A 40-year-old Rwandan immigrant already suspected of starting a devastating fire at a French cathedral was questioned by police in connection with the murder of a Catholic priest on Monday in western France.

The man, identified by the media as Emmanuel Abayisenga, was welcomed into a Catholic religious community led by the victim, Fr. Olivier Maire, 61, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre, a commune in the Vendée department.

Abayisenga reportedly met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2016, four years before he was arrested by police and later released on bail following the fire on July 18, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul of Nantes, where he worked as a volunteer warden.

The murder of Maire, the French provincial superior of the Montfort Missionaries (the Company of Mary), was announced on Aug. 9 by the country’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

Darmanin, who visited Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre on Monday evening, expressed solidarity with France’s Catholic community on social media.

“All my support to the Catholics of our country after the dramatic murder of a priest in Vendée,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

Initial reports said it appeared that Maire had died as a result of blows. The results of an autopsy are expected later. The authorities have not said when the killing is believed to have taken place or in what circumstances.

Bishop François Jacolin of Luçon, a diocese comprising the department of Vendée, lamented Maire’s “brutal death.”

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“Fr. Olivier Maire died a victim of his generosity, a martyr of charity,” he said in an Aug. 9 statement.

French media reported that the suspect walked into a police station in Mortagne-sur-Sèvre on Monday morning and told officers that he had killed a priest.

The suspect was taken into custody and police were dispatched to the address given by the suspect, where they found Maire’s body in a communal area of the religious community building in which he lived.

The French Catholic newspaper La Croix reported that the suspect was recently released after a psychiatric hospitalization.

It said that the regional deputy prosecutor Yannick Le Goater had confirmed that the suspect was hospitalized for a month.

The prosecutor said that police did not believe the killing was terror-related.

A photograph taken on Nov. 11, 2016, first published by the French Catholic newspaper La Croix on July 15, showed a man identified as Abayisenga greeting Pope Francis during an audience with socially excluded people in the Vatican.

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The pope is believed to have met with Abayisenga during a gathering for the European Festival of Joy and Mercy in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall.

The event for socially excluded people was organized by the French organization Fratello, as part of the Catholic Church’s year-long Jubilee of Mercy.

La Croix also reported that the French authorities had rejected the suspect’s application for asylum and served him with three notices to leave France, in 2016, 2017, and 2019.

The suspect was held in custody following the Nantes fire in July 2020 until his release on bail in May this year, the newspaper said.

His release, under judicial control, included conditions such as an obligation to register with the authorities twice a month and to reside at the community in Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre.

La Croix said that Maire summoned police on June 20 after the suspect expressed a desire to leave the community. The suspect was then hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. He was released on July 29 and returned to the religious congregation.

The newspaper said that the authorities had not deported the suspect because they wanted to ensure that he was available to be tried in relation to the cathedral fire.

The murder immediately sparked a political debate, with Marine Le Pen, president of the National Rally, an anti-immigration party, criticizing the authorities for failing to deport the suspect.

“In France, one can be an illegal immigrant, set fire to the cathedral in Nantes, never be deported, and then reoffend by murdering a priest,” she wrote on Twitter.

Darmanin rejected the criticism.

“Rather than expressing her compassion for the Catholics who welcomed this murderer, Ms. Le Pen polemicizes without knowing the facts: this foreigner could not be deported despite his deportation order as long as his judicial control had not been lifted,” he responded.

Le Pen is preparing to contest the French presidential election against the incumbent Emmanuel Macron in April 2022.

Macron said in a tribute on social media that Maire’s generosity and love for others were reflected in the features of his face.

“In the name of the nation, I pay tribute to Fr. Olivier Maire,” he wrote. “My condolences to the Montfortians and all the Catholics of France. Protecting those who believe is a priority.”

Olivier Faure, the most senior politician within France’s Socialist Party, described Maire as a “just man.”

He said that the priest “would no doubt have hated that his murder fueled polemics.”

“Condolences to all those who loved him. Total condemnation of the criminal who laid hands on the man who offered him hospitality,” Faure wrote on Twitter.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, the former prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, responded to the news by invoking the intercession of St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, founder of the Company of Mary, and St. John Paul II, pope from 1978 to 2005.

“St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort and St. John Paul II, stay with us, we implore you,” he said on Twitter.

The French bishops’ conference (known by its French initials CEF) and the Conference of Religious of France (CORREF) issued a joint statement on Aug. 9 expressing “immense sadness and shock.”

“The author of this murder was staying with Fr. Olivier Maire, and presented himself to the police this very morning,” the statement said.

“For the moment, the circumstances of this tragedy are not known.”

“The CEF and CORREF assure his parents, his family, the Monfort Missionaries, the community of the Basilica of St. Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort in Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre and the whole great Montfortian Religious Family of their prayers.”

“The Fathers and Brothers of the Company of Mary (known as Montfort Missionaries) are present on all five continents. They pursue the project of their founder, to evangelize in closeness and attention to all.”

In a homily preached in October 2020, Maire spoke of the importance of serving those on the “periphery,” citing Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Fratelli tutti.

“Let us dare to sit down for a time of fraternal sharing, let us dare to sit down with the poorest, the excluded, and the rejects of humanity,” he said.

This story was updated at 14:00 MDT.