Attacks on churches in France are back to their "normal" level following a nationwide lockdown, according to an organization led by young Catholics. 

A spokesperson for the group Protège ton église (Protect Your Church) told CNA Sept. 6: "It is clear that the pandemic led to a decrease in attacks against churches, at least during the period of confinement."

The French population was required to remain at home from March 17 to May 11, as the country battled the coronavirus pandemic. 

Protège ton église noted that attacks continued on a smaller scale, even though citizens were only permitted to leave their homes for a limited number of reasons, including exercise and shopping.

"But this lull was only temporary," the organization said. "We deplore a 'return to normal' of this unfortunate trend."

Since 2017, the Paris-based L'Observatoire de la Christianophobie (Observatory of Christianophobia) has recorded anti-Christian incidents in France month by month on interactive maps. The most recent map available, for August 2020, shows 11 incidents, comprising six acts of vandalism and five thefts. The Observatory recorded nine disturbances on its map for August 2019.

Protège ton église highlighted the fire at Nantes Cathedral July 18, which followed the blaze at Notre-Dame de Paris a year earlier. 

"Two cathedrals in two years: this is starting to cost France dear," it said. 

Protège ton église was founded by two friends in 2019 in response to a wave of desecrations of churches across France. The French Interior Ministry recorded 996 anti-Christian acts in 2019 -- an average of almost three per day. 

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Members of the group hold peaceful nighttime vigils outside churches to deter potential aggressors. 

"Our active members are, in fact, mainly young people and those in charge of the association are very young too," the spokesperson said. 

"This is significant in the sense that the youth understood that it could change things, that it carried real weight in the face of the harm that was being done to the heritage that our parents and grandparents knew." 

The spokesperson noted that the group also had older supporters, who contributed through prayer and donations, and by relaying information. 

Since Protège ton église was launched, it has spread to cities across France. Activities are organized mainly through Facebook. The group is careful not to identify its members, asking vigil participants to publish photos with their backs to the camera. Leaders only identify themselves in public by their first names. 

"With our goal being to denounce the extent of Christianophobia in France, we could be victims of reprisals. As a security measure, we ensure this anonymity," the group noted.

Asked what advice Protège ton église would give to Catholics seeking to found similar groups in other countries, the spokesperson said: "First of all, national leaders must be chosen who can stay for a certain number of years in order to have a solid foundation in the project."

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"The rapid launch of the initiative on a network is very beneficial, as it allows you to reach a lot of people and to disseminate information quickly and effectively."

"Then you have to find section leaders, who can change regularly depending on the location of the young people, in order to establish a national network."

The spokesperson emphasized that participants needed to show "great caution" during vigils, for example, by carrying cell phones in case they needed to contact the police. 

New groups should define the scope of their work carefully, the spokesperson suggested, so that the movement does not run out of steam.

In the coming months, members of Protège ton église will work alongside the organization S.O.S. Calvaires. This group, initially active in north-west France, is seeking to expand its work of safeguarding calvaries, oratories and chapels throughout the country.

"We recently broadcast a video of their actions," said the spokesperson. "It is by seeing their work, and the goals we had in mind for the future of Protège ton église, that we launched the idea of this mutually beneficial partnership."

"This will not prevent us from continuing the evening church vigils and covering Christianophobic misdeeds on our [Facebook] page."