A senior French Catholic has warned that dozens of Christian churches and cemeteries are attacked annually in the country, and accused its bishops of trying to hush the problem up.
“Something is happening in French society that's long been neglected but is becoming evident with these fires", said Stefan Lunte, secretary-general of Justice and Peace Europe. "The country is becoming de-Christianised, and there are people who wish, for whatever reason, to vandalise and destroy Christian symbols ... The long-held strategy of keeping this under wraps simply does not work".
The lay Catholic spoke amid police investigations into an 18 July arson attack on the Catholic cathedral of Nantes in Brittany, for which a Rwandan-born church volunteer confessed responsibility last weekend.
Lunte told Germany's Catholic Dom Radio around 1,000 attacks occurred annually on France's 42,000 churches and chapels, as well as on cemeteries and other Christian sites, with an average of three places of worship desecrated daily.
"This is happening in all European countries, but France is particularly affected", said Lunte, who also advises Comece, the Brussels-based Commission of European Union Bishops’ Conferences. "There are satanist cults here, as well as very extreme anarchist and libertarian groups, people often quite unstable psychologically. Individual cases cannot always be explained, but overall it is shocking and depressing".
A Rwandan refugee initially suspected but freed in the Nantes cathedral fire investigation has confessed to setting the blaze that destroyed its grand organ and damaged the choir organ and choir stalls.
The refugee was a volunteer custodian assigned to lock the fifteenth-century cathedral in the evening two weeks ago, so he was the last person there before the arson attack on the morning of 18 July, which was carried out without any evidence of forced entry.
Police questioned him a second time on 25 July after discovering contradictions in his initial testimony.The 39-year-old man, who then confessed and was detained, faces up to 10 years in prison and €150,000 in fines.
“Securing the site will take weeks (and) the investigation stone by stone will take months,” said Phillipe Charron, a national heritage official in the western city. As for reconstructing the cathedral, he said, “it will take years.”
Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennès confirmed the suspect had been refused asylum and ordered to leave France. He had complained in an email to the diocese and local authorities that he had not been supported enough, but has not convincingly explained any possible motive to the police, he said. Sennès said police would order a psychiatric examination of the suspect.
The suspect’s lawyer said the man “bitterly regrets the facts and …is now consumed with remorse and overwhelmed by the magnitude of events.”
The Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination, which monitors anti-Christian incidents across Europe, described the fire as an act of "social hostility and intolerance", and confirmed that France was currently the European country worst affected by vandalism, robberies and profanations against Christian places of worship.
In his Dom Radio interview, Stefan Lunte said he believed religious symbols were either "no longer understood" in France or misinterpreted from a "completely dark, negative satanic viewpoint". He added that the country's Catholic bishops had long sought to play down anti-Christian incidents, fearing strong reactions would incite further attacks, but now had to "act differently" in collaboration with the country's authorities.
French police said another ancient basilica at Liguge had been torched four days after the attack on Nantes cathedral.