Nantes’ 600-year-old Gothic church, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, one of France’s most cherished landmarks, was intentionally set ablaze by arsonists on July 18. During the conflagration, some 16th century stained glass windows were blown out and shattered, while a priceless 17th century church organ was entirely consumed in the inferno. Repairs to the structure will take several years.
In the meantime, myriad questions have been reignited concerning religious persecution against France’s Christian and Jewish communities. This was the first widely-reported French church-burning incident in 2020. However, France’s religious freedom record has been under scrutiny for some years, thanks to two disturbing realities: rampant anti-Semitism and widespread attacks on churches.
The U.S. Department of State’s 2020 Religious Freedom Report, covering 2019 incidents in France, explains, “The government reported 1,052 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or arson of churches and cemeteries, and 687 anti-Semitic incidents ... an increase of 27 percent compared with the 541 incidents recorded in 2018.”
Facts emerged last year exposing an alarming trend, which the Times of London highlighted on April 5, 2019:
A spate of thefts and vandalism in French churches has led to calls for the government to act. Recent incidents have included a fire in Saint-Sulpice church in Paris, human excrement smeared on the wall in Notre-Dame-des-Enfants church in Nîmes, southern France, and vandalism of the organ at Saint-Denis basilica outside Paris, where all but three of France’s kings are buried.
Then, just ten days later, a horrifying sight stopped the world in its tracks: Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was aflame and close to collapse, its iconic spire destroyed. Official reports claim the fire was accidental. However, because of persistent church sabotage and arson in France, skepticism surrounds the still-unexplained origin of the fire, which remains under investigation.
In fact, the pattern of vandalized French churches has been going on for years. A year ago, Nina Shea wrote, “Church attacks in France have been relentless for the past four years ... 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.”
In 2016, Catholic priest Jacques Hamel was murdered by two ISIS jihadis and nearly decapitated in his Normandy sanctuary. On that occasion, I wrote for Fox News that his assault was not unique:
At Martigues ... three successive attacks in May 2016: first the pastor extinguished a malicious fire on the altar of the church of the Madeleine. This same priest was later attacked and his eye was blackened. ... Then, at the Saint-Genest church, the same priest discovered the open tabernacle and communion wafers thrown to the ground. ... In April, 2016, all the crucifixes and crosses were shattered at the cemetery of La Chapelle-du-Bard.
All told, in 2015, 810 attacks on French Christian places of worship and Christian cemeteries took place. By last year, the number was well over 1,000. And sadly, only a handful of worshippers attend Sunday masses at most of these churches.
At the same time, an even more deadly peril lurks in France’s Jewish communities. A report commissioned by Ronald S. Lauder, the former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, rates France as the most dangerous place to be a Jew among 11 European countries.
And now, COVID-19 has made matters worse. One JTA story is headlined, “An unwanted symptom of the coronavirus crisis in France: Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.” JTA reported:
Anti-Semitism has plagued French society for centuries, flaring up in times of crisis — especially during epidemics. In the 14th century, for instance, Jews were massacred in France during the Black Death epidemic after they were blamed for spreading the disease by poisoning water wells. ... That kind of disease-related conspiracy theory hasn’t widely manifested itself for centuries. Now, however, the coronavirus is reigniting that strain of anti-Semitism in France.
The virus offers a new excuse for the oldest hatred. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic:
France’s 475,000 Jews represent less than 1 percent of the country’s population. Yet ... according to the French Interior Ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks targeted Jews. The statistics in other countries, including Great Britain, are similarly dismal. In 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on, and insulted for being Jewish. Sale Juif—“dirty Jew”—rang in the streets, as did “Death to the Jews,” and “Jews to the gas.”
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet also noted, “Since the 1990s, as satellite Arab channels and later the internet, started spreading the anti-Semitic propaganda that’s the norm in the Middle East, the French state was slow in acknowledging the existence of a problem, and even slower in responding.”
Communist progressives, neo-Nazis and gilets jaunes can be violent. But most vicious of all are Islamist radicals who rage in their hatred for Jews and Israel. And as for Christians? ISIS has made its intentions clear: “The Christian community ... will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam. We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women.”
During my decade-long sojourn in Jerusalem which ended in 2017, I came across a jihadi slogan expressing both contempt and a warning: “On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians.”
This slogan has been brought to life in the Middle East. In the mid-20th century, historic Jewish populations were expelled from their homelands in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and well beyond. Today, Christian populations – many of them barely surviving as refugees – continue to flee those same countries. They can no longer safely live there.
In the mid-20th century, around 650,000 refugees fled to Israel. More recently, according to the Jewish Agency, some 38,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from France between 2009-2019. Today, as anti-Semitism flares, more French Jews ponder doing the same.
Meanwhile, Americans are watching our own churches defaced or torched, while Christian communities across the world face threatening circumstances that far surpass burned buildings and hateful chants.
Today, innumerable Christians are homeless refugees in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Tens of thousands more have already paid the ultimate price for their faith across Africa. Millions more live in grave danger in China and North Korea. At this moment, Christians are struggling to survive in more global trouble spots than can be counted, while the global coronavirus pandemic adds yet another menace. May God have mercy on them all.
And may the flame of faith in these believers’ hearts – and in our own – never be extinguished.
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for Religious Freedom at Family Research Council, and a Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.