There was no sign of a break-in. One of the fires could be linked to an “electric counter,” and investigators consider a short circuit to be another possible cause, the French newspaper Le Parisien reports.
The detained man, a refugee from Rwanda, was not named. Quentin Chabert, his lawyer, said there is “nothing at this stage to link my client to the fire.” He said the investigation must proceed “with respect for everyone’s rights and in particular those of my client.”
A cathedral staffer strongly rejected the possibility the man was linked to the fire.
"I don’t believe for a second that he could have set the cathedral on fire. It’s a place he adores,” Jean-Charles Nowak, a clerk at the cathedral, told the French newspaper Le Figaro.
Nowak described the detained volunteer as “a man of duty.” He had left Rwanda several years ago, where he “suffered a lot.” The volunteer, who has health problems, has been in discussions with local officials about extending his visa.
Fire Chief Laurent Ferlay told French television station BFM July 18 the damage to the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul of Nantes “is concentrated on the organ, which seems to be completely destroyed. Its platform is very unstable and could collapse.”
He said the fire was not as severe as that which struck the Cathedral of Notre Dame 15 months ago and the damage is less extensive.
French president Emmanuel Macron on Saturday praised the work of firefighters on Twitter. “Support to our firefighters who take all risks to save this Gothic gem of the city of the Dukes,” he said, using a common honorific name for Nantes.
The Nantes cathedral was damaged by Allied bombing in 1944. The roof of the Gothic-style cathedral was previously destroyed in a large fire in 1971, after which the cathedral received an extensive restoration.
The Diocese of Nantes said July 18 the cathedral is “an architectural masterpiece” and “above all the mother church of the diocese.”
Vandalism and attacks on Christian churches in France have shocked Catholics, and prompted fears of deliberate conspiracy to intimidate and destroy, but crimes of that nature in France have not been shown to be the result of any coordinated campaign or, even of shared motives.
American journalist and author Richard Bernstein reflected on attacks and vandalism of French churches in a July 2019 essay for RealClearInvestigations titled “Anti-Christian Attacks in France Quietly Quadrupled. Why?”
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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.
The Conference of French Bishops said there were 228 “violent anti-Christian acts” from January to March 2019.
In 2018, French police reported 129 thefts and 877 incidents of vandalism at Catholic sites, mostly churches and cemeteries. Such attacks quadrupled in number from 2008 to 2019.
While France has suffered more such attacks than any other country in Europe, numbers have increased across Europe.
Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, head of the French bishops’ conference, speaking to the magazine Le Point, warned against developing “a discourse of persecution.”
While some commentators say anti-Christian sentiment drives the attacks, others say a “loss of the sense of the sacred” is to blame, Bernstein reported.