S+L Minute: A wave of Christianophobia sweeps through France.

saltandlighttv on Jul 15, 2019 For Monday July 15th, here are the latest catholic headlines making the news. LAVAUR, France – Late one night a few months ago, two teenage boys crept into the massive …More
saltandlighttv on Jul 15, 2019 For Monday July 15th, here are the latest catholic headlines making the news. LAVAUR, France – 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, their 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 here 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, based in Vienna, documented 275 anti-Christian incidents in Europe in 2017, up from 250 the year before.

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.

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 The Observatory of Christianophobia, 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.”

Notre-Dame ablaze in April. The first time many Americans heard of anti-Christian attacks in France was when some French wondered whether this fire was another. It was not. But the cathedral has long been a security concern.

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.