Rouen Cathedral packed as thousands gather for Jacques Hamel funeral

Thousands of mourners have gathered for the funeral of Jacques Hamel at Rouen Cathedral in FranceReuters

Thousands of mourners have gathered for the funeral of Fr Jacques Hamel who was murdered last week at the altar of his church at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy by self-proclaimed Islamist militants.

Hundreds of people were gathered inside the 13th century Gothic cathedral in Rouen for the funeral Mass for the priest, who was taken hostage along with three nuns and two other fellow worshippers.

The service this afternoon was led by the Archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, and attended by a number of clergy and public figures including France's interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, and Mohammed Karabila, the imam of the mosque at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray.

Pallbearers carried Hamel's coffin through the Cathedral's 'Door of Mercy' - so-called to mark this Jubilee Year of Mercy - and placed it on an ornate rug before the altar.

Addressing the congregation, Hamel's sister Roselyne recounted how during his military service in Algeria he had refused an officer's grade so as not give the order to kill others, and how he once emerged the sole survivor in a desert shoot-out.

"He would often ask himself, 'why me'? Today, Jacques, our brother, your brother, you have your answer: Our God of love and misery chose you to be at the service of others," she said.

In the homily, Archbishop Lebrun said: "As brutal and unfair and horrible as Jacques' death was, we have to look deep into our hearts to find the light."

The service, which took place amid tight security, is being followed by a private burial. The funeral was also broadcast on a big screen to mourners outside the church.

Hamel was attacked by Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean, both 19, who forved the priest to his knees before cutting his throat.

Sister Danielle, one of the nuns present, managed to escape and alert the authorities, who shot the attackers dead as they left the church.

Self-styled Islamist militants have killed more than 200 people in France since January 2015. The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls has said that the State must reinvent its relationship with the "Islam of France".

France has the largest Muslim population of any country in the EU, around 8 per cent of the total.

Philippe Maheut, the vicar general of the Rouen diocese, said: "Father Hamel's stole, the sign of his life as a priest, will be put on the cross of Christ, in the choir of the cathedral as a sign that, like Jesus, he gave his life in a way that was not chosen, but was real".

Additional reporting by Reuters.