In 2019, two friends launched a movement to protect churches across France in response to a wave of desecrations. 

The friends -- identified by their first names, Gauthier and Guillaume -- decided to act after reading about the hundreds of attacks taking place annually against French churches. The incidents ranged from graffiti to the desecration of tabernacles. 

Their idea was simple: instead of merely lamenting the attacks, they would take practical action. They decided to hold peaceful nighttime vigils outside churches, together with other young people, to deter potential aggressors. 

The organization they founded, Protège ton église (Protect Your Church), spread quickly across France. Soon there were sections in Paris, Nantes, Nice, and other cities dotted around the country

Protège ton église did not respond to a request from CNA for comment. But in a May 2019 interview with the blog Le Salon Beige, Gauthier said: "The watchers are mostly between 18 and 30 and this promotes a fraternal and very enjoyable atmosphere within the groups. This youthful atmosphere also encourages openness because passers-by are intrigued and ask the watchers questions during the rounds." 

"We have both committed students and young working people, married or engaged. We insist on the need to have people with balanced, mature, and reasonable lives. The group is mainly made up of Catholics, but there are also people from other backgrounds who are eager to 'feel useful,' to defend a just and noble cause."

Activities are organized mainly through Facebook. Protège ton église publishes photos of vigils on its page. The organization is careful not to identify participants, asking them to publish photos with their backs to the camera. Leaders only identify themselves in public by their first names. They take these precautions to avoid aggressive online attention or confrontations with would-be vandals. 

"The point is, first and foremost, to demonstrate that anti-Christian acts do not leave us indifferent and that France is capable of protecting its heritage and its roots," Gauthier said in the 2019 interview, which was translated into English by the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe in Vienna.

"For Catholics, it goes even further, because a church is where the tabernacle is located -- that is, the real presence of God who sacrificed himself for man's salvation."

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Protège ton Eglise shares information about its activities with the Paris-based l'Observatoire de la christianophobie (Observatory of Christianophobia), which meticulously documents anti-Christian acts in France. 

Guillaume de Thieulloy, the Observatory's founder, told CNA: "We have no institutional link with Protège ton Eglise, but we gladly relay their actions."

"As for the impact of their action, I would say that it is mainly symbolic (in the sense that they are too few in number to physically protect the 40,000 or so churches in France), but their action helps to awaken consciences and alert people to the threats to Christian places of worship -- all the more so as they have a certain audience, especially on social networks."

He continued: "It is quite striking that young people form a good part of the active Catholics in France (this is particularly evident in the pro-life demonstrations, but also in the support for persecuted Christians)."

"The generation of people who were 20 years old at the time of the [Second Vatican] Council tended more towards 'burying one's faith,' as they used to say at the time. This is no longer the case: young priests are more willing to wear the cassock and young lay people assume their Catholic identity more easily."

De Thieulloy noted that Protège ton église had not received much mainstream media coverage in France. He said the group was more likely to reach supporters through appearances on the web television platform TV Libertés or on the website of l'Observatoire de la christianophobie, rather than through interviews on a French public national television channel.

Protège ton église welcomes new members, but encourages those who are unable to attend vigils to join in through prayer.

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"We ask Catholics to pray for us," Gauthier said in the 2019 interview, "for our action, for our movement, for all our watchers, but also for all those who are the source of vandalism or desecration because, as Our Lord Jesus Christ said to his Divine Father: 'They know not what they do.'"

"We must pray for their souls and their conversion. And we must pray more for France by asking St. Louis and St. Joan of Arc to intercede for it."

The organization has a patron saint: Blessed Noël Pinot, who was arrested while celebrating a clandestine Mass in 1794, following the French Revolution. When he was guillotined, he was wearing the vestments he wore at the Mass. Eyewitnesses said that while waiting to ascend the steps, he recited the opening words from the Mass, "Introibo ad altare Dei" (I will go unto the altar of God).

A seminarian who has taken part in Protège ton église vigils composed a prayer in honor of the Blessed. 

It reads: "God, our Father, You who have crowned Blessed Noël Pinot with the laurels of martyrdom, we pray to you:  Give us the grace to respond every day and until our death to the call you have made to us to protect your Church. Through his intercession, inspire us with the right words and actions."

"Enlighten and strengthen us, make us, like our patron saint, invincible in the defense of the Church and the propagation of the faith. Deign to grant your forgiveness to those who, ignorant of you, hate you and attack your Bride."

"God, our Father, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, we ask you to hasten the day where the Church will proclaim the holiness of her life. 'Lord who has given your life for me, may I gladly give you mine.'"