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Pope Francis prays in front of a picture of Father Jacques Hamel during a mass in his memory at the Vatican, September 14, 2016. Osservatore Romano/ Handout via REUTERS

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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis said on Wednesday the French priest knifed to death at his altar by Islamist militants in July was a martyr, and indicated that Father Jacques Hamel was already on the road to sainthood.

Francis spoke at a special Mass for pilgrims from the Rouen area of France where two attackers stormed into the church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, forced the 85-year-old Hamel to his knees and slit his throat while they chanted in Arabic.

In his Italian-language sermon, Francis also called on all religions to declare that "killing in the name of God is Satanic".

Francis used the words martyr or martyrdom 10 times during his homily in the chapel of the guest house where he lives in the Vatican.

"He (Hamel) accepted his martyrdom there on the altar," the pope said. "He gave his life for us so as not to deny Jesus ... He is a martyr and martyrs are beatified."

Beatification is one of the first steps in the complex process that leads to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

"A GOOD HUMBLE MAN"

Usually a miracle is needed for a candidate for sainthood to be beatified. But that requirement can be waived if there is evidence that the person died a martyr.

"A good, humble man, a man of brotherhood who always sought to make peace, was assassinated as if he were a criminal," Francis said. He ordered that a picture of the murdered priest be placed on the altar during the Mass.

The Catholic Church posthumously confers sainthood on people considered so holy during their lives that they are now believed to be with God and can intercede with him to perform miracles.

In another indication that Francis believes Hamel is already on the way to sainthood, the archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, told reporters afterwards that the pope had told him Hamel should be "venerated," an honour usually bestowed only after a sainthood procedure begins.

Hamel's killing came as France's political leaders sought ways to defeat home-grown Islamist violence.

His murder by French citizens was the first Islamist attack on a church in western Europe and came just 12 days after a Tunisian who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State drove his truck through a crowd of Bastille Day revellers in the Riviera city of Nice, killing 84.

(The story was refiled to fix a typo in paragraph 10, lebrun not leburn)

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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