Is it a news story if a church is set on fire or vandalized in some other way? What about if it’s part of a string of incidents? What if it happens five times? How about 10 times?
What if there are flames pouring out of one of the world’s most iconic cathedrals and it’s Monday of Holy Week?
We will come back to the flames over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a moment.
The answers to the earlier questions are yes, yes, yes, yes and, of course, yes! As someone who worked as a news reporter (and later a editor) at two major metropolitan dailies (at the New York Post and New York Daily News) and a major news network website (ABC News), I can tell you that any suspicion of arson at a house of worship, for example, is a major story.
It must somehow no longer be the case in the new and frenetic world of the internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. That’s because a major international story — one involving at least 10 acts of vandalism at Catholic churches in France — went largely unreported (underreported, really) for weeks. The vandalism included everything from Satanic symbols scrawled on walls to shattered statues.
That’s right, a rash of fires and other acts of desecration inside Catholic churches — during Lent, even — in a country with a recent history of terrorism somehow didn’t warrant any kind of attention from American news organizations. Even major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, were late to covering it and only did after running a Religion News Service story.
This brings us to Monday’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where a massive blaze engulfed the 12th century gothic house of worship. It’s too early to tell if this incident is part of the earlier wave of vandalism, but it certainly comes at a strange time. For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.
It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.
There will be more to come on the Notre Dame story in the hours and days that follow and comes at the start of Holy Week, the most solemn time on the Christian calendar.
But back to my questions about the earlier string of fires and the lack of coverage. In my experience, fires were always a thing because they generally produced good art. Flames shooting from a window, whether a still photograph or video, was always a major reason editors put these incidents on their story budgets. In the case of the French churches, however, the photos tell only a small part of the story.
I recall covering several church fires in New York City during my time as a general assignment reporter, one in February 1999 just days before Ash Wednesday and another in March 2002. In the case of the second blaze, no one was hurt and it ultimately proved to be an electrical fire. Nonetheless, sacred relics were destroyed in the process. That it happened during Lent had made it that much worse for worshippers — and certainly a news story.
Fast-forward to present-day France. Among the very first to write about the vandalism was Catholic News Agency with a story on Feb. 15 under the headline, “Eucharist desecrated, statues smashed in series of French church attacks.” That was followed up byCrux, another English-language Catholic news outlet that chose to cover the phenomenon over a month later on March 28. While the article was accompanied by flames shooting through the front door of St. Sulpice Church in Paris, it wasn’t the reason why they wrote about it. It’s worth noting that St. Sulpice is a baroque church completed in 1870. It is also the city’s second-largest church, behind Notre Dame, and used in the movie version of The Da Vinci Code.
Here’s how the story opens:
Vandals and arsonists have targeted French churches in a wave of attacks that has lasted nearly two months.
More than 10 churches have been hit since the beginning of February, with some set on fire while others were severely desecrated or damaged.
St. Sulpice, the second-largest church in Paris, after Notre Dame Cathedral, had the large wooden door on its southern transept set ablaze March 17.
Investigators confirmed March 18 that the fire was started deliberately, according to the website of the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, an independent organization founded with the help of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences.
In early February, in the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Enfants in Nimes, near the Spanish border, intruders drew a cross on a wall with excrement then stuck consecrated hosts to it.
Utter the words “France” and “Catholicism” in the same breath and you immediately get statements such as, “No one in France goes to church anymore.” While it is true that France ranks near the bottom of countries in the world where regular church attendance is low. While Pew Research found that 64% identified as Christians in 2018, only 18% attend services regularly in some of the same places that have been recently vandalized. It took me a simple Google search to find this information.
Furthermore, a very good piece in America magazine posted to its website in April 2018 alluded to a French Catholic renaissance. The essay looked at how faith and politics influenced the country’s presidential elections the year before. Could these heinous acts have a political connection? More on that later.
With all that, the spate of vandalism was picked up by a major outlet when it was published as a feature story by RNS on April 2. The nut graph — what journalists refer to as the part of the story that tells the reader why they’ve even bothered to write this thing — is the third paragraph. Here’s how the story opened:
Sometimes it’s a cross of human excrement smeared on a church wall, with stolen Communion hosts stuck at the four corners. Other times, a statue of the Virgin Mary lies shattered on the floor.
Now and then, a fire breaks out in a house of prayer.
Roman Catholic churches have increasingly come under attack in France, a country so long identified with Christianity that it used to be called “the eldest daughter of the church.”
A recent fire at St. Sulpice, the second-largest church in Paris, has shed light on a trend that has become commonplace in many smaller towns.
“Who has heard of the sacking of the monastery of Saint Jean des Balmes in Aveyron? Of those teenagers who urinated into the holy water font of the church at Villeneuve de Berg in Ardèche?” the Paris daily Le Figaro asked last week in an article highlighting some of the lesser-known profanations around the country this month.
Incidents such as these get a brief mention in the press, complete with quotes from Catholics shocked at the sight of scattered hosts or beheaded statues, and sometimes a short video clip on national television.
Other wire services, such as Reuters, wrote about the St. Sulpice fire. So did Newsweek, which was one of the first U.S. outlets to do so. That’s largely it. In England, The Daily Express, a tabloid newspaper, published a story on March 20 detailing the phenomenon. In Russia, RT’s English-language site also made a point of covering it.
The American press in particular has been negligent on this one. In fact, one of the first websites to write about the incidents for American audiences was Breitbart. Did coverage on the politically conservative site dated March 20 suddenly make this a right-wing story? It shouldn’t have. Vandalism, no matter who the potential culprits are, should be reported by journalists. Is there a conservative or liberal way to cover a fire? I never thought so — until now.
The Brietbart story ends with several key statistics, further proving that these cases aren’t isolated, but part of a terrifying trend:
The Catholic hierarchy has kept silent about the episodes, limited themselves to highlighting that anti-Christian threat and expressing hope that politicians and police will get to the bottom of the crimes.
Reports indicate that 80 percent of the desecration of places of worship in France concerns Christian churches and in the year 2018 this meant the profanation of an average of two Christian churches per day in France, even though these actions rarely make the headlines.
In 2018, the Ministry of the Interior recorded 541 anti-Semitic acts, 100 anti-Muslim acts, and 1,063 anti-Christian acts.
Even with the RNS story out there for media subscribers to use, the only major media outlet to run the story on its website was The Washington Post. There was, for example, no New York Times story (just to name one of the largest newspapers in the English-speaking world) until Monday’s Notre Dame disaster. It’s hard to believe that a rash of fires tied to vandals isn’t of interest to one of the world’s largest news organizations with a bureau in the French capitol.
Why? Would this rash of sacrilegious attacks have enjoyed more coverage had they occurred in synagogues or mosques? It’s hard to say. After all, the string of fires at black churches in Louisiana has warranted — and deservingly so — lots of media attention. On this series of fires, culminating with the arrest of a suspect on April 10, The New York Times did a solid job.
What makes this story even more intriguing is that it remains largely a mystery who committed these awful acts. This was buried in the Newsweek account from March 21:
The Vienna-based Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, which was founded in cooperation with the Council of European Bishops Conferences (CCEE) but is now independent said there had been a 25 percent increase in attacks on Catholic churches in the first two months of the year, compared with the same time last year.
Its executive director, Ellen Fantini, told Newsweek that while in many cases the motive for the attacks was not known, France faced growing problems with anti-Christian violence, especially by anarchist and feminist groups.
“I think there is a rising hostility in France against the church and its symbols," but "it seems to be more against Christianity and the symbols of Christianity.
“These attacks are on symbols that are really sacred to parishioners, to Catholics. Desecration of consecrated hosts is a very personal attack on Catholicism and Christianity, more than spray-painting a slogan on the outside wall of a church.”
She said that while France had a long tradition of secularism, it was seen as a culturally Christian country, and so any "attack on the church as a symbol of religion was also an attack on authority and patrimony.
Maybe it’s the suspects in this case that made the mainstream press skittish to report on it extensively. It’s true that foreign news is expensive for American news outlets. Furthermore, my experience is that Europeans know a lot more about what happens in America compared to what most Americans know about Europe.
Nevertheless, the political unrest in France involving protestors clad in yellow vests have, by comparison, gotten lots of attention from many of these aforementioned news sites. Another good example, Brexit and its aftermath, has been something The New York Times and many U.S. news websites can’t get enough of. Political stories, the new religion of our secular culture, are widely covered. The past few weeks has shown that when it comes to vandalism against Catholics, there isn’t so much interest in covering it.