French churches are increasingly under threat from arson and desecration, but the government and press continue to provide little coverage of these attacks.
According to statistics highlighted by the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe in an email to the Washington Free Beacon, there has been an increase of about 250 percent in attacks on Christian sites in France between 2008 and 2018.
Ellen Fantini, who directs the Observatory, told the Free Beacon that under-reporting is a serious problem when calculating the number of attacks on Christian sites, noting that churches are often busy with other matters and prefer to move on, while the press thinks the incidents are minor.
France is better documented because, unlike most European countries, it produces official figures on anti-Christian bias, but even those may be misleading. Fantini believes the reported number of incidents is low, possibly because many Catholic churches are owned by the French government and therefore are "not even counted because they're put into the figures of government buildings."
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, recently described the attacks on French churches over the past few years in a piece for the National Catholic Register:
In many cases the unprotected churches are preyed on by thieves, which indicates criminal intent, if not hatred…. 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….
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.
Anarcho-libertarians claimed responsibility for the burning of Grenoble's Saint-Jacques Church in January. The phrase, "our lives, our bodies belong to us," was found on the Cathedral of Saint-Jean of Besancon, along with the anarchist "A" in a separate incident.
Islamists have been responsible for particularly deadly attacks on Christians, such as the 2016 murder of Father Jacques Hamel in Normandy during morning Mass and the attack on Strasbourg's Christmas Market in December.
Shea notes the assault on churches "barely receives a glance from the French state, prosecutors, media or public. Rarely are the attackers identified or apprehended." She elaborated on the government's weak response in an interview with the Free Beacon.
Shea says there is "a secular indifference" on the part of government officials, and also suggested "there's a reluctance to make arrests" because the government in power does not want to alienate potential voters.
Fantini argues the media and the government struggle to think of Christians as victims of intolerance and discrimination, noting that the attacks on churches do not "square with the discourse these days which is that minorities are victims."
A Pew study from last year found most people in Western European countries identify as Christian, including 64 percent of French people, although another Pew survey found only 11 percent of French people say religion is "very important in their lives" and just over one-fifth "attend worship services at least monthly."
"I think on the societal level and certainly reflected in the media there's a bit of a cognitive dissonance, let's say: How can Christians and Christianity possibly be the victims of intolerance [or] discrimination?" Fantini said.
Incidents are rarely reported by national news outlets, meaning that people throughout France "may not even know [the attacks on churches are] happening in such a widespread way," Shea added.
Catholic leaders in France have been reluctant to address the attacks, with the head of the French bishops conference saying in March the church does "not want to develop a discourse of persecution."
Shea thinks church leaders fear reprisals if they are too vocal about the violence.
"I think they're maybe afraid that there will be retaliation against them by the left-wing groups with no government protection. I mean it really comes down to government protection. They're afraid the government is not on their side, is not protecting them against criminals and militants," Shea said. "It's the responsibility of the government to protect the property and rights of its citizens, and that's not happening in France with the Christians."