Newsletter: Nantes Arson Update; Fundamental Rights at Risk in Malta and Scotland

Posted on: August 13, 2020

Country: Newsletter

August 13, 2020

Dear Readers,

In our last newsletter, we informed you about the intentionally-set fires severely damaged the Nantes Cathedral and provided the information we knew about the investigation. Since then, we have learned that the Catholic volunteer who had been interrogated and released was arrested eight days later and confessed to setting the fires. Read more about this below.

Although our coverage of the Nantes fire and similar incidents are an essential part of the Observatory's mission, we do not simply catalogue vandalism against churches. We also look at what Pope Francis called “polite persecution” –  "polite" because it’s “camouflaged by culture, by modernity, by progress in disguise” where the powerful make laws to impose an ideology and as a result, people are marginalized, pushed out of the public square, or lose their jobs. This "polite persecution" deprives people of their fundamental freedoms: conscientious objection, freedom of speech, the right of parents to raise their children in accordance with their faith.

And in Scotland and in Malta, fundamental rights for Christians and others are at risk by innocent, or even positive, sounding "equality" and "hate crime" laws. The proposed legislation in both countries is, in fact, overly-broad, and vague. They pose serious threats to freedom of speech, conscience, among other fundamental rights. Read more about these laws and the consequences below.


The news of the fire in Nantes has ignited a discussion about the startling number of Christian churches and monuments that have been burned, damaged, or destroyed in Europe and around the world in the last few months. In some cases, the perpetrators have made their motives clear; in others (usually fires) the cause remains under investigation. See some recent examples below.

People want to understand the motivations behind such destruction. The perpetrator behind the Nantes cathedral fire has been identified, and his reasons for the arson appear to be intensely personal. However, the truth is that the motives behind most of the destruction of churches are more often ideological than personal, and thus require a deeper examination of cultural factors.

I have often said that churches are "lightning rods" for activists. And each activist group has its own reasons for choosing to attack a church. Churches can represent "the patriarchy," "authority," "tradition," "homophobia," or "the Christian West," among other things. Islamists target churches for different reasons than anarchists, for example. As radicalized movements increase in both numbers and intensity, the number of attacks on churches rises.

And sometimes churches are chosen simply because they're easy targets. Churches tend to be more vulnerable than other buildings because they're usually open to the public during the day and they often don't have much, if any, security. This, combined with the de-valuation of religion in society generally, means Christian sites are nothing special; nothing to be protected. That must change, and it will take all of us to do that.

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Ellen Fantini
Executive Director


Arrest made in Nantes Cathedral Fire

A Catholic Rwandan church volunteer was arrested by police on July 25th after evidence implicating him in the arson was discovered by investigators. The 39-year-old man, whose asylum claims had been repeatedly rejected, confessed after questioning and reportedly expressed profound remorse for the act. 

As part of their investigation into the cause of the fire, police discovered an email written by the man a few hours before the incident. A practicing Catholic, he occupied a room in a Nantes home within the Franciscan community. He wrote at length about his "personal problems" in the email to the diocese and the administrative authorities. He explained "his resentment towards various individuals [in the diocese] who had not supported him enough, in his eyes, in his administrative procedures [to remain in France]," said Nantes public prosecutor Pierre Sennès. 

According to reports, the suspect had been subject to an obligation to leave the French territory (OQTF) since November 2019 and his various appeals had been exhausted. 

Faced with mounting evidence, the man "admitted before the judge that he had lit the three fires in the cathedral," Pierre Sennès said. The man's motivations remain “confused” at this stage of the investigations, according to Sennès, and he will undergo a psychiatric evaluation. He has been charged with "destruction and damage by fire" and could face up to ten years in prison and $175,000 in fines.

Pending Legislation in Scotland and Malta Threatens Fundamental Rights

A proposed hate crime bill in Scotland would extend the current hate crime law covering race, to include other "protected characteristics" such as religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity. Christian and secular groups have criticized the bill as too broad and subjective, potentially interfering with freedom of speech and worship.

The bill, in its current form, may have major implications for how Christians -- and others -- are to act in both public and private spheres when it comes to topics of religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity, the newly-protected characteristics under the law. Christian groups have expressed concerns over several aspects of the bill. 

Of particular concern is the law's prohibition on 'stirring up hatred,' which is likely to conflict with fundamental freedoms. To be an offense, the act does not have to be intentional or threatening, it may merely contribute to 'stirring up hatred.' And the law would also apply to private settings, such as homes or churches. An example might be that Christians who speak about biblical truths, such as that Jesus is the only way to God, in a church setting, could be considered 'stirring up hatred' against other religions. Secular groups, writers, artists, journalists, actors, comedians and others have similarly expressed concerns about the harmful potential of the law.

A group opposing the law, Free to Disagree Scotland, has said:

"Free speech is a vital right that should only be limited by the state when it has strong grounds for doing so. It must include the ability for citizens to discuss, criticise, and refute ideas, beliefs and practices in robust terms. This may result in some people being offended, but there is no right not to be offended.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill could criminalise speech merely because it is deemed offensive to certain people. It’s proposed new ‘stirring up hatred’ offenses would curb free speech and have a chilling effect on debate over certain issues."


Proposed Equality Bills in Malta which Former European Commissioner Tonio Borg has called “defective, to the point of being dangerous" are ostensibly aimed at protecting an extensive group of people from discrimination.

They cover areas such as schools, public religious symbols, and services and employment. The bills would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age, religious belief, state of health, and other “protected characteristics.” However, many sectors of society, including educators, professionals, business owners, health workers, parents, faith-based groups, and believers are concerned about the laws' overreach.

Borg criticized "their apparent hostility to faith-based organisations and educational institutions" and noted "there is no provision for conscientious objection, but worse there is no provision for the right of Churches to run their own schools according to their own ethos.”

The implications of the laws are that they could limit or even deny, freedom of religion, expression, and conscience. The bills have been criticized for using vague and subjective terms, such as "victim," "mental harm," "harassment," "cultural value," and "discrimination." Further, the Bills do not include provisions for conscientious objection and reverse the burden of proof to force the accused to prove his or her innocence.

Critics of the current drafts say they give too much weight to subjective interpretation of vague terminology and are overreaching. The bills expand the legal definition of "protected characteristics" to include age, belief, creed or religion, color, ethnic origin, national origin or race, disability, family responsibilities or pregnancy, family or civil status, gender expression or gender identity, genetic features, health status, language, nationality, political opinion, property, sex or sex characteristics, sexual orientation, and social origin.

Among the many concerns raised by critics are:

- Church schools and educators would be limited to transmitting Christian values and ethos only during religious lessons;

- Church schools could be forced to promote gender ideology or other content inconsistent with their faith;

- Interference with parents' rights to choose schools that reflect their convictions and values;

- Public display of religious symbols would be permissible only when they are of "cultural value" as determined by a designated commission;

- Private organizations may be restricted in their administration, property, marketing, and promotion; critics warn that certain images or scenes could be considered offensive, such as a picture of a heterosexual married couple;

- Businesses and professionals may be required to provide goods and services to which they have conscientious objection or risk being sued;

- Freedom of expression could become restricted, as could the possibility to live one’s faith publicly. The definition of harassment is vague and does not include the expression of one’s opinion as exempt. Journalistic freedom in covering events or expressing opinion pieces that discuss any of the protected characteristics could be limited;

- There is no provision for conscientious objection;

- There is no explicit reference to the European Convention of Human Rights to clarify that the law would be secondary to the Convention in cases of conflict;

- The burden of proof in alleged discrimination cases is on the accused; if found guilty of discrimination, the accused could face up to €20,000 in fines or reparation costs.


Destruction of Christian Sites in Europe and Beyond


Recent examples include:
  • August 5: Germany - Christ decapitated on wayside crucifix in Durlangen.
  • August 2: Spain - A large fire caused serious damage during the night of August 2nd inside the Iglesia de San Martín de Plasencia, the oldest in the city, and damaged a valuable altarpiece by the painter Luis de Morales 'El Divino' from the 16th century and which presides over the main nave. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
  • July 31: Nicaragua - Managua Catholic Cathedral Attacked with Firebomb: An unidentified man threw a firebomb into a chapel of Managua’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Friday, severely damaging the chapel and a devotional image of Christ more than three centuries old. “This was a planned act, very calmly planned,” Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua said. “So I want to say it clearly: it is a terrorist act, an act of intimidating the Church in her mission of evangelization.” On August 5th, he reiterated the church’s assertion that the fire was a “savage and terrorist” act and not an "accident" as reported by the National Police.
  • July 28: France - Parishioners discovered graffiti sprayed on the walls of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth in Vaison-la-Romaine. One tag read "vaut mieux une paire de mères qu’un père de merde" ("better a pair of mothers than a shitty father"). On another side of the cathedral, the word "sorcellerie" ("witchcraft") was painted. The vandalism appeared a day after Monsignor Cattenoz, Archbishop of Avignon, wrote an open letter to the deputies and senators of Vaucluse as well as to the local press denouncing the pending bioethics legislation in France.
  • July 14-15: USA - Outdoor statue of Jesus knocked over and beheaded at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, Miami, Florida and a statue of Mary vandalized with red paint in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 
  • July 11: USA - Fire at mission founded by St. Junípero Serra destroyed the roof, pews, and more in San Gabriel, California.
  • July 10: Philippines - Fire Razes Niño de Pandacan Parish Church in Manila: 400-year-old venerated icon of the Child Jesus, locally called the Santo Niño remains missing and the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
  • July 5-6: USA - Parishioners at St. Bernadette Parish in Rockford, Illinois, discovered that a crucifix at a shrine belonging to the parish had been vandalized. 
  • July 4: Germany - An employee who entered the Frensdorf pilgrimage church from the back, noticed heavy smoke and fire in the area of a church pew. A candle on the knee pad in front of the bench had set fire to a nylon rope, then the pad caught fire and the flames spread to the entire bench. The Bamberg criminal police took over the further investigation into the cause of the fire which resulted in 2,000 euros in damage.

Have you heard or read about an incident in Europe negatively affecting Christians or Christian buildings, symbols, or institutions? Have you been assaulted, threatened, or discriminated against because of your Christian faith? Have you been verbally harassed and silenced when stating a Christian position?

Please tell us your story or send us a link. You can email us here, or click REPORT A CASE on our website.

Observatory in the news: view recent articles quoting the Observatory here.

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