Attacks on churches in France have quadrupled between 2008 and 2019.

What best explains the statistics? Christianophobia? The isolated acts of petty criminals? Islamic extremism? Political anger at the Church? Disaffected youth? An epidemic of mental illness? A Catholic crisis of moral authority? A loss of a sense of the sacred?

Novena investigates.

Driving the news

Richard Bernstein, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, took a look at attacks on churches in France in a recent report in Real Clear Investigations.

The big picture: 228 attacks on churches in France in first three months of 2019

As Bernstein writes:

“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”.

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Attacks on churches in France: one level deeper

Bernstein considers several explanations for the rise in attacks on churches in France.

A “profundly anti-Christian” climate

“These are not isolated acts… They testify to a climate in France that is profoundly anti-Christian”, the Christian journal Avenir de la Culture affirmed after a feminist demonstrator posed nude in front of a statue of the Virgen Mary last summer in Lourdes.

In addition, the journal said: “It would be astonishing if she [the protester] dared to do the same thing in a mosque”.

“Ill will” toward the Church

“This vandalism is drawn to Christian sites because they’re less defended and present little risk, and there are a lot of them”, Pierre Manent, a French political philosopher and intellectual, told Bernstein.

“There’s the impression that the church is an obstacle to contemporary life… [a]nd that nourishes a certain hostility. The church suffers from ill will”.

A “loss of the sense of the sacred”

“Is it Christianophobia? No. Is it a loss of the sense of the sacred? Yes”, said historian and publisher Jean-Francois Colosimo.

“Christianophobia”

“It is Christianophobia”, Bernard Carayon, mayor of Lavaur, told Bernstein.

The Cathedral of Lavaur, in the southwest of France, recently suffered an attack in which two teenage boys set fire to an altar, turned a crucifix upside down, threw another one into the nearby Agout River, and deformed a statue of Jesus.

“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”, added Carayon.

A “mood against the Church”

“There a mood against the church, against faith”, Lavaur priest Joseph Dequick told Bernstein.

“It’s a fashion to say, ‘I’m an atheist.’ 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.

“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?”, Dequick said.

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Between the lines: explaining the rise in attacks on churches in France

So which is the explanation best supported by the facts?

Colosimo and Dequick’s argument that the rise in attacks on churches in France is due to a loss of a sense of the sacred.

Not even the country’s Catholic bishops believe in an anti-Christian conspiracy.

“We do not want to develop a discourse of persecution,” Georges Pontier, head of the French Bishops Conference, told the National Catholic Register. “We do not wish to complain”.

Also, attacks on Christian sites in France are increasing, but so are attacks on Jewish ones. There were 500 of these in 2018, according to Ministery of the Interior figures: a 74% increase on 2017.

“For the majority of the attacks, we have no idea of the perpetrator,” Ellen Fantini, head of the Observatory on Discrimination and Intolerance in Vienna, told Bernstein.

But “it’s safe to say that there are many attacks that have nothing to do with extremist groups”, Fantini affirmed.

According to French media reports cited by Bernstein, more than 60% of vandals in churches are minors, not members of organised groups advancing a political agenda.

Also, hardly any anti-Christian attacks in France are on people, but on buildings or other physical objects.

60% of these attacks feature graffiti such as swastikas or satanic, anarchist symbols, nationalist or neo-Nazi slogans: evidence of extremist but not anti-Christian sentiment.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.