Spanish officials Thursday said that the man alleged to have stormed two Spanish churches with a machete, killing a verger and seriously wounding a priest, was slated for deportation but had no prior convictions.
The bloodshed, which took place on Wednesday evening in the southern port city of Algeciras, shocked Spain and left locals reeling.
The alleged attacker was arrested at the scene and police raided his home in the early hours of Thursday as prosecutors pressed ahead with a terror probe.
At midday, hundreds gathered outside Nuestra Senora de La Palma church where the verger was killed for a minute’s silence with many of those present breaking down in tears, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
Among them was Juan Jose Marina, La Palma’s parish priest who was not there when the attack occurred that claimed the life of his verger, Diego Valencia.
“If I am alive, it’s because Diego died instead of me. I was supposed to be there,” he said, welling up with tears. At the time, he was conducting a service elsewhere.
The suspect, who was identified by a police source as a 25-year-old Moroccan, had “no prior criminal or terrorism convictions in Spain or allied countries” and was not under surveillance, an interior ministry spokesman said.
Although a deportation procedure was “opened in June”, it was not implemented immediately because it was an administrative procedure, he said.
Local media said he lived near the churches which are just 300 metres apart.
Although Spain’s top criminal court opened a terror investigation, the government has so far not qualified the nature of the attack.
Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said it was not yet possible to say whether the incident was of a “terrorist nature” but confirmed there were “no third parties involved”.
– Chased the victim into the street –
The suspect, seen in police footage with a beard and wearing a black, white and grey hoodie, entered the church of San Isidro in Algeciras just after 7:00 pm (1800 GMT), “where, armed with a machete, he attacked the priest, leaving him seriously wounded,” the interior ministry said.
“Subsequently, he entered the church of Nuestra Senora de La Palma in which, after causing damage, he attacked the verger.”
The verger “managed to get out of the church, but was caught by the attacker outside and sustained mortal injuries,” it said.
Witnesses told local media the assailant ran into the church shouting and had started throwing icons, crosses and candles to the floor.
A police source confirmed he had “shouted something” and was wearing a long robe when he burst into the two churches in the town of some 120,000 residents.
The priest, 74-year-old Antonio Rodriguez, sustained injuries to the neck while he was celebrating the Eucharist at San Isidro church, his parish said, describing his condition as “serious but stable”.
– Grief, tears for murdered verger –
Outside the church, mourners had laid flowers and lit candles in memory of a man who was a well-known figure within the local Catholic community.
At noon, several hundred people gathered in the square as the church bells rang out followed by a minute’s silence, an AFP correspondent said.
Many in the crowd were visibly moved, among them family members, police officers, town council employees and several veiled women, who couldn’t hold back their tears.
“This is for you, Diego!” one shouted emotionally, the square breaking into applause.
– ‘Always lived together peacefully’ –
“In Algeciras, we’ve always boasted about the fact that we have people from 129 different nationalities living together in peace and harmony and we’ve never had any incident nor tension,” Mayor Jose Ignacio Landaluce told TeleMadrid TV before the rally.
“What has happened now is more than we can take in, it grieves us and worries us because when a fuse like this is lit, it has to be put out quickly to prevent it from causing damage that nobody wants.”
His words were echoed by Marina, the parish priest, who told public radio that ties “with the Islamic world in Algeciras are good, we’ve never had any sort of problem”.
“It just defies all logic,” local Muslim community spokesman Dris Mohamed Amar told the same programme, saying he hoped “it was an isolated case by a demented lunatic and not something premeditated”.
Cesar Garcia Magan, who heads the Episcopal Conference grouping Spain’s leading bishops, described the attack as “reprehensible, unjustifiable and abhorrent”, but warned against “the danger of demonising certain groups”.