Nantes cathedral volunteer sentenced to prison for arson

Europe  Sebastien Salom-GomisAFP
MAR 30, 2023 LISTEN
© Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP

The parish volunteer who started a fire that severely damaged the 15th Century Gothic cathedral in the western French city of Nantes in 2020 has been sentenced to four years in prison for arson.

The court ruled that Emmanuel Abayisenga, a volunteer at the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, was not mentally sound at the time of the fire, in July 2020.

In addition to the prison sentence, the court also banned Abayisenga from staying in the Loire-Atlantique region, where Nantes is located, for five years, and prohibited him from bearing weapons.  

Abayisenga is facing legal action for a separate incident in which he allegedly killed a priest in western France in 2021.

His lawyer, Meriem Abkoui, said her client's answers in court occasionally "lacked coherence" and that his criminal responsibility was questionable.

She said she was waiting for the results of psychiatric tests in the other legal proceedings against him, saying his trial for the priest murder could take place late next year.

Admitted arsonist

Days after the fire, Abayisenga, who arrived in France from Rwanda in 2012, admitted to setting it, and he repeated this at the start of the trial.

Speaking through an interpreter, he said he had gone into the cathedral to pray but then "lost control" after he passed by a part of the building where he was violently attacked in 2018.

He said he regretted what happened and asked for forgiveness.

Revenge blaze?

Abayisenga has asked for asylum in France several times, unsuccessfully, and in 2019 received a deportation order, which was said to have deeply troubled him.

Prosecutor Veronique Wester-Ouisse said the defendant set fire to the cathedral knowingly due to "huge anger and a feeling of revenge linked to his administrative situation".

Firefighters were able to contain the blaze quickly and save the main structure, but its famous 17th-century organ, which had survived the French Revolution and bombardment during World War II, was destroyed.

Also lost were priceless artefacts, paintings and stained-glass windows that contained remnants of 16th-century glass.

The cathedral's owners estimated the damage at more than 40 million euros. Reconstruction has been ongoing since 2020.

Fifteen months earlier, a fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris raised questions about security risks for other historic churches across France.