 2010 for his devotion to the sick and disabled.
Jean-Francois Lefebvre, who was working in front of the oratory when the attack unfolded, said he saw police arrive and take away the suspect in handcuffs.
"I find this incident very unfortunate, in a place so peaceful, that attracts millions of visitors," he told AFP.
"With what happened in Christchurch, it seems that all places of worship are being targeted," he added, referencing an attack at two mosques in New Zealand last Friday that left 50 dead and 50 wounded.
In 2017, a shooter also gunned down six worshippers at a mosque in Quebec City.