It has been exactly a month since a fire destroyed the roof and spire of Notre Dame in Paris, leaving the Catholic world — and beyond — in shock over the destruction of such an important structure in Christendom and Western Civilization.
In the days and weeks that followed, we were treated to news coverage that was exceptional to the ordinary to the downright bizarre.
The insistence, for example, of The New York Times to cover the fire as if it had occurred in a museum rather than a house of worship was strange. That cable TV news made a big fuss over wealthy French companies donating to rebuild the cathedral was also a distraction. The op-ed pieces that followed were also strange. The winner in this category: Rolling Stone on how Notre Dame should be rebuilt.
All that aside, there continues to be little to no coverage when it comes to the rash of suspicious fires and vandalism that plagued French churches in the weeks before the Paris incident, which was quickly deemed unintentional by Parisian authorities. My post, which ran while the fire still burned at Notre Dame, asked a simple question: If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story? This post went viral.
The Notre Dame fire, alas, did little to shed any light — or inspire further news coverage — into the other destructive acts reported in Catholic churches across France. That many of these incidents took place during Lent made it even more of a story, a largely ignored one.
So what’s new? I am disappointed to report that very little has changed over the course of 30 days. The Notre Dame fire, although not deemed suspicious, was a perfect opportunity to jump on a story that had been largely overlooked.
Instead, one of the best pieces since the fire came from Nina Shea — director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. Shea expresses many of the same concerns I have had regarding this largely ignored trend by the U.S. press, particularly those with a global reach such as The New York Times and CNN.
The flames that ravaged Paris’ Notre Dame riveted the world because it is a legendary, architectural masterpiece at the center of France’s capital and much of its political history. For those who track religious-freedom threats, the fire itself may be less of a surprise than that it apparently was started by accident.
Hundreds of other French churches are being quietly burned or damaged — in deliberate attacks.
Ellen Fantini, who directs the watchdog Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, told me in an email that church attacks in France have been relentless for the past four years. Thanks to her efforts and the diligent documentation of French journalist Daniel Hamiche, I can point to a few examples here. This destruction, at the hands of a variety of actors, barely receives a glance from the French state, prosecutors, media or public. Rarely are the attackers identified or apprehended.”
If that’s wasn’t bad enough, Shea also highlights that this has also been a trend in Cyprus, Egypt and Nigeria. The mainstream news media has covered these kinds of incidents, in varying degrees of depth. Nevertheless, the incidents in France continue to happen because authorities appear unable (or unwilling) to do much about it, wrote Shea.
To be sure, unlike these other places and in Sri Lanka over Easter, the French churches are not filled with worshippers when attacked — or, for that matter, hardly ever filled these days. Nevertheless, it is a shock to see the same governmental failure to protect houses of worship in a country with a strong rule of law.
The overwhelming majority of French churches attacked are Catholic, but some have been Protestant and Eastern Orthodox. As Fantini commented, “They [the churches] don’t seem high on the agenda when it comes to the political will to provide protection.” As a result, French Christian churches are being gradually destroyed, one by one. We cannot expect this to stop until there is adequate state protection and an end to legal impunity. To do that, France needs to identify the circumstances and motives of those behind the attacks.”
This is where the power of the press if paramount. It is essential to work as a check on government.
If the world’s largest news outlets (and that means English-language websites in the internet age) had covered the vandalism story properly once a pattern emerged, French authorities may have felt the need to react. In a country not immune to terror attacks in recent years, there is no shortage of police protection at major landmarks. Why not churches?
That’s a question no one outside France with a notebook and pen has adequately asked of French authorities. Again, one of the roles of journalism is to act as a check. In this case, no one is checking.
Again, another website that isn’t considered journalism has tried to keep a tally of these many incidents: The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe.
On its website, the group says it aims to highlight incidents such as “physical attacks and threats against individual Christians or Christian communities, desecration and vandalism of Christian sites, discriminatory laws and biased application of facially ‘neutral’ laws, exclusion of Christians and Christian symbols from the public sphere, interference with parents’ rights, and violations of freedom of religion, expression, association, and conscience.”
One post on the group’s website, which Shea used as a link in her piece, highlights the rare case of two men who were arrested for robbing and desecrating 10 churches — four in the Morbihan and six in Loire-Atlantique — this past February.
On this matter, Shea wrote these two telling paragraphs:
But many times, the culprits are a variety of extremists enraged by the identities and teachings that the churches symbolize — Christianity, French nationalism and Western civilization at large. Even the Cathedral of Notre Dame’s burning is perceived by some as a “liberation,” as a Harvard professor informed Rolling Stone. The magazine explained that the cathedral served for some French as a “deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place.”
Ironically, they are targeting churches, when, as a 2018 Pew survey found, only 18% of the French attend church even monthly, and the churches’ influence over French politics and culture is diminishing to the vanishing point. While arrests are few, a mix of ideologies and motives is readily apparent from the graffiti the vandals often leave. They are shown to be radical secularists, anarchists, leftists, feminists, sexual libertarians, Islamists, radical Muslims and a Satanist group, which religion scholar Massimo Introvigne says is minuscule in France. Due to the breadth of hostile forces, Fantini calls France the “worst country in Europe” for Christians.”
The “worst country in Europe” for Christians? That’s a damning statement and, frankly, that sounds like a very big news story.
It’s also an everyday reality — unfortunately one that continues to be largely ignored by the U.S. press — at a time when the role of journalism has become an increasingly important topic.
The press is very important. On this issue, however, think tanks and advocacy groups appear to be filling the void in highlighting this very important issue for Christians everywhere.