A church volunteer has confessed to lighting the fire that severely damaged a Gothic cathedral in the city of Nantes in western France, his lawyer said on Sunday, although his motives remain a mystery.
The 39-year-old, a Rwandan asylum seeker who has been living in France for several years, was arrested on Saturday after a laboratory analysis found that arson was the likely cause of the fire, the local prosecutor said.
"My client is cooperating," said lawyer Quentin Chabert at a press conference in Nantes, without trying to burn down the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.
"Obviously, it was a relief for him, as he would say, to show his repentance. As a believer, it is important that he shows that effort," he said.
The prosecutor initiated an arson investigation into the early morning fire on July 18 after finding that it had broken out in three different places in the church that the volunteer had locked up the night before.
He was brought in for questioning the next day, but was later released without charge. The rector of the cathedral said: "I trust him as I trust all helpers."
But the Nantes prosecutor, Pierre Sennes, said in a statement on Saturday that he had been arrested and charged with "fire destruction and damage," up to 10 years in prison and fined € 150,000 ($ 175,000 ) face.
"During his first appearance for questioning before the coroner, he admitted that he lit three fires in the cathedral: the main organ, the smaller organ, and the control panel," Sennes told the Press-Ocean newspaper on Sunday.
"Stone by stone"
The fire came 15 months after the devastating fire in the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which raises questions about the security risks for other historic churches across France.
While firefighters were able to stem the fire from Nantes in just two hours and save the main structure, the famous organ, which dates from 1621 and survived the French Revolution and the bombardment of World War II, was destroyed.
Inestimable artifacts and paintings were also lost, including a 19th century work by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows containing remains of 16th century glass.
Work on the cathedral began in 1434 and continued through the centuries to 1891.
It had been damaged by a heavier fire in 1972, when officials added concrete reinforcements over the next 13 years while they renovated the roof.
The French government has announced that it will ensure the restoration of the cathedral, although very few, if any, elements of the main organ will be saved, said Philippe Charron, head of the DRAC regional agency for state heritage.
"It will take a few weeks to secure the site … and several months of stone-by-stone inspections," he said.
The reconstruction would take several years, he said.
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