Tweeting won't solve France's deeper church-fire problem, Prime Minister Philippe

Tweeting won't solve France's deeper church-fire problem, Prime Minister Philippe
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The fires that ravaged Paris’ iconic Notre Dame have long been extinguished but a deeper problem for France’s churches still smolders. Specifically, France has seen an alarming spate of attacks on churches, most of them Catholic, and they suggest a growing hostility towards Catholicism and religion more broadly in French society.

Just weeks before the Notre Dame blaze and just blocks away, the Church of St. Sulpice — the second largest church in Paris and one of the most historically significant — was set on fire after Sunday mass.

A month prior to that, a different Notre Dame, the Church of  Notre-Dame-des-Enfants in Nimes, saw its tabernacle destroyed and hosts — considered to be the real body of Christ and thus sacred to Catholics — thrown on the ground and smashed into a cross made with human excrement.

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A month prior to that, a statue of the Virgin Mary was found shattered at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Houilles in northern France while on the opposite end of the country, Saint-Alain Cathedral in Lavaur had its altar cloth burned and a number of saint statues smashed.

Urine in holy water. Decapitated statues of Jesus. Satanic symbols scrawled on the walls. Perhaps we have become numb to the profane in a culture so thoroughly steeped in the likes of Game of Thrones, but these acts are shocking, in particular in a country known to Catholics as the “eldest daughter of the Church.” As one historian put it, “When somebody tramples on a host, it’s as if the whole church is being stomped on.”

And while authorities have pointed fingers one way and another, blaming everything from homeless people to rowdy teenagers, the vandalism is clearly directed at the most sacred elements of Catholicism.

And sometimes it is explicitly political, as it was when vandals spray-painted the words “blessed abortion” on the walls of Saint-Jacques Church in Grenoble or “our lives, our bodies belong to us” on The Cathedral of Saint-Jean of Besançon or “Satan punishes homophobes” on Toulouse’s Saint-Roch-du-Férétra Chapel, as noted by one religious freedom expert.

And the vandalism is only escalating; The Vienna-based Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe notes a 25 percent increase in attacks on Catholic Churches in 2019 as compared with the prior year. Its executive director, Ellen Fantini, told the press that the attacks are clearly motivated and targeted at what matters most to Catholics. “The pressure,” she said, “is coming from the radical secularists or anti-religion groups as well as feminist activists who tend to target churches as a symbol of the patriarchy that needs to be dismantled.”

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French bishops have been more reticent. In an interview with a French magazine, the head of the French bishops conference Archbishop Georges Pontier said, "We adopt a reasonable attitude. We do not want to develop a discourse of persecution. We do not wish to complain. We are not victims of a 'Cathophobia'.” Rather he pointed to the rise in anti-Semitism acts and violence in French society as cause for concern.

But the reality is that the safety and rights of all religious faiths are undermined when the rights of one are systematically violated without clear legal ramifications. A nation that does little or nothing to secure the houses of worship of one faith from hateful acts only emboldens the enemies of other faiths to take similar action. Jews are less safe in a France where Catholic Churches are violated and no action is taken. The religious rights and security of all people hang in the balance when the rights of one are destabilized. That is a reality about the rule of law that France needs to wake up to sooner rather than later.

Not long after Saint-Jacques Church was vandalized with the words “blessed abortion,” it burned to the ground. Officials called it an electrical fire, but as a religious freedom expert noted, an anarchist group claimed responsibility on a website entitled “Le seule eglise qui…” a reference to the anarchist expression, “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”

And yet after five acts of vandalism on Catholic Churches in one week, the response of the French Prime Minister was to tweet, “In our secular republic we respect the places of worship. Such acts shock me and must be unanimously condemned.”

The cathedral of Notre Dame burned before the world for a harrowing day before it was extinguished. It’s going to take a lot more than a tweet to solve France’s deeper church-fire problem.

Ashley McGuire is a senior fellow with The Catholic Association and the author of "Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female."