This past Saturday morning, many awoke to images of another French cathedral on fire—this time in the heart of Nantes. In the early morning hours of July 18, a fire began in the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral. Passers-by saw flames through a window of the cathedral and alerted emergency services a little before 8:00 am. When firefighters arrived, they discovered “a violent fire at the level of the organ located behind the rosette window.”
More than 100 firefighters and 45 emergency vehicles, coming from around 20 emergency centers in the Loire-Atlantique department, were mobilized to the scene. Around 10 am, the fire was “contained,” according to Laurent Ferlay, general controller of the Loire-Atlantique firefighters.
Upon further investigation, it appeared that the fire had ignited in three locations: one fire began near the organ, while the other two started at the other end of the cathedral.
“When we arrive at a place where a fire has taken place, and you see three separate fire outbreaks, it’s a question of common sense, you open an [arson] investigation,” Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennès said. He clarified that there was no trace of an external break-in.
Volunteer interviewed in police custody; later released
On the afternoon of July 18, a volunteer with the Diocese of Nantes was placed in police custody as part of the investigation into the fire. This man “was responsible for closing the cathedral on Friday evening and investigators wanted to clarify certain elements of this person’s schedule,” Prosecutor Pierre Sennès said.
The volunteer, in his 30s, is a Catholic Rwandan hosted by the diocese along with others. He had sought to renew his visa, which expired in March 2020, and “was in discussion with the Prefecture on this point,” the prosecutor said.
A magistrate underlined that “any interpretation which could implicate this person in the commission of the facts is premature and hasty,” he said. Despite these admonitions, people hungry for an explanation—and someone to blame—took to social media to judge the man guilty of the crime. The Diocese of Nantes was forced to disable comments on its Facebook page, “so as not to fuel hate and false rumors.”
Later on Sunday, July 19, Sennès confirmed that the man had been released “without charge.” Quentin Chabert, the lawyer for the volunteer, told reporters that “there is nothing that directly links my client to the fire.”
The clerk of the cathedral, Jean-Charles Nowak, told the press “I don’t believe for a second that he could have set fire to the cathedral. It’s a place he loves.” He went on: “He is a man of duty, very kind, smiling but rather silent. I know that he has many health problems and that he suffered a lot in Rwanda. He did a service for Father Champenois, who had no one to serve Mass on Saturday night. So he was also a regular Mass server.” The rector of the cathedral, Hubert Champenois, said he had “total confidence” in this volunteer.
Another French cathedral on fire
Images of an iconic and much-loved cathedral on fire evoked not-so-distant memories of the fire at Notre-Dame-de-Paris last year. “After Notre-Dame, Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral, in the heart of Nantes, is in flames,” President Macron tweeted on Saturday. While the comparisons to the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris were natural, there are important differences between the two events.
First, unlike the Notre-Dame fire, officials did not dismiss the theory of an intentionally-set fire before even beginning the investigation. In fact, the Nantes prosecutor announced within hours that the fire had started in three locations, so it was “common sense” to open an arson investigation.
For the French, and others, weary of hearing about unexplained, mysterious fires in churches, this was a positive step forward. Rather than fueling conspiracy theories as to the cause through silence, the prosecutor’s office has been relatively transparent in discussing the progress of the case.
Second, although the damage to parts of the Nantes cathedral have been described as “an unimaginable loss,” the building itself survived. This was due, in part, to the roof of the Nantes cathedral having been rebuilt in concrete years earlier, while Notre-Dame had a wooden roof. The less severe damage will not only assist the forensic investigators, but its reconstruction will be an easier undertaking than Notre-Dame’s.
Father François Renaud, who oversees the cathedral, surveyed the damage with firemen and said on Saturday, “The console of the choir organ has gone up in smoke along with the adjoining wooden choir stalls. Original stained glass windows behind the great organ have all shattered.”
Along with the destroyed organ, officials said other items lost included a painting by 19th-century artist Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows on the facade, some of which contained remnants of 16th-century glass.
The organ dated back to 1621 and had undergone five restorations since. During the 18th-century revolutionary period, authorities had wanted to melt down its pipes for scrap, but it was saved when the organist argued it could instead be used for “revolutionary ceremonies,” according to historian Paul Chopelin.
Activists exploit the fire
Prime Minister Jean Castex, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, and Minister of Culture Roselyn Bachelot all arrived in Nantes on Saturday afternoon to survey the damage and to express their solidarity with the citizens of Nantes. However, their arrival was not without controversy.
Just hours after the massive fire had been extinguished, feminist activists used the opportunity to protest the appointment of Minister Darmanin, pointing to a sexual assault allegation against him, which he has vigorously denied since 2018. They held signs near the cathedral and chanted “Cathédrale en feu! Darmanin au milieu!” and “Darmanin rentre chez toi, les violeurs on en veut pas!” (“Cathedral on fire! Darmanin in the middle!” and “Darmanin go home, we don’t want rapists!”).
Another element active in Nantes, the far-left, appeared to celebrate the incident. A self-described anarchist wrote on Twitter “Je bois les larmes de cathos au réveil. 150 nouveaux abonnés en 24h. Vivement la prochaine église en feu.” (“I drink Catholic tears when I wake up. 150 new subscribers in 24 hours. Can’t wait for the next church to burn down.”) and “#Nantes La seule église qui illumine est celle qui brûle” (the familiar anarchist phrase “the only church that illuminates is one that burns.”).
As one commentator put it, “There was little doubt about the criminal path of the fire at #Nantes Cathedral. This city has been subjected for years to antifa terror and anarchy! Burning this jewel may be the result of a desire to wipe out faith, our greatness, our heritage.”
Other recent incidents around France
In the weeks and months leading up to the fire in Nantes, there have been other disturbing incidents near Nantes. For example, on June 12, there was an arson attempt against the Rennes cathedral, just over 100 km away from Nantes. That fire remains under investigation. More recently, in La Dominelais, which lies nearly equidistant between Rennes and Nantes, the church was ravaged by fire on June 29: its wooden altar, statues, furniture, and a cross were all destroyed. The town’s mayor said, “As it stands, the church is unusable.” As of today, the cause of that fire is also under investigation.
In other parts of France, the situation is similarly grave. In May, a calvary (a crucifix monument) in Assé-le-Béranger, less than 200 km from Nantes, was destroyed with a sledgehammer. In the south, the emblematic summit crucifix of Pic Saint-Loup was cut off at its base. The iron cross overlooking Montpellier, which weighs 900 kg and is nearly 10 meters high, was reportedly detached with a blowtorch or drills and left hanging over the from the top of the peak. Inscriptions in red paint reading “Larcins des sorcières hérétiques” (“crimes of heretical witches”), “Le Pic Laïque” (the secular peak), and “Witch Power” (in English) were left on the pedestal. Both of these incidents are still under investigation.
French churches targeted: Facts and figures
In February 2019, the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination in Europe reported that in the first 11 days of that month, there were at least 10 incidents of vandalism and desecration of churches and Christian monuments in France. We expressed our hope that awareness of increasing anti-Christian hostility in France would reach the public square. Indeed that report did lead to increased media attention on the issue.
And as a result of the number of incidents in the beginning of 2019, in March 2019 French National Assembly member Valérie Boyer (LR) and others tabled a motion for a resolution calling for the creation of a committee of inquiry into the policy of preventing and combating desecration of places of worship and cemeteries in France. The motion noted that while the Interior Ministry publishes basic annual statistics about anti-religious, anti-Semitic, racist, and xenophobic incidents, including attacks on places of worship, it has not studied the phenomenon in-depth since 2011. On July 20, 2020, she tweeted her regret that no action has been taken on that resolution, despite the rise in desecrations.
Often we are asked whether the number of attacks on Christian sites in France has indeed increased. People are incredulous when they hear that there are “nearly three per day.” The figures from the Interior Ministry for 2019 make it clear: “The number of anti-Christian incidents was stable over the year, with 1,052 incidents recorded, broken down into 996 acts and 56 threats. The acts counted consist mainly of attacks on religious property.” In the six months between January and June 2019, there were 625 incidents (577 acts and 48 threats).
Simply dividing 996 incidents by 365 days in a year, one arrives at an average of 2.7 per day. And in the first half of 2019, it worked out to more than three per day. It’s even worse if we look at the most recent hate crime data France submitted to the Organization for Security and Co-operation’s annual hate crime report: 1,944 crimes with a bias against Christians. That works out to more than five per day. Of course, these incidents do not include the unsolved mysteries of spontaneous fires in churches.
Looking at the Interior Ministry’s conservative figures, the number of anti-Christian acts in France increased from 275 in 2008 to 1,052 last year. That’s an increase of 285 percent.
The devastating fire at Notre-Dame de Paris in April 2019, brought the issue into even greater focus—and led to more questions. After all, the definitive cause of that fire still has not been discovered or reported, despite more than a year of investigations by forensic experts. This is just one of many unsolved, seemingly spontaneous, fires at French churches. While we do not subscribe to any conspiracy theories, we wonder—along with the rest of the public—how it could have happened. Even if it was caused by a series of mishaps and failed maintenance, it is emblematic of the state of French churches today: under-protected, under-maintained, and vulnerable to natural—and man-made—disaster.
The numbers tell us something, but not enough, about the phenomenon. And unfortunately, the lack of information can lead to speculation about who and what is behind these incidents. What we do know is this: churches and other public Christian symbols are lightning rods for many ideological groups, from anarchists to radical feminists; from Islamists to Antifa. And as we’ve seen in both Europe and America, these groups are increasingly active—and violent.
Anarchists see churches as symbols of authority to be toppled; radical feminists target churches to overthrow “the patriarchy.” To Islamists, as France has tragically seen, the destruction of churches and Christians themselves is something to be celebrated; Antifa has set its sights on Christian buildings, as well. To be sure, the official laïcité of France has done nothing to protect France’s churches and Christian patrimony.
So many of the recent incidents in France remain unsolved. Unlike in other European countries, the activists in France do not always announce themselves and their ideologies. The creation of a commission of inquiry into the desecration of religious sites in France would go a long way to answer these questions.
Anti-Christian acts are increasing around Europe–and the United States
The problem of increasing anti-Christian incidents is not limited to France. For more than 10 years, the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe has researched and reported on the phenomenon. Across Europe, Christians have been attacked for their faith, churches have been vandalized or destroyed, Christian statues have been decapitated, and Christian cemeteries have been desecrated—and those numbers increase yearly.
For example, since the beginning of 2019, the Observatory has reported more than 100 incidents in Germany, at least 25 of which were suspicious fires. In Frensdorf, Germany, a suspicious fire was discovered burning in the pilgrimage church on July 4. Bamberg investigators have not identified the cause. On the same day, a 75 kilogram cross in front of the Herz Jesu Kirche in Weiden was toppled to the ground. No perpetrators have yet been identified. At the end of 2019, a group calling itself the Feministische Autonome Zelle torched a minivan owned by an evangelical church in Tübingen. And in August 2019, arson caused at least €100.000 in damage at St.-Peter Kirche in Wildeshausen.
Every year, the Observatory submits data to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to be included in its annual hate crime report. In 2019, the Observatory reported nearly 300 incidents that fit the definition of hate crime against Christians. In 2018, the figure was closer to 200 incidents.
While there is no one organization in the United States researching and reporting on anti-Christian incidents, a look at the recent news indicates that across America churches and Christians monuments are targets. The number of church arsons, graffiti, and monuments toppled or decapitated is only increasing—from California to New York; from Montana to Indiana. Activists often identify themselves as the perpetrators of these crimes, either by the slogans they leave or by openly committing the crimes in front of cheering mobs. However, as in Europe, many other incidents go unsolved—a statue of the Blessed Virgin is discovered decapitated; a mysterious fire breaks out in a church; a public cross is toppled during the night.
The question we should be asking ourselves is: Will the situation get worse? While churches can try to do more to protect themselves, how much worse it gets will depend on what line activists are willing to draw for themselves. Will they stop at burning an empty church? Will they stop at decapitating statues? Let us pray they do.
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