Late one night a few months ago, two teenage boys crept into the massive 13th century Cathedral of Saint-Alain in Lavaur, a postcard town in southwest France. There, they set fire to an altar, turned a crucifix upside down, threw another one into the nearby Agout River, and deformed a statue of Jesus into what the town’s mayor called “a grotesque pose”.
Townspeople were shocked that two local boys could commit an act of such gratuitous vandalism against, of all things, thief town’s most historic and treasured site, a towering, massive, Gothic structure that has stood at the center of Lavaur’s collective life for 700 years.
But there is nothing at all unusual about an attack on a Christian religious site these days in France — or, for that matter, elsewhere in Europe. The French police recorded 129 thefts and 877 acts of vandalism at Catholic sites — mostly churches and cemeteries — in 2018, and there has been no respite this year. The Conference of French Bishops reported 228 “violent anti-Christian acts” in France in the first three months of 2019 alone, taking place in every region of the country — 45 in the southwest.
In all, according to the French Ministry of the Interior (which counted 875 anti-Christian incidents in 2018, slightly less than the tally by the police), the attacks on Christian sites quadrupled between 2008 and 2019. This has stirred a deep alarm among many Catholics and non-Catholics alike, worried that a powerful hostility to Catholicism — what they call “Christianophobia” — is sweeping their country.
“This kind of thing causes real consternation,” Henri Lemoigne, the mayor of a town on the English Channel, told a Catholic magazine after someone broke into the tabernacle of the local church and scattered its contents on the floor (evidently in search of something to steal). “People feel that their values are under attack, even their very beings.”
Moreover, while there have been more attacks in France than any other European country, thefts and vandalism at Christian sites have been on the increase throughout Europe. The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, based in Vienna, documented 275 anti-Christian incidents in Europe in 2017, up from 250 the year before.
And yet, what may be the oddest aspect to these attacks is the relative quiet that has greeted them. Individuals, mayors of affected cities and towns, some priests and bishops have spoken out, as have a few Catholic organizations, notably a group called L’Observatoire de la Christianophobie, which publishes an almost daily chronicle of incidents. But the official French Catholic Church has chosen to downplay the attacks. “We do not want to develop a discourse of persecution,” Georges Pontier, the head of the French Bishops Conference, told the National Catholic Register. “We do not wish to complain.”
Most major media outlets in France have also downplayed the uptick in attacks. Among the major French newspapers, only the conservative Le Figaro has published a substantial front-page investigation. Others have published a few scattered articles on individual incidents. The absence of palpable public alarm led one magazine, Causeur, which specializes in a certain irreverent skepticism regarding the conventional wisdom, to run a series of articles on the attacks under the overall headline “Explosion of Anti-Christian Acts: The Victims that Nobody’s Talking About.”
This, in turn, helps explain meager coverage of the attacks in other countries, including the United States. The first time that many Americans heard of the incidents was when some French people wondered whether the fire that engulfed the Notre-Dame Cathedral in April was another act of anti-Christian violence. (It was not.)
But why are these attacks escalating — and who’s behind them?
The answers are complicated and, in a very French way, depend on the lens one chooses to see the events through. Those downplaying the vandalism, which include most leading newspapers and politicians, point to evidence that the attacks are the small-bore crimes of small-time miscreants. Those concerned that the attacks pose a more serious threat expressly dismiss that perspective.
“Vandalism in our churches: From simple graffiti to desecration” was the headline of an investigation into anti-Christian attacks in Le Figaro in March. “Stained glass windows broken, statues decapitated, graffiti on the walls — this is not the work of petty thieves.”
Not surprisingly, both views have merit. What’s clear is that the attacks — and the debate over their meaning — illuminate a range of fundamental questions roiling France and Europe involving populism, national identity and immigration. The attacks also highlight the paradoxical role of the Church, which remains a symbol of power — a bulwark of tradition and authority — even as declining attendance and a series of sexual scandals involving priests have made it seem a weak and easy target.
A Series of Shocking Murders
Nearly three years ago, France was stunned when two men proclaiming allegiance to the Islamic State murdered an 84-year-old priest, Jacques Hamel, while he was celebrating mass in a town in Normandy. The crime came after some of the worst terrorist attacks in French history carried out by extremist Muslims — the killing of 12 journalists at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the massacre of 130 people at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in 2015 — and gave rise to fears that Catholics would be targeted by the Islamic State or other violent groups.
Since then, Muslims in France are believed to have been responsible for a number of attacks, or planned attacks, against Christian sites and symbols. In 2016, for example, police foiled an attempt by Muslims to blow up a car near the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Last December, a suspected Islamic extremist killed five people and wounded 11 in a gun and knife attack at the Christmas market in Strasbourg. There have also been several well-publicized assaults against Jews, allegedly carried out by Muslim extremists. Indeed, while attacks on Christian sites have increased, so have attacks on Jewish ones — more than 500 of them in 2018, according to the Ministry of the Interior, a 74% increase over the year before
Still, the available evidence shows that attacks carried out by Muslims, both in France and elsewhere in Europe, account for a small fraction of anti-Christian crimes. Indeed, one reason alleged “Christianophobia” is being downplayed by the French government is the fear of stoking Islamophobia — the concern that some people would instinctively blame Muslims for the attacks and retaliate (which has not happened).
“For the majority of the attacks, we have no idea of the perpetrator,” Ellen Fantini, a former federal prosecutor in Vermont who heads the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe in Vienna, said in a telephone interview. But, Fantini continued, “it’s safe to say that there are many attacks that have nothing to do with extremist groups.”
Nevertheless, some observers certainly have noted a kind ranking of alarm when it comes to ethnic or religious conflicts, wherein attacks on other groups arouse more shock and grief than attacks on Christian sites. “While every attack against a synagogue, a mosque, or a Jewish or Muslim cemetery is abundantly reported in the media and unleashes a chorus of denunciation of the ‘We will never yield’ variety,” Elizabeth Levy, the editor of Causeur, has written, the attacks against Christian sites “haven’t caused all that much of a disturbance.”
There are reasons for this, having to do with the vulnerability of minority groups, especially Jews, compared to the relative historical security of the majority. While religious observance has sharply declined, Catholics and people of Catholic heritage remain the large majority in France. The memory of France’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II also plays a role in this. It gives a special horror to an attack on a synagogue, or to the drawing of a swastika on a Jewish tombstone.
It happens also that, whether by coincidence or some deeper reason, the rise in anti-Christian attacks is occurring in a period of deep tension and uncertainty in France, where other events and trends have seemed more urgent and worthy of immediate attention. Among these has been the pedophilia scandal inside the Catholic Church, which was intensely covered by the French press. There has also been the series of sometimes violent demonstrations held across the country over the last half year by the anti-tax populist movement known as the Yellow Vests, who, according to the Ministry of the Interior, are at least partially responsible for the rise in anti-Semitism.
The confusion extends to a strong degree of uncertainty as to what are the basic questions about the anti-Christian vandalism: Just how important is it? Does it truly represent a rise in hatred of Christians, in which Christianophobia would be a kind of counterpart to anti-Semitism or Islamophobia? Or might it reflect something less steeped in prejudice, including a political fury at the Church along with other groups?
In its annual listing of anti-Christian acts, for example, Fantini’s organization includes protests by what she calls “radical feminists.” Last summer, in the Grotto at Lourdes, one of Catholicism’s holiest sites, a woman from Luxembourg posed nude in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, a gesture that outraged some religious groups but didn’t attract a great deal of attention otherwise.
“These are not isolated acts,” the Christian journal Avenir de la Culture wrote in an account of the incident at Lourdes. “They testify to a climate in France that is profoundly anti-Christian.” Speaking of the woman protester, the magazine said, “It would be astonishing if she dared to do the same thing in a mosque.”
In those instances in France when perpetrators have been found and arrested, many of them appear to be disaffected young people, or the psychologically disturbed or homeless, rather than members of organized groups advancing a political agenda. In one week earlier this year, six churches across France were vandalized, and the perpetrators who were caught were the two youths who set fire to the altar in Lavaur and a 35 year-old homeless man who desecrated a church in Yvelines. French press reports say that of the perpetrators who are identified, more than 60% of them are minors.
Are All Hate Crimes the Same?
The newspaper Liberation, for example, found that about 60% of incidents involved graffiti — satanic inscriptions, anarchist symbols, swastikas, or nationalist or neo-Nazi slogans — which would seem to represent a kind of ugly desperate social fringe than a general growth of anti-Christian hatred. Virtually none of the reported attacks have been against people; they are all against buildings, cemeteries or other physical objects.
Still, even if many anti-Christian acts are not hate crimes intended to intimidate a community of believers, the fact is that there are a large number of attacks on Christian sites that are sacred to many people. Communities are shocked and made to feel vulnerable, in part by the sense that the incidents have proliferated so dramatically over the past few years, and they are taking place in virtually every corner of France: urban and rural areas, large towns and small villages alike.
In June, for example, more than 100 tombstones were overturned in the main Catholic cemetery of Toulouse, just 25 miles from Lavaur — yet the desecration produced almost no national press coverage. When I visited the cemetery last month to witness the damage, guards there refused to talk about the incident or even to tell me where in the vast space of the cemetery the overturned tombs could be found. One guard told me the concern was to protect the privacy of the families of the people whose tombs were desecrated.
A few weeks earlier, vandals set fire to the massive southern door of the Saint-Sulpice church in the heart of Paris, destroying a stained glass window and a 17th century bas-relief. In the Roman-era tourist city of Nimes, a 21-year-old man allegedly defaced a cross with human excrement in which he inserted pieces of the consecrated host. In Villeneuve-de-Berg, in the foothills of the Alps, a group of young people urinated in the baptismal fount of the local church.
Few of the perpetrators of these assaults have been apprehended, but even if most of them were simply juvenile delinquents, the question remains: Why are they attacking the church?
One mundane reason cited in a recent conversation with Pierre Manent, a French political philosopher and intellectual, is opportunity. “This vandalism is drawn to Christian sites because they’re less defended and present little risk, and there are a lot of them,” he said.
But Manent argues that the attacks also reflect the church’s broader loss of moral authority even as it is deemed the preserver of values and ways of life that to many in France are old-fashioned and irrelevant. In this sense, the attacks on Christian churches and cemeteries seem related to what is often termed the more general “crisis of the church.” There is, most conspicuously, a decline in attendance, but there have also been the scandals over pedophilia and a larger sense among many people that the church is somehow retrograde.
“There’s the impression that the church is an obstacle to contemporary life,” Manent said. “And that nourishes a certain hostility. The church suffers from ill will.”
Or, as Jean-Francois Colosimo, a historian and publisher, has said of the increase in anti-Christian attacks: “Is it Christianophobia? No. Is it a loss of the sense of the sacred? Yes.” In the general rebellion against traditional authority in France, Colosimo seems to be saying, the church no longer occupies the special, sacrosanct and inviolable place it once had in France. It has become just another building, and the mere fact that it is sacred to some people makes it all that much more of a target for those who no longer feel that anything is sacred.
‘Not Just Another Building’
The disagreement about the meaning of the attacks extends to Lavaur, where the long-serving mayor, Bernard Carayon, makes no secret of his anger at the relative silence of the French media and of the tendency of the church to forgive what he deems unpardonable.
“It is Christianophobia,” he said during an interview at his office in Lavaur City Hall. “At the school here, we have a constant problem of kids putting graffiti in the bathrooms. That’s just misbehaving kids. But the church is different. The church is not just another building. It’s not the City Hall.” Indeed, the region in which Lavaur is located was the territory of the 12th and 13th century Cathar rebellion, which was savagely suppressed by the church, after which immense cathedrals — most famously in the larger nearby town of Albi, but in Lavaur as well — were built. Their construction, which took centuries, represented the depth of the French attachment to the Catholic faith.
“The Cathedral of Saint-Alain is the chief symbol of the identity of our town, born in tragedy but nourished by generations that did good here,” Carayon said. For that reason, he said, as mayor he undertook an ambitious, expensive five-year renovation of the cathedral — the walls repaired, paintings restored, ancient stones replaced — that was almost complete.
“Everybody knows this,” he said. “The two boys who set fire to the altar and defaced the statue of Christ weren’t just drunk; they carried out their attack purposefully, taking their time, and then, after they left to tell their friends what they’d done, they went back inside, no doubt to check the results.”
“The church’s priority is inter-religious dialogue, to avoid conflict,” he said, making clear his view that that is not an adequate response to what he sees as an epidemic of vandalism directed against the chief symbols of French history and culture.
“The church pardons,” he wrote in an article in Causeur. “Not me.”
Why anyone would deface a 700-year old religious landmark is difficult to say. But whatever the reason, the Lavaur priest, Joseph Dequick, extended forgiveness to them, though only after they had turned themselves in and, by helping to clean up the mess they’d made, shown some penitence.
For Father Dequick, the rise in anti-Christian incidents represents more than a rise in a generalized juvenile delinquency. It is a product of the weakened moral order that has made the church a target.
“There a mood against the church, against faith,” he said. “It’s a fashion to say, ‘I’m an atheist.’c The media are anti-Catholic. There a discourse against the church. In France, in particular, there’s an anti-clerical feeling that goes back a long time. It’s not so much a religious argument as a political one. It’s a reaction against the moral limitations that the church represents.”
Father Dequick was interviewed at the parish stand set up every week at the sprawling Lavaur weekend market. He spoke as he extended cheerful greetings to a parade of parishioners.
“There’s been both vandalism and theft,” he said. “The police don’t make a difference between them, so it’s not easy to tell how much of this is just criminals stealing artifacts and selling them and people expressing hostility to the church.
“But when somebody turns a cross upside down, that’s an anti-Christian expression. That represents a society that no longer transmits respect for values. It’s a loss of the sense of the sacred. It’s consumerism. Young people can do whatever they want now, have whatever they want. Where are the limits? Where are the parents”?