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Are historic churches only buildings?

Churches under attack this summer are symbols of what’s central in community life

We Protestants often approach the “sacred spaces” of worship a little conflicted. The Reformers prioritized the inner life of the believer over the outward rituals of the faith. They replaced the altar with the communion table, and gathered in caves when the religious authorities hunted them down.

My own church meets in a school gymnasium, and some of the most vibrant congregations I know gather in concert halls, libraries, and other repurposed venues.

With that history we’re tempted to regard attacks on historic churches as just so much delinquency in a destructive time. Let’s think again.

The July 18 fire that nearly destroyed the Catholic cathedral in Nantes is but one of the most prominent: Attacks on churches occur at a rate of nearly three a day in France, according to the French Interior Ministry.

A refugee from Rwanda who received food and housing in exchange for looking after the 15th-century Gothic structure has been charged in the Nantes blaze after he confessed to setting the church afire, but investigators have yet to uncover a motive or whether others also instigated it.

The fire that nearly consumed Notre Dame in Paris last year also remains unresolved. Workers, stymied most recently by pandemic lockdown, have yet to access the place in the vast cathedral where experts believe the fire began.

A Paris watchdog organization, L’Observatoire de la Christianophobie, tracked more than 900 attacks on churches in 2019. They include fires at other iconic Catholic structures, thefts, tagging, and spreading excrement, plus actual assaults on churchgoers. 

On Sunday morning, July 19, a man wearing a military uniform and paintball mask tried to attack a full Protestant church in Seine-Saint-Denis. Passersby heard him shout, “Allahu Akbar,” and a motorist, seeing the man armed with a saber and semi-automatic weapon, ran him down and with others disarmed him before police arrived. 

A growing number of politicians in France see this as a crisis the press and national leaders have ignored. Church assaults have a way of telegraphing a wider tear in the social fabric. That’s instructive background for churches in the United States, where social upheaval and a spate of summer church attacks also have received scant press coverage and little pressure for authorities to prioritize them. 

The cause of a July 11 fire at the 250-year-old San Gabriel Mission in California remains under investigation. Catholic leaders had to remove statues of Junípero Serra, the priest who founded the mission, after protesters tore down Serra statues in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Along with defacing and toppling Confederate monuments, protesters elsewhere have beheaded or defaced statues of Mary and Jesus and painted anarchist symbols over churches.

The same day as the San Gabriel incident, a man set fire to Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, Fla., as parishioners prepared for morning Mass. Arson on July 5 destroyed the 100-year-old Harmony Baptist Church in rural Leeton, Mo. A man has been arrested for a July 21 blaze at Reach Church in Delaware that caused $250,000 in damage to the Presbyterian Church in America facility.

We can’t dismiss these as localized or mostly Catholic problems. Churches in contemporary and historic buildings figure at the center of community life. They are emblems of stability and faith—often the very reason they come under attack in tumultuous times. 

But the semipermanent protests over racial injustice in places like Seattle, Portland, and Chicago not only seed unrest and violence: They are cries of despair. The Church is the institution ready to answer that desperation and mustn’t be banished or retreat from it. Chuck Betters, pastor of Reach Church, said, “It is actually freeing to forgive the person who committed this intentional evil and pray for them to encounter Jesus as we have.”

At the height of the ISIS rampage in Iraq, as I covered towns emptied and churches desecrated by its militias, one Orthodox believer explained the importance of protecting church structures this way: “If a people don’t have the history of their past, then they will not have a future. They won’t know what their origins are, where they came from, what they have to live for.”


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  • Narissara
    Posted: Wed, 08/05/2020 11:07 am

    Thank you for this article.  We have our existence in both the spiritual and the physical realm.  Yes, we'll eventually have to leave the physical realm, but it's a mistake to try to say it's not important.  As physical beings, who tend to be very forgetful, no matter what age, we need visual cues to remind us of God our Savior.  But it isn't just the rich history that's being destroyed.  The beautiful works of art and architecture made by human hands is a reflection of God our Creator.  The fact that anarchists see a need to deface these buildings and statues is a good indication they understand this better than we ourselves do.