NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER | Nina Shea | May 2nd, 2019
COMMENTARY: The country needs to identify the circumstances and motives behind the attacks and take decisive action.
On Easter Sunday in France, a fire originating in a Notre Dame confessional received little attention. That Notre Dame was not the great cathedral in Paris, but an ordinary church in Tarascon, near Marseille. In February, Notre Dame of Dijon was vandalized, with Hosts scattered about. At Notre Dame Church in Nimes, a cross was recently drawn on the wall using excrement and consecrated Communion Hosts. Notre Dame of France Catholic bookstore was vandalized last September. None of the attacks on these other Notre Dames drew much notice, either.
The flames that ravaged Paris’ Notre Dame riveted the world because it is a legendary, architectural masterpiece at the center of France’s capital and much of its political history. For those who track religious-freedom threats, the fire itself may be less of a surprise than that it apparently was started by accident.
Hundreds of other French churches are being quietly burned or damaged — in deliberate attacks.
Ellen Fantini, who directs the watchdog Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, told me in an email that church attacks in France have been relentless for the past four years. Thanks to her efforts and the diligent documentation of French journalist Daniel Hamiche, I can point to a few examples here. This destruction, at the hands of a variety of actors, barely receives a glance from the French state, prosecutors, media or public. Rarely are the attackers identified or apprehended.
We also see this happening to churches in Northern Cyprus, Egypt, northern Nigeria and other places where certain members of society are hostile to a small and weak Christian community and the government itself is indifferent.
To be sure, unlike these other places and in Sri Lanka over Easter, the French churches are not filled with worshippers when attacked — or, for that matter, hardly ever filled these days. Nevertheless, it is a shock to see the same governmental failure to protect houses of worship in a country with a strong rule of law.
The overwhelming majority of French churches attacked are Catholic, but some have been Protestant and Eastern Orthodox. As Fantini commented, “They [the churches] don’t seem high on the agenda when it comes to the political will to provide protection.” As a result, French Christian churches are being gradually destroyed, one by one. We cannot expect this to stop until there is adequate state protection and an end to legal impunity. To do that, France needs to identify the circumstances and motives of those behind the attacks.
In March, St. Sulpice, Paris’ second-largest church after Notre Dame, was the site of a fire that was officially declared arson. Its pastor, Msgr. Jean-Loup Lacroix, reported that homeless people started the fire but did not do so out of religious hatred. In many cases the unprotected churches are preyed on by thieves, which indicates criminal intent, if not hatred. The Cathedral of Saint-Louis in Fort de France, for example, was robbed five times last December. Ten churches in two weeks, in two dioceses, were looted in February, though, in a rare example of police action, two men were arrested.
But many times, the culprits are a variety of extremists enraged by the identities and teachings that the churches symbolize — Christianity, French nationalism and Western civilization at large. Even the Cathedral of Notre Dame’s burning is perceived by some as a “liberation,” as a Harvard professor informed Rolling Stone. The magazine explained that the cathedral served for some French as a “deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place.”
Ironically, they are targeting churches, when, as a 2018 Pew survey found, only 18% of the French attend church even monthly, and the churches’ influence over French politics and culture is diminishing to the vanishing point. While arrests are few, a mix of ideologies and motives is readily apparent from the graffiti the vandals often leave. They are shown to be radical secularists, anarchists, leftists, feminists, sexual libertarians, Islamists, radical Muslims and a Satanist group, which religion scholar Massimo Introvigne says is minuscule in France. Due to the breadth of hostile forces, Fantini calls France the “worst country in Europe” for Christians.