Rwandan refugee charged in arson attack on 15th-century French cathedral

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A Rwandan refugee and church volunteer admitted to setting three fires in an arson that severely damaged a 15th-century Gothic cathedral in western France earlier this month, his lawyer confirmed.

The fire of July 18 destroyed the organ, shattered the stained glass windows and blackened the interior of Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul cathedral in the city of Nantes, in western France.

Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennes said the unidentified Rwandan asylum seeker, 39, was a volunteer at the cathedral and was tasked with locking down when he started three fires: two on organs in the cathedral and one on an electrical box.

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Sennes has said so far that the suspect “has not specified in detail his motives”.

In this photo taken on July 18, 2020, a fire brigade works to put out the blaze at the Gothic Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France. (AP Photo / Romain Boulanger, file)

The man was arrested for questioning the day after the fire, but was released without charge, Al Jazeera reported. At the time, the rector of the cathedral told the police: “I trust him as I trust all the assistants”.

The suspect was detained a second time on Saturday based on evidence gathered by police forensic experts and a team of 20 investigators who interviewed more than 30 people, Sennes said in a statement. It was then that he allegedly admitted to the crime, the man’s lawyer, Quentin Chabert, confirmed at a press conference on Sunday.

“My client is cooperating,” Chabert said, according to France 24. “It was obviously a relief for him to show, as he would say, his repentance. As a believer it is important for him to show this effort. ”

He was charged with “destruction and damage by fire” and could face a 10-year prison sentence and a fine of 150,000 euros ($ 175,000) if found guilty, Sennes said.

French authorities arrested and charged a repentant church volunteer on Sunday July 26, 2020 after telling investigators he was responsible for an arson attack that severely damaged a 15th-century Gothic cathedral. (AP Photo / Laetitia Notarianni, file)

The fire broke the main stained-glass windows between the two towers of the cathedral and destroyed its main organ. Added in the 17th century, the organ was called “the soul of the cathedral” by the faithful and had survived the French Revolution and the bombardments of World War II. The organ also survived a serious fire in 1972, which destroyed much of its wooden structures.

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The cathedral itself was built over five centuries and completed in 1891. The fire came just 15 months after another fire devastated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It will take at least three years for Nantes Cathedral to be fully restored, France’s chief architect of historic monuments, Pascal Prunet, told Reuters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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