A volunteer church assistant has confessed to setting the fire that severely damaged a Gothic cathedral in the western French city of Nantes, his lawyer said on Sunday, though his motives remain a mystery.
The 39-year-old, an asylum-seeker from Rwanda who has lived in France for several years, was arrested on Saturday after laboratory analysis determined that arson was the likely cause of the blaze, the local prosecutor's office said.
My client is cooperating, lawyer Quentin Chabert said at a news conference in Nantes, without speculating what prompted the attempt to burn down the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
Obviously it was a relief for him to show, as he would say, his repentance. As a believer, it's important for him to show this effort, he said.
Nantes's public prosecutor Pierre Sennes said on Sunday that the volunteer had been notified in November 2019 of an order to leave the country, after officials refused to grant him residency.
But so far he has not elaborated in detail on his motivations for setting the blaze, Sennes said, adding that a psychiatric evaluation has been ordered.
What he did ... is dramatic for everyone, said Father Hubert Champenoishe, the rector of the cathedral, on Sunday. He said the volunteer, who had been at the service of the cathedral for four years, had certainly been marked by the events which marked his country.
When someone cracks up, it is to everyone's astonishment.
Prosecutors opened an arson inquiry into the early morning fire on July 18 after finding that it broke out in three different places in the church, which the volunteer had locked up the night before.
He was taken in for questioning the next day but later released without charge, with the cathedral's rector saying I trust him like I trust all the helpers.
The blaze came 15 months after the devastating fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which raised questions about the security risks for other historic churches across France.
While firefighters were able to contain the Nantes blaze after just two hours and save the main structure, its famed organ, which dated from 1621 and had survived the French revolution and World War II bombardment, was destroyed.
Also lost were priceless artifacts and paintings, including a work by the 19th-century artist Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows that contained remnants of 16th-century glass.