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Heroic Catholic pilgrim protects children in France knife attack; children recovering from injuries

A woman pays her respects in front of messages and floral tributes at the children's playground in Annecy, France, June 9, 2023, the day after after four children and two elderly adults were injured in a knife attacks at Le Paquier park. French media hailed a Catholic pilgrim as "the hero with a backpack" after he was shown in a video using his two backpacks to block the assailant and then charging after him. Police shot and wounded the assailant before he was finally apprehended. The injured children ranged in age from 22 months to 3 years old. (OSV News photo/Denis Balibouse, Reuters)

(OSV News) — The British girl whose injuries were “life-threatening” after a stabbing attack on the playground in Annecy, France, was awake and recovering, France’s President Emmanuel Macron confirmed June 9. He said the condition of the children who were attacked while playing with their parents in Le Paquier park is “heading in the right direction.”

Four children and two men were injured June 8 by an attacker, later identified as a Syrian refugee, who had a knife and ran into the playground in an Alpine resort near Geneva. The suspect is facing attempted murder charges, French prosecutors said. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Macron visited Annecy June 9, meeting rescuers, those lightly injured and a man who identified himself only as Henri, a 24-year-old Catholic pilgrim visiting French cathedrals who witnessed the attacks and protected the children from the attacker.

In an exchange caught on video, Henri told Macron he had “a little favor to ask — I would like to witness the opening of Notre Dame Cathedral,” which is planned for Dec. 8, 2024. The French president replied: “I will see to it personally.”

Calling on Catholics to pray for the victims of a stabbing at a local playground, French Bishop Yves Le Saux of Annecy said the horrific attack was an indication of growing societal violence.

“This tragedy raises questions about the violence that runs through our society, and commits us to work even harder together to fight it,” Bishop Le Saux said in a statement published June 8 by the Diocese of Annecy.

“I would like to express my deep sorrow to the victims and their families, as well as to all the people of Annecy who have been affected by this tragedy,” the bishop said. “I assure them of the prayers of the entire Catholic community.”

According to Reuters news agency, the attack occurred the morning of June 8 when a Syrian refugee, identified by several French media sites as 31-year-old Abdalmasih Hanoun, pulled out a knife and lunged at several toddlers and adults at Le Paquier park near the lake in the picturesque town close to Geneva at the Swiss border.

Authorities said Hanoun inflicted life-threatening injuries on four children between the ages of 22 months and 3 years, as well as wounding two elderly adults while escaping the park. Witnesses said the attacker carried Christian insignia and shouted, “In the name of Jesus Christ.”

Police shot and wounded the assailant before he was finally apprehended.

French prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said Hanoun was granted political refugee status and permanent residency in Sweden in 2013. However, he was denied citizenship twice in 2017 and 2018. Investigators said he had lived in Annecy since last fall.

A video of the attack was posted by several users on Twitter, only for it to be inexplicably deleted. After Dutch conservative philosopher and pundit Eva Vlaardingerbroek tweeted a complaint and questioned why people are “not allowed to see what’s really going on in Europe,” Twitter CEO Elon Musk responded to her, saying he was “looking into it.”

The video also showed a young Catholic pilgrim using two backpacks he carried to block Hanoun from attacking and then running after him.

In an interview with French news site CNEWS, the heroic pilgrim, Henri, said that despite the danger, it would be “unthinkable to do nothing.”

“I let myself be guided by providence and the Virgin Mary. I said my ‘adieu’ (goodbye). They would decide what would happen,” the pilgrim said.

Although the assailant committed the barbarous attack in Jesus’ name, Henri told CNEWS that “it is profoundly un-Christian to attack the vulnerable.”

“The entire Christian civilization on which our country is built upon is a chivalrous message to defend widows and orphans. I think that, on the contrary, something very bad inhabited him,” Henri said.

The Diocese of Annecy announced that Bishop Le Saux would celebrate an evening Mass June 9 for the victims and their families, followed by a time of prayer.

Junno Arocho Esteves writes for OSV News from Rome.

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