There’s been about a 285% increase in the number of “anti-Christian incidents” reported in France over the last decade-plus, according to the head of the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe.
As six French churches have caught fire in the last year and a half, including the major Cathedral in Nantes last week, government data indicates a stark increase in the number of alleged attacks and acts of vandalism committed against houses of worship since 2008.
“The French government reported 275, what they call, anti-Christian acts [in 2008]," OIDACE Executive Director Ellen Fantini told The Christian Post Monday. "So that is anything from targeting a church in some way with vandalism or a public Christian statue, it could be a Christian cemetery or it could be actual assaults against French Christians with an anti-Christian bias."
"If we look at 2018 and 2019, the numbers are little over 1,000 [per year]. So the increase from 275 to a little over 1,000 works out to 285% increase.”
According to France’s Interior Ministry, there were 1,052 recorded anti-Christian incidents committed in 2019, which mostly consist of attacks on religious property. The 2019 incidents are broken down into 996 "acts" and 56 "threats."
“What is shocking about that actually is how low the government’s numbers are,” the director of the only observatory that covers Christian freedom of conscious issues across all of Europe said.
In addition to the government’s published data on anti-Christian actions, Fantini said that the French government also submits data about hate crimes committed with a bias against Christians to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
However, the government’s data on hate crimes against Christians don’t seem to match the figures the government provides on anti-Christian incidents.
“Those numbers, the most recent figures for hate crimes, were nearly 2,000 in 2018,” she explained. “So when people react with shock when we say that this works out to about three a day, we are taking conservative numbers. When we take even the government’s own numbers of hate crimes against Christians, it works out to more than five a day.”
“It is not clear why those [two sets of] numbers don’t match up. The French government has not been transparent about why those numbers don’t match up. What we can safely say is that the French government reports both of these numbers. It would suggest that the lower figure must be the absolute minimum and the figure given to OSCE is likely accurate, though I suspect even that number is lower than the real figures."
When asked what “anti-Christian incidents” entail, Fantini stated that they tend to be acts of “vandalism with a message.”
“They are not necessarily like graffiti where you could identify what these people want, as compared to Spain. … In France, we see a lot of decapitation of statues, we see the destruction of precious objects. I don’t mean precious by material value but destruction, for example, of consecrated hosts in Catholic churches. There is basically nothing worse you could do in a Catholic church than destroy the consecrated host.”
The researcher added that France sees “a lot” of small intentional fires at churches. Those fires don’t usually burn down the buildings, however.
“There are a lot of broken windows. For something like a broken window, we don’t know if it was a kid playing with a ball or whether it was somebody who hates the church or hates Christians. My organization tends to, if we don’t have any other information, to not really say that we think an incident has an anti-Christian bias," she noted.
“But if they smash a window and destroy things, then we know that is going on. It’s hard to figure out what motivation is because most of the time vandals aren’t caught. Most churches don’t have security cameras. Most churches are open to the public all day long but don’t have security guards. To be honest, I think we only see the visible tip of the iceberg because so many churches across Europe and America as well experience vandalism and simply don’t report it.”
The observatory’s executive director opines that part of the reason there is an increase in attacks and acts vandalism committed at places of worship in France is that the rising secularism in the country “has led the society generally not to think of churches as special sacred places.”
Fantini said perpetrators of church attacks and acts vandalism in France tend to be radical Islamists or people aligned on the radical extremes of the political left, including Antifa movements, anarchists and radical feminists.
“They all set their sights on churches for different reasons,” she said. “In France, we certainly have not seen any kind of far-right attacks on churches. In France, I would say it is sort of the cultural leftists on the extremes as well as the radicalized Islamists. Although we haven’t seen that as much as we did a few years ago.”
Sunday marked the fourth anniversary of the killing of Priest Jacques Hamel during an attack on his Normandy church by two men claimed to be aligned with the Islamic State.
“He was the priest who was beheaded by ISIS sympathizers in the South of France while he was celebrating mass,” she said.
While there is not enough data available to calculate the rise of anti-Christian incidents throughout Europe, Fantini believes that such incidents are “absolutely on the rise everywhere.”
“We see in Germany arsons and vandalism, we see it in Spain, we see it in the U.K. Really, I can’t say that there is any place in Europe where this phenomenon is decreasing,” she warned. “I was just looking at the U.K. The U.K. has a government fund to protect places of worship of all kinds. It was started five years ago and the amount in the fund has already doubled to £3.2 million.”
In Spain, she said churches see quite a lot of “destruction and vandalism.”
“In particular, the anarchist movements, their favorite phrase is: ‘The only church that illuminates is the one that burns,’” the researcher explained. “Every year on International Women’s Day, which is celebrated all over Spain, it is an opportunity for the feminist activists to put their tags on Spanish churches, they destroy things, they protest. Spain is no stranger to the activist left when it comes to targeting churches.”
One factor that has created an “uptick” in anti-Christian incidents in Europe, Fantini believes, is the mass migration stemming from the global refugee crisis in which millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa have poured into Europe.
“The major wave of migration between 2015, 2016 and 2017, around there, that definitely resulted in an uptick in incidents,” she said. “If we look at France, simply because they actually report some statistics, you do see a jump that happens right around that time. I would say, for the most part, it has settled down a bit.”
Even in the United States, Fantini said that between the end of May and the third week of July, there were “20 incidents across 12 states” effecting Catholic churches alone as there has been much social unrest following the death of George Floyd.
“The activists in the U.S. have been fairly explicit about saying, ‘Burn it all down,’” the Vermont native said. “I do think we are going to see it get worse in Europe because I think the activists who are already simmering here will feel emboldened by what they see happening in the U.S. These movements are connected in terms of ideology.”
Fantini was clear that her organization does not use the term “persecution” when discussing the situation facing Christians in Europe.
“We do that very intentionally because we understand that the persecution of our brothers and sisters [in other regions of the world] is beyond compare,” she said. “We can’t claim that and we don’t.”