A leading curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Keith Christiansen, was criticized for posting on Instagram a painting of Alexandre Lenoir saving France’s monuments from the ravages of the French Revolution. Christiansen wrote:
“Alexandre Lenoir battling the revolutionary zealots bent on destroying the royal tombs in Saint Denis. How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve. And how grateful we are to people like Lenoir who realized that their value — both artistic and historical — extended beyond a defining moment of social and political upheaval and change”.
Christiansen was criticizing the current removal and desecration of historic monuments. He could not have known that, a few weeks later, another French cathedral would be vandalized and an ancient organ, which had survived Lenoir’s revolutionary zealots, destroyed by the blaze.
The fire at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul of Nantes is believed to have been started deliberately. It was only a year ago that a massive blaze nearly totally gutted the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. After that, the historic Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris caught fire, as well as the Basilica of Saint Denis (the same depicted in the painting posted by Christiansen).
“The fire in Nantes Cathedral, after Notre-Dame de Paris, should make our elites reflect on the great disorder and the great change, decivilization is underway”, Philippe de Villiers, the author and former French minister commented.
“In France there is a low-noise destruction of the Christian roots”, said the philosopher Michel Onfray. “There are about one or two anti-Christian acts a day and it takes a burning cathedral to start talking about it”.
Six major French cathedrals and churches have caught fire during the last year and a half: Notre Dame, Nantes, Rennes, Saint-Sulpice, Lavaur and Pontoise. Perhaps that is why historian Rémi Brague called the fire at Notre Dame “our 9/11”. The Observatory of Religious Heritage listed a total of 20 French churches that caught fire in just one year.
Little publicized and less condemned, attacks against Christian places of worship in France are multiplying and reaching alarming proportions. The Nantes fire was simply the latest in a succession of church destructions that have been going on for years and have apparently not scandalized anyone.
Four years ago, the Saint-Nicolas Basilica in Nantes was almost destroyed by fire. It had completed a renovation in 2014 and was in perfect condition. The first reports in the French media about the vandalism of churches were published ten years ago. Last year, there was one week in which four French churches were desecrated.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Guinean prelate of the Catholic Church, wrote:
“The desecration continues to grow in Europe. Recent acts on statues of the Virgin Mary in French churches show how much these gestures are the result of barbaric hatred. They call for reactions. Catholics can no longer remain silent”.
Cardinal Sarah added:
“Desecration and vandalism in churches are the sad reflection of a sick civilization that gets caught up in the net of evil. Bishops, priests, faithful must keep strength and courage”.
Some secular public figures have spoken out against the attacks. “Hands off my church!” read the title of a French petition of writers, journalists, politicians and university professors, who demanded the protection of churches.
Religious affairs expert Nina Shea wrote that the perpetrators are anarchists, thieves, militant leftists, Satanists and Islamists, who all share the same hate for France and Western civilization. Anti-Semitism seems to go hand-in-hand with anti-Christian sentiment. In France, synagogues are protected “like fortresses“; Jewish schools have been targeted by terror attacks, and Jews have been advised not to wear any religious symbols for their own safety.
Anti-Christian incidents have risen by 285% between 2008 and 2019.
The magazine Reveue des deux mondes called the attacks on churches “the tragedy of French churches”. In addition, more than 5,000 French churches are threatened because of their decaying structures. 875 France’s churches were vandalized in 2018. In 2019, 1,052 anti-Christian acts took place.
“I think there is a rising hostility in France against Christianity and the symbols of Christianity”, noted Ellen Fantini, director of the Vienna-based Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe.
“Every day, at least two churches are profaned”, French MP Valerie Boyer told the Sun.
Gilbert Collard, MP of the National Rally party, compared the fire in Nantes with the recent decision by the Turkish authorities to convert the former Cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. “The symbols go up in flames”, he said.
In recent years, French churches have also been targeted by a series of provocations and attacks by Islamists. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris and the president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, asked France to turn the country’s empty churches into mosques. In Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, in northern France, two Islamic State terrorists killed Father Jacques Hamel during a morning Mass. The shock was immediate and immense. Islamists were also planning to strike Notre-Dame de Paris and actually did succeed in conducting an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack on Strasbourg’s Christmas Market.
Boubakeur’s proposal reflects a realistic understanding of French Christian patrimony. “Abandoned, desecrated, transformed, churches are turned into performance halls, discos, restaurants, wine cellars… Everything to escape demolition”, noted the journalist Marie de Greef-Madelin in the magazine Valeurs Actuelles. These transformations are sometimes called the “second life of France’s churches”. “At the current rate, France will lose 10% of its churches and chapels by 2030”, predicts Édouard de Lamaze, president of the Observatory of Religious Heritage. “Either because they will be sold or because they will be destroyed”.
The Basilica of Saint Denis, burial place of French kings, is already a Christian museum in an Islamized suburb of Paris, and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, before the fire, had become a museum for tourists. “We have reached the final stage of de-Christianization”, commented the political analyst Jerome Fourquet, as if the fires at its major cathedrals were a symbol of France’s dispossession of a territory, a history and an identity.
“How much worse can it get depends on what line activists are willing to draw for themselves”, noted Ellen Fantini, director of Vienna’s Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe. “Will they stop at burning an empty church? Will they stop at decapitating statues?”
“We are at a crossroads” said the French author Alain Finkielkraut. “We must try everything, while it is still possible, to save our civilization. Our civilization is the Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian heritage”.
Europe is not an abstract construction. Its identity is determined by many sources. Christian identity is obviously the most important. If France keeps failing to protect it, France as we know it will cease to exist; it will become a different place entirely.