By Lisa Vives
A fire that consumed a famed church organ which dated from 1621 and had survived the French Revolution and the bombardment in World War II was set by an asylum seeker from Rwanda, according to a lawyer for the suspect.
“My client has cooperated,” lawyer Quentin Chabert told the Presse-Ocean newspaper on Sunday, without elaborating on motives for attempting to burn down the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
“He bitterly regrets his actions … My client is consumed with remorse,” Chabert said.
The 39 year old Rwandese whose name was not made public was a church volunteer at the Gothic cathedral in Nantes, western France. He had been tasked with the job of locking up when he lit three fires: two on cathedral organs and one on an electrical box.
He was taken in for questioning the day after the fire but released without charge, with the cathedral’s rector saying, “I trust him like I trust all the helpers.”
But Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennes said in a statement that the suspect was re-arrested after unspecified new evidence had been acquired. He has been charged with “destruction and damage by fire” and faces up to 10 years in prison and 150,000 euros ($175,000) in fines.
“He admitted during his first appearance for questioning before the investigating judge that he set three fires in the cathedral: at the main organ, the smaller organ, and the electrical panel,” Sennes told Presse-Ocean on Sunday.
Firefighters were able to contain the Nantes blaze after just two hours and save the cathedral’s main structure. However priceless artefacts and paintings were lost, including a work by the 19th-century artist Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows that contained remnants of 16th-century glass.
Work on the cathedral began in 1434 and continued over the following centuries until 1891.
It had already been damaged by a more serious fire in 1972, when officials added concrete reinforcements while redoing the roof over the next 13 years.
The French government said it will ensure the cathedral’s restoration, though few elements of the main organ are likely to be saved, said Philippe Charron, head of the regional DRAC state heritage agency.