While these statistics include buildings belonging to all religious groups, most relate to Catholic monuments, which still represent a large majority in France, where there are approximately 45,000 Catholic places of worship.
“Although Catholic monuments are yet to come, a mosque is erected every two weeks in France, while a Christian building is being destroyed at the same rate,” Lamaze said. “This creates a tipping point in the territory that must be taken into account.”
Lamaze estimates that on average more than two Christian monuments are targeted each day. Two-thirds of these incidents relate to theft, while the remaining third relate to desecration.
According to the most recent figures from France’s central criminal intelligence unit, 877 attacks on Catholic places of worship were recorded across the country in 2018 alone.
“Those numbers have increased fivefold in just 10 years,” Lamaze said, noting that 129 churches were vandalized in 2008.
“At the beginning of the 1970s, writer and journalist Michel de Saint Pierre published a book entitled églises en ruine, Eglise en peril [“Churches in ruin, endangered Church”], in which he has already sounded the alarm. But the situation has increased tenfold, if not a hundred, since.
Currently, 5,000 Catholic buildings are in danger of disappearing.
In addition to the growing hostility to which they are the object, these religious sites also suffer from deep neglect on the part of the public authorities.
This state of affairs is partly explained by the fact that under the 1905 law on the separation of churches and state, the municipalities became owners of French religious buildings. In many cases, they have not been able to cover the costs of maintaining the sites.
“These buildings have not been maintained for over a century, and they have never been the subject of restoration work or protection against theft or fire,” said Lamaze.
He explained that only 15,000 Catholic sites are officially protected as historical monuments, while the other 30,000 buildings are virtually neglected.
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Lamaze argues that another significant and emblematic example of the mismanagement of this heritage is the Abbey of Saint-Ouen, a jewel of Gothic architecture belonging to the city of Rouen in Normandy.
“This abbey church has a ‘forest’ [the church’s distinctive style of roofing] it is even bigger than that of Notre-Dame. It is pure wonder and yet there is no alarm system of any kind.
“He’s another candidate for destruction. Just make you cry!
He continued: “Fires are also on the rise as buildings are increasingly dilapidated, and this neglect also attracts a lot of theft of paintings, statues or gold chalices …”
If French cathedrals enjoy a special status and belong to the state, they have not been spared by the wave of fires that have struck Catholic sites in recent years. The Notre-Dame de Paris fire in 2019 was preceded by a fire at Saint-Alain de Lavaur cathedral in Tarn, southern France, and followed by fires at Rennes and Nantes cathedrals in 2020.
“The current Minister of Culture is seeking to establish a protection charter, but the situation is extremely serious and, unfortunately, I do not see any real awareness, nor any sense of responsibility in the face of this crucial challenge for our national heritage . Lamaze said.