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.”
The Cathedral of Saint-Alain in Lavaur, France: Inside, repairs to recent vandalism of a Gothic structure there 700 years. Top photo: Security at SacreCoeur basilica in Paris, Christmastime 2015.Richard Bernstein
RealClearInvestigationsTop photo: AP/Christophe Ena
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.
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.AP Photo/Thierry Mallet
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.”