Kathy Sheridan: Victimhood of some Christians is not what the world needs
Declan Ganley’s response to Notre Dame fire was in stark contrast to the unity elsewhere
The steeple of Notre-Dame cathedral collapses as the cathedral is engulfed in flames. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images
While Notre Dame was burning and people of all faiths and none stared in sorrow and disbelief, a different undertow was rippling through social media. “You Christian hating media bastards, you know who you are. Catholic churches were being burned for weeks all over France and people like me were trying to get you to report it but no,” businessman Declan Ganley tweeted. “This [Notre Dame fire] was deliberate, the culmination of Church burning that’s been underway and disgustingly underreported.”
The furiously accusatory message was starkly at odds with the universal sadness. At that very early stage, the tone of mainstream news and commentary was notably careful, recording merely that renovation work had been ongoing in the ancient, age-dried timber roof. Into that delicate juncture fell Ganley’s raging, evidence-free tweets.
But leaving Notre Dame aside, was it possible that Ganley had a wider point? If similar devastating church fires were being ignored by an aggressively secular media in a European Union country, there were surely questions to answer. A month earlier, he had tweeted a report about a fire in the Church of Saint-Sulpice – the second largest in Paris – which police believed to be arson.
He made it clear that he was not blaming Muslims – he suspected “a different set of motivations” for the Notre Dame fire – but there were plenty of others to fuel the anti-Muslim conspiracies “cascading from fringe message boards and social media to far-right websites and cable news”, in the words of BuzzFeed News. Among them were fake Fox News and CNN twitter accounts harnessed to “confirm” that the fire had been caused by terrorists and to attribute a fake quote – “They reap what they sow” – to a Muslim US Congresswoman.
A Tennessee politician who tweeted that a “Jesuit friend” of his had heard from Notre Dame staff that the fire was intentional deleted the tweet roughly 10 minutes later when he realised it was wrong. The conspiracy-mongering website, Infowars, used the tweet anyway as the sole basis for a story headlined “Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Fire, Worker Claims It Was ‘Deliberately’ Started.”
Another narrative in play over those hours – that the Notre Dame fire was connected to other churches that had been reportedly “destroyed” across France – was investigated by the fact-checkers at Snopes. A map shared by the Facebook page 1776TV.com from the Christianphobie.fr website – dedicated to tracking acts of “Christianophobia” – supposedly showed hundreds of churches “destroyed” in France over several years. Snopes found that while the map does document some relatively serious crimes, such as arson or the toppling of church statues, many of the locations correspond to graffiti-related incidents. In one case, a person had interrupted a church service.
There was no evidence of mass church-burning.
The rush to judgment among a certain cohort of Christians sits poorly in a world where unity of purpose was never more necessary
Certainly for civilised people, some of the detail is shocking: sacred hosts scattered, walls daubed with excrement, statues smashed at Lavaur cathedral and an altar cloth set on fire, vandalism of the organ at the venerable Saint-Denis basilica outside Paris.
In February, five incidents of vandalism in French churches in a single week prompted relatively widespread media attention, including a tweet from the French prime minister that “such acts are shocking to me and must be universally condemned”.
In fact, five in a week was lower than average. For comparison purposes, the interior ministry tallied incidents and found that in 2018 there had been 1,063 anti-Christian acts (some 700 related to property crimes and 100 related to violent acts), 541 anti-Semitic acts (81 related to violence, 102 to property crimes), and 100 anti-Muslim acts.
So is Christianophobia on the rise? The ministry believes that churches are targeted more frequently than other places of worship simply because France has more of them – 42,258 of them. And sadly, many churches are easy prey, open to the public with their saleable contents and lacking effective security.
It’s true also that these outbreaks may “reflect the social unrest presently permeating France”, in the words of the Catholic Herald. The pastor of Saint-Sulpice does not believe the fire – which damaged a door and window – was an anti-religious attack; police have hinted that it might have been caused by homeless people setting old clothes ablaze. In the case of Lavaur cathedral, two teenagers were arrested for causing damage.
Rush to judgment
None of this makes the vandalism any less shocking, of course. But the air of victimhood and rush to judgment among a certain cohort of Christians sit poorly in a world where a generous, public-spirited unity of purpose was never more necessary.
French bishops themselves have attempted to downplay the church vandalism, pointing out that their problems are less pressing than those of French Jews facing an upsurge of anti-Semitism in recent times.
Across Sri Lanka, ordinary Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians queued to donate blood while wrestling with the news that the bombers were probably home-grown.
The funeral of Lyra McKee today, the celebration of her remarkable life and the heroic pushback against all those associated with her death should serve to remind us on our own divided island that it is when we are at our lowest ebb that we find our common humanity.