ALGECIRAS, Spain (AP) - Spanish police on Thursday raided the home of a young Moroccan man held over the machete attacks at two Catholic churches the previous night that left a church officer dead and a priest injured in the southern city of Algeciras.
A police investigation directed by a National Court judge considers Wednesday's violence a possible act of terrorism. The suspect is believed to have acted alone.
“The investigation is continuing along the logical premise that this could be a case of terrorism, but we are in the initial phase and all the possibilities are open,” Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said after the police completed their search of the suspect's home.
The suspect is a Moroccan citizen with no prior criminal record “either in Spain or any other country,” the interior ministry said. He wasn't “on the radar” of authorities for possible radical activity, Grande-Marlaska added.
Authorities identified him as 25-year-old Yassine Kanjaa, an official with Spain's National Police with direct knowledge of the case told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity as dictated by police policy.
The ministry said that the suspect had been under a deportation order since June last year because of his unauthorized migrant status in Spain. Authorities of neighboring Gibraltar, which sits across a bay from Algeciras, said that Kanjaa had been arrested in the tiny British territory in August 2019 when he tried to “come ashore from a Jet-Ski without the necessary documentation.” He was deported days later.
The attacks have shaken the multicultural city located near the southern tip of Spain. Witnesses said that in the second incident, the assailant jumped on the altar of the Church of Nuestra Senora de La Palma, wielding a machete. He then attacked a sacristan - tasked with preparing Mass - inside the church and chased him into a town square before killing him.
A priest was wounded earlier at the San Isidro church, just a five-minute walk away from Nuestra Senora de La Palma. The suspect had argued with the priest before Mass and later returned to assault him. The Salesian religious order that the priest was affiliated with said on Thursday he was out of danger. The order later shared on Twitter “the best news ever”: that the priest was “back with his community and in the care of his brothers.”
The Algeciras town hall identified the deceased sacristan as Diego Valencia and the wounded priest as Antonio Rodriguez.
The parish priest of Nuestra Senora de La Palma, the Rev. Juan Jose Marina, told Spanish media that he thinks he could have been an intended target. He said that he believed the attacker mistook the sacristan for a priest.
“In the same way that he sought out the priest at San Isidro and no one else, the same thing happened here,” Marina said. “If I had been here, I would be dead.”
A fellow sacristan who served with Valencia at the church, Manolo Gonzalez, said the attacker climbed on the altar and Valencia came out “and asked to know what was going on.”
Candles and flowers adorned the two small churches with whitewashed walls on Thursday. The family of the slain sacristan gathered inside Nuestra Senora de La Palma to receive the condolences of minister Grande-Marlaska and concerned residents. Flags were flown at half-staff in Algeciras, while a minute's silence and a vigil was observed by the community, including a significant contingent from the city's Moroccan population.
“This hurts us a lot,” Nahual Mostanaquin said. “All Moroccans, those here, in Morocco or France, no one wants these things to happen. It is a thing of madness,” she added. “(The victim) was a good man who did no harm to anybody. He hurt no one and everyone loved him.”
Aziz Handi added: ”We hope that it will never happen again, because we live in peace here in Algeciras.”
Algeciras is a cosmopolitan port city and the first point of arrival for many boats and ferries from North Africa, putting it at the center of Spanish debates on irregular migration.
The Islamic Commission of Spain, which represents Muslims in the country, condemned the “abominable, murderous and heartless act” in “a sacred space for our Catholic brothers in Algeciras.”
The violent acts at the churches may inflame social tensions stoked in an election year by the far-right Vox party, which is vying to win more seats in local and national governments, as well as to form governing coalitions with the center-right Popular Party.
Vox's leader, Santiago Abascal, linked the attack to his party's platform of cracking down on unauthorized immigration. Vox, the third-largest party in Spain's parliament, also presents itself as the protector of Spain's Catholic heritage at a time when active church membership is waning.
“He had an order of expulsion,” Abascal tweeted. “How many more like him could there be in Spain?”
Popular Party president Alberto Nunez Feijoo, the leader of Spain's main opposition party, said that “Islamic terrorism is a problem for European society.
“It has been centuries since a Catholic or Christian has killed in name of his religion or beliefs,” Nunez Feijoo said. “And there are other countries who have citizens who do.”
The comments by the right-wing leaders were criticized by politicians from Spain's governing left-wing coalition.
The secretary-general of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, an organization of Spain's Catholic bishops, appealed for unity.
“We cannot demonize any group,” Cesar Garcia said, according to Spanish news agency EFE. “We cannot let ourselves be easily provoked, we cannot add fuel on the fire, we cannot lapse into demagogy and we cannot identify terrorism with any religion.”
Jennifer O'Mahony reported from Madrid, and Joseph Wilson from Barcelona.