The backdrop of these and other major terrorist incidents have heightened fears that Christians would be more directly targeted.
The April 15 fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame shocked the world as the 19th-century roof and spire were destroyed, though the structure was saved from collapse.
As soon as the fire was reported, social media influencers and others with no presence on the scene spread speculation, rumors and even hoaxes claiming that the fire was an act of terrorism. Anonymous internet accounts as well as right-wing activists, nationalists, and white supremacists used the event to fan anti-Muslim sentiment, NBC News reported in April.
In June investigators said they had been unable to determine the cause and there was no evidence the fire was intentional. They said they would consider the possibility of negligence, including electrical malfunction or a poorly extinguished cigarette, as a cause for the fire.
Vandalism and attacks on Christian churches often appear to lack any organized coordination or shared motives.
Earlier this year, when six churches were set on fire or vandalized in one week, the perpetrators of one incident were two youths. The perpetrator in another was a 35-year-old homeless man.
Of identified perpetrators of anti-Christian attacks, more than 60 percent are minors. Many perpetrators “appear to be disaffected young people, or the psychologically disturbed or homeless, rather than members of organized groups advancing a political agenda,” Bernstein said.
“Virtually none of the reported attacks have been against people; they are all against buildings, cemeteries or other physical objects,” he added.
About 60% of vandalism incidents involved graffiti like satanic inscriptions, anarchist symbols, swastikas, or nationalist or neo-Nazi slogans. In Bernstein’s view, this “would seem to represent a kind of ugly desperate social fringe than a general growth of anti-Christian hatred.”
For Bernstein, the evidence shows attacks by Muslims “account for a small fraction of anti-Christian crimes.”
The French government itself downplays anti-Christian actions for fear of stoking anti-Muslim reaction and retaliation, though there have not been any known incidents of retaliation.
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While some commentators wonder why attacks on other groups draw more attention than attacks on Christians, Bernstein attributes this to the relative historical security of Catholics, especially in comparisons to Jews who were persecuted by French collaborators with Nazis in the Second World War.
Philosopher and cultural commentator Pierre Manent suggested that many churches are targets of opportunity, telling Bernstein, “This vandalism is drawn to Christian sites because they're less defended and present little risk, and there are a lot of them.”
Church attendance has declined and the scandals about sexual abuse of young people and children by clergy make the Church “seem a weak and easy target,” Bernstein said.
Jean-Francois Colosimo, a historian and theologian who is general director of the Editions du Cerf publishing house, said it is not “Christianophobia” but “a loss of the sense of the sacred” that is to blame.
Bernstein’s essay cited an attack in the southwest France town of Lauvar. Two teenage boys sneaked into the town’s 700-year-old Cathedral of St. Alain, set the altar on fire, turned a crucifix upside down, threw another crucifix into the nearby river, and deformed a statue of Christ.
Mayor of Lauvar Bernard Carayon told Bernstein the attack was far different than misbehavior like bathroom graffiti. He blamed “Christianophobia.”