Tomorrow, Thursday November 14, a Mass of Reparation will be celebrated in the church of Saint-Etienne de Tonnay-Charente. It’s the latest church desecrated in France on the evening of Saturday, November 9. The tabernacle was destroyed, the Hosts scattered to the ground, the monstrance containing the Eucharistic host was stolen and the Holy Cross was turned upside down: the perpetrators are unknown, according to reports from the website of the diocese of La Rochelle. It is an “act of hatred against Christ and his Church, a display of violence, cowardice and stupidity”, Bishop Georges Colomb said in a statement, “a painful wound”, an act of “humiliation against all Catholics in the diocese.” A few days earlier, on the night between 3 and 4 November, the Cathedral of Oloron-Sainte-Marie, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was deprived of its patrimony of sacred and liturgical items in what was defined a “sacrilegious robbery.” France has been experiencing a growing rise in attacks on churches. In 2018, the Ministry of Interior recorded 1,063 anti-Christian incidents in 2018, compared to 1,038 in 2017. Past March a request was submitted for a parliamentary investigation into the acts of vandalism and desecration of places of worship and cemeteries in France, but to no avail to date.
For Jean-Louis Schlegel, philosopher, sociologist of religions, director of the magazine “Esprit” (founded by Emmanuel Mounier), interviewed today by SIR, these acts are not necessarily motivated by anti-Christian sentiments. However, French Catholics are affected by these crimes, which are connected via the red thread of intolerance to the deadly attacks that precisely four years ago – on 13 November 2015 – ripped the heart of France apart killing 132 people in one night. They were also hurt by the media silence that surrounded these crimes, as pointed out by the bishop of Montauban, Bernard Ginoux, commenting on the latest incident.
How do you interpret the incidents of the past days?
I don’t think they should be seen as having a chiefly “anti-religious” connotation. There are many atheists and anti-clericals in France, but they would never think of desecrating churches, destroying tabernacles, scattering the wafers, or smashing statues. If these episodes were motivated by revenge (against a priest who abused someone), then the perpetrator would be a mentally disturbed individual. In my view the “profanations” are mainly attributable to individuals or gangs who look for valuable objects in (poorly kept and badly guarded) churches: chalices, ciboriums, statues and sculptures, paintings, which they can sell to antique dealers, possibly collectors, as a way of making money. They may also be drug addicts who need money to buy a personal dose of cannabis or other drugs. In this case, they disguise their crime by transforming the real motives (theft) into desecration. In my opinion, Catholics who immediately sound the “profanation alarm” are wrong.
Why are there so many crimes against churches in France?
There has been a wave of vandalism against approximately one thousand religious sites over the past years, the large majority of which in churches, as well as cemeteries (torn down crosses, vandalized graves…). As for the churches, it should be noted, however, that most of the profanations were not inside, but often outside, on the walls and doors: graffiti and various forms of damage, satanic inscriptions, the number 666, the symbol of the anarchist movement, swastikas, nationalist or neo-Nazi symbols, Islamist texts, such as “Allah Akbar”: in the latter case, chances are that it was written by someone who is against Muslims.
Why churches? Perhaps because, notwithstanding widespread secularization and a much less visible Catholic Church, these remain important symbolic places.
If you make a swastika on a wall or a private property, it’s dirty, but it has no relevance except for the anger of the owner. I would like to underline the fact that synagogues and mosques, as well as Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, face the same situation and in that case we are dealing with racist or anti-Semitic acts. “Catholicphobia” also exists, but it is expressed above all in the media, on television, in books.
What should be the response to these acts? To what extent can they be prevented by security measures?
It has long been known that churches, often closed and not guarded, should be better protected. But a video camera security system is expensive, especially in rural areas and villages whose inhabitants and practitioners have left, with priests who have to care for 20, 30, 40 bell towers. Many churches are permanently closed. But those built before 1906 are municipal property: it would be helpful if the mayors controlled them, especially when inside there is still something that could be stolen.