Former Times bureau chief investigates rash of French church vandalism cases

(COMMENTARY) Spending two weeks in France earlier this summer was a wonderful experience. While I was there to cover the Women’s World Cup, I did get an opportunity to travel extensively throughout Paris and the northern part of the country.

During my travels, I walked into a lot of churches. France is one of the few countries I have ever visited where churches were always open. There was something comforting seeing churches with their doors swung wide, inviting anyone to walk right in.

The other thing I noticed was how empty these houses of worship were. It’s not surprising given that church attendance in France is among the lowest in the world.

I’m used to New York City, where churches are often locked when Mass isn’t going on. The reasons are plentiful. Theft, vandalism and other factors often goes into why this has become a practice. You’d think they would have heeded the warning in France, where the vandalism of Catholic churches has become an all-too-common occurrence the past two years.

This trend has largely been ignored in the mainstream press (we discussed this extensively at GetReligion at the time of the Notre Dame blaze and again in the aftermath). It should be noted, once again, that the fire at Notre Dame was an accident and not part of the spate of attacks.  

This takes us to a great piece of journalism by Real Clear Investigations, the same people who run Real Clear Politics (full disclosure: I have written for Real Clear Sports in the past). A recent piece posted to the site takes a deep dive into the trend, quantifying it with anecdotes, lots of data and interviews with people in the know. The reporting sheds a spotlight on the string of attacks and what it has done to France. It may be one of the best reported pieces on what’s been going on there by any news organization to date.

What Richard Bernstein has been able to do here is the kind of reporting that we no longer see. A former foreign correspondent at The New York Times, Bernstein worked as the paper’s Paris bureau chief from 1984 to 1987. His knowledge of the country, the history and factors that may have influenced the events of the past year shows through his reporting. These two paragraphs early on, for example, illustrate the magnitude of the problem — with help from data collected by various French authorities:

The French police recorded 129 thefts and 877 acts of vandalism at Catholic sites – mostly churches and cemeteries – in 2018, and there has been no respite this year. The Conference of French Bishops reported 228 “violent anti-Christian acts” in France in the first three months of 2019 alone, taking place in every region of the country – 45 here in the southwest.

In all, according to the French Ministry of the Interior (which counted 875 anti-Christian incidents in 2018, slightly less than the tally by the police), the attacks on Christian sites quadrupled between 2008 and 2019. This has stirred a deep alarm among many Catholics and non-Catholics alike, worried that a powerful hostility to Catholicism — what they call “Christianophobia” — is sweeping their country.

Yes, this feature does go there.

In other words, the reporting does address why these incidents have been downplayed, both through poor press coverage and even the actions of the church itself. Here’s what the piece says about the media coverage in France:

Most major media outlets in France have also downplayed the uptick in attacks. Among the major French newspapers, only the conservative Le Figaro has published a substantial front-page investigation. Others have published a few scattered articles on individual incidents. The absence of palpable public alarm led one magazine, Causeur, which specializes in a certain irreverent skepticism regarding the conventional wisdom, to run a series of articles on the attacks under the overall headline “Explosion of Anti-Christian Acts: The Victims that Nobody's Talking About.”

We have already discussed at length in this same space the poor media coverage the attacks garnered in the English-speaking press, primarily in major news outlets in the United States. The poor media coverage, for one thing, failed to effectively investigate who was behind these attack.

The Real Clear Investigations article also introduces the term “Christianophobia,” a term you rarely see in a mainstream American news outlet. The term has gained increasing usage over the past few months, primarily by news outlets on the doctrinal right across Christianity from the National Catholic Register to a recent CBN story.

Big questions remain: Is hatred of Christianity what’s behind all these attacks? Who exactly, if there is one group, is behind such vandalism?

The second half of the feature spends time trying to answer that question. The answer, of course, is complicated. Despite past attacks, the article points out that “available evidence shows that attacks carried out by Muslims, both in France and elsewhere in Europe, account for a small fraction of anti-Christian crimes.”

This is the key piece of the puzzle. Bernstein, through a series of interviews, tries to get to the truth:

Indeed, one reason alleged “Christianophobia” is being downplayed by the French government is the fear of stoking Islamophobia – the concern that some people would instinctively blame Muslims for the attacks and retaliate (which has not happened).

“For the majority of the attacks, we have no idea of the perpetrator,” Ellen Fantini, a former federal prosecutor in Vermont who heads the Observatory on Discrimination and Intolerance in Vienna, said in a telephone interview. But, Fantini continued, “it's safe to say that there are many attacks that have nothing to do with extremist groups.”   

Nevertheless, some observers certainly have noted a kind ranking of alarm when it comes to ethnic or religious conflicts, wherein attacks on other groups arouse more shock and grief than attacks on Christian sites. “While every attack against a synagogue, a mosque, or a Jewish or Muslim cemetery is abundantly reported in the media and unleashes a chorus of denunciation of the ‘We will never yield’ variety,” Elizabeth Levy, the editor of Causeur, has written, the attacks against Christian sites “haven't caused all that much of a disturbance.”

There are reasons for this, having to do with the vulnerability of minority groups, especially Jews, compared to the relative historical security of the majority. While religious observance has sharply declined, Catholics and people of Catholic heritage remain the large majority in France. The memory of France’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II also plays a role in this. It gives a special horror to an attack on a synagogue, or to the drawing of a swastika on a Jewish tombstone.  

Further down, Bernstein writes that the French newspaper Liberation found that about 60 percent of the church attacks involved graffiti such as satanic inscriptions, anarchist symbols, swastikas or neo-Nazi slogans. He concludes that the work is being done by a “desperate social fringe,” rather than a general growth of anti-Christianity.

“Virtually none of the reported attacks have been against people; they are all against buildings, cemeteries or other physical objects,” he wrote.

In summary, Bernstein, through his reporting, confirms what I noticed. That there are many Christian sites, mostly Catholic, that remain unguarded.

Few of the perpetrators of these assaults have been apprehended, but even if most of them were simply juvenile delinquents, the question remains: Why are they attacking the church?

One mundane reason cited in a recent conversation with Pierre Manent, a French political philosopher and intellectual, is opportunity. “This vandalism is drawn to Christian sites because they're less defended and present little risk, and there are a lot of them,” he said.

But Manent argues that the attacks also reflect the church’s broader loss of moral authority even as it is deemed the preserver of values and ways of life that to many in France are old-fashioned and irrelevant. In this sense, the attacks on Christian churches and cemeteries seem related to what is often termed the more general “crisis of the church.” There is, most conspicuously, a decline in attendance, but there have also been the scandals over pedophilia and a larger sense among many people that the church is somehow retrograde.

“There's the impression that the church is an obstacle to contemporary life,” Manent said. “And that nourishes a certain hostility. The church suffers from ill will.”

It takes someone with Bernstein’s reporting chops to tell this story. Sadly, The New York Times bureau in Paris hasn’t done so, even when the Notre Dame fire gave them an excuse — what we call a “news hook” — to tell this very story. What the Times did do is reconstruct the Notre Dame fire on Wednesday — with help from photos, documents and an interactive online feature — determining that the structure was saved from total destruction only when “firefighters decided to risk everything.”

If only the Times and other elite newsrooms had spent similar time and energy on the broader vandalism of churches. Thankfully, a former bureau chief has stepped up and done a wonderful job in what may be one of the under-reported stories of the year.

This post was originally published at GetReligion.