Church fires more than accidents in France and point to multiple culprits

The fire in Paris’ historic Notre Dame Cathedral in early May was mourned as a loss to French Catholicism, but there has been a trend of church fires and desecrations in France that are more mysterious and even suspicious, writes Nina Shea in the National Catholic Register (May 12–25). She writes that, “For those who track religious-freedom threats, the [Notre Dame] 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.” In recent months, three other Notre Dame namesake churches and a Catholic bookstore in other parts of France were vandalized and desecrated, though the incidents drew little notice. An official from the watchdog Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe told Shea that church attacks have been relentless for the past four years. Although the majority of these attacks have been against Catholic churches, they have also taken place against Protestant ones.

The most recent suspicious fire was in March at St. Sulpice, Paris’ second-largest church after Notre Dame, though it, like the others, was seen as not directly related to anti-religious hostilities.  but rather connected to thefts. “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,” Shea adds. Judging by the graffiti left behind in these attacks, a mix of ideologies appear to be behind them, ranging from those of anarchists, militant secularists, and radical Muslims, to even that of a small contingent of self-proclaimed Satanists.  Last July, after Saint-Pierre du Matroi Church in Orléans was attacked by arson, “Allahu akbar” was found graffitied on its surviving walls. The Cathedral of Saint-Jean of Besançon was vandalized with the slogan, “our lives, our bodies belong to us,” along with the anarchist “A.” Religious symbols have also been targeted, such as crucifixes, holy water fonts, consecrated communion hosts, and statues of Jesus and Mary. Unlike in other parts of the world, such as Sri Lanka and Nigeria, the churches are usually empty when these attacks are perpetrated, although there have been a few attacks against clergy and at churches during Mass. Shea criticizes the French government for inaction in investigating these occurrences while also noting that the French Catholic hierarchy has avoided addressing the issue, refusing to adopt a “discourse of persecution,” in the words of Archbishop Georges Pontier, head of the national bishops’ conference.