At least 10 incidents of vandalism and desecration of Catholic churches have been reported in France since the beginning of February, according to French news sources and watch groups.
Vandals in Catholic churches throughout the country have smashed statues, knocked down tabernacles, scattered or destroyed the Eucharist, burnt altar cloths and torn down crosses, among other acts of desecration of religious items.
According to La Croix International, one of the earliest incidents occurred February 4 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Houilles, Yvelines, where a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was found smashed on the ground. The church had experienced earlier incidents of vandalism just weeks prior, when the altar cross was found thrown to the ground and the celebrant’s chair was damaged.
The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, a Christian watchdog group, documented another attack at St. Nicholas Church on February 10, when the tabernacle was found thrown to the ground. A 35 year-old man later confessed to committing the act to police.
On February 5, an altar cloth was found burnt and crosses and statues torn down or disfigured at Saint-Alain Cathedral in Lavaur, in south-central France. The fire was found early by a parish secretary and did not spread, though the smoke damaged the altar and adjacent walls.
The 800 year-old building had also recently undergone renovations, local sources reported.
“I strongly condemn the vandalism of Lavaur Cathedral and I share the outrage aroused by this intolerable act,” Jean Terlier, a local district deputy, said in a statement following the incident, according to La Croix.
“God will forgive. Not me,” the city’s mayor Bernard Carayon said of the vandalism, La Croix reported.
On February 6, just a day after the Saint-Alain Cathedral incident, vandals at a Catholic Church in Nimes broke into the tabernacle and scattered the hosts on the ground, drew a cross on the wall with excrement and damaged other religious items in the church, according to local reports.
In a statement posted to the Diocesan website, Bishop Robert Wattebled of Nimes denounced the desecration, which “greatly affects our diocesan community. The sign of the cross and the Blessed Sacrament have been the subject of serious injurious actions. This act of profanation hurts us all in our deepest convictions,” he said.
The Bishop also announced that a Mass of reparation must be said in the church before regular Masses can continue, and noted that local religious orders of the diocese had already offered to observe days of fasting and prayer in reparation for the act. He encouraged lay Catholics to join in acts of prayer and reparation.
The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe documented another incident on February 9 at the Church of Notre-Dame de Dijon in Côte-d’Or, about 175 miles to the south and east of Paris.
Again in this incident, the tabernacle was opened and the Eucharist scattered. An altar cloth was also stained and a missle book was torn.
Father Emmanuel Pic from Notre-Dame parish told La Bien Public news that since nothing of great monetary value was damaged, it seems the vandals wanted to attack the “heart of the Catholic faith.”
“Nothing of value has been broken, but it is the intent that is very shocking. This is what characterizes profanation,” Pic said.
The vandals seemed to have known that attacking the altar and the Eucharist would be “a very strong symbol for (parishioners), since the hosts consecrated during the previous Mass are no longer just a piece of bread in the eyes of Christians” but the body of Christ, he added. The priest also posted photos of the desecration to his Twitter account. Mass resumed at the parish after a Mass of reparation was said by the local archbishop.
In a statement posted to the group’s newsletter, Ellen Fantini, executive director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, joined local priests, bishops and civil authorities in condemning the “shocking” acts of vandalism.
“It is our sincere hope that the perpetrators are brought to justice and that awareness of increasing anti-Christian hostility in France reaches the public square,” she said.
In a statement posted to Twitter on February 13, Prime Minister of France Edouard Philippe also condemned the acts ahead of a meeting with the country’s bishops.
“In one week, in France, 5 degraded churches. In our secular Republic, places of worship are respected. Such acts shock me and must be unanimously condemned. I will tell the bishops of France at the meeting of the forum of dialogue with the Catholic Church,” he said.
Besides the confession in the incident at St. Nicholas Church, investigations are ongoing as to the perpetrators of these acts of vandalism.
While it is yet unclear if the incidents are at all related, they recall the series of attacks and vandalism that the Catholic Church in France and Belgium experienced in 2016 by the Islamic State. The worst of those attacks included the murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel, who was killed by jihadists while celebrating Mass at a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy. The assailants entered the church and took the priest and four others hostage. Local law enforcement reported that the priest’s throat was slit in the attack, and that both of the hostage takers were shot dead by police.