Late one night a few months ago, two teenage boys crept into the massive 13th century Cathedral of Saint-Alain in Lavaur, a postcard town in southwest France. There, they set fire to an altar, turned a crucifix upside down, threw another one into the nearby Agout River, and deformed a statue of Jesus into what the town’s mayor called “a grotesque pose.”
Townspeople were shocked that two local boys could commit an act of such gratuitous vandalism against, of all things, their town’s most historic and treasured site, a towering, massive, Gothic structure that has stood at the center of Lavaur’s collective life for 700 years.
But there is nothing at all unusual about an attack on a Christian religious site these days in France, or, for that matter, elsewhere in Europe. 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.