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After Charlie Hebdo, Could European Churches Be Next?

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Philip Jenkins - published on 01/09/15

It doesn't take a prophet to foresee the threat to Christian Europe.

Yet again, a hideous terror attack forces Europeans to confront basic political and cultural realities. The massacre at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo raises fundamental and troubling questions about free speech, and the delicate balance between civil rights and effective policing. But for Christians, and for Catholics specifically, current terrorist dangers should be forcing a very serious consideration of quite different issues. Looking at contemporary Europe, we should take account of one grim event that has not occurred yet, but that almost certainly will within the next few years. Unless political circumstances change radically, there will soon be a major attack on an iconic symbol of European Christianity.

To assert this demands no gifts of prophecy. For years, the most extreme segments of radical Islamism have uttered direct threats against Christian belief and practice, and it is immaterial whether their actions are in conflict with tolerant interpretations of Islamic tradition. Radical groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS condemn modern Christians as idolaters who fall outside the Qur’an’s promises of protection. To strike at Christian churches is to fight idolatry and infidels.

Terrorist groups have already targeted Christian individuals and institutions, with a view to achieving the maximum shock effect. In 1995, an Arab group based in the Philippines planned to assassinate Pope John Paul II on his visit to that nation, as a means of distracting attention from a related plot against U.S. airliners. (Though a Turk actually did shoot the same pope in 1981, he was not acting on behalf of Islamist causes.) When Pope Benedict made his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006, extremist Muslim groups organized protests outside Westminster Cathedral, England’s pre-eminent Catholic church, while a spokesman warned that execution awaited anyone who insulted Islam.

Cathedrals and great churches have featured among the aborted list of targets planned by Islamist cells. Such thwarted attacks were directed at Strasburg and Cremona cathedrals, and al-Qaeda made threats against the great cathedral of Bologna. A medieval fresco of the Last Judgment in that last building depicts the Prophet Muhammad being thrown into Hell, naked, with a snake wrapped around his body, and attended by a demon. Italian Muslim activists have frequently protested against this work. Scarcely less sensitive is the pilgrim shrine of Santiago of Compostela, given its dedication to Saint James the Moor-Slayer, Santiago Matamoros. Although they do not specifically offend Islamic sentiment, other high-profile Christian buildings would attract terrorist violence because of their enormous symbolic value.

Recent events in the Middle East make attacks on churches far more likely. Over the past decade, extremists across the region have deliberately targeted Christian buildings and communities for destruction, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Mob attacks against churches in Egypt in 2013 were the worst and most widespread in that country since 1321. Iraq has repeatedly been the scene of massacres of Christian clergy and worshipers, commonly during major celebrations like Christmas. Around the world, in fact, Christmas is a uniquely dangerous time for churches in lands like Nigeria or Kenya, when suicide attacks are most feared. Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the main perpetrators of such tactics, both have a potent presence on European soil.

European security officials are of course acutely aware of these dangers. Witness the security checks for anyone seeking to enter Rome’s St. Peter’s Square. But by definition, churches and church services have to be open to the public. For terrorist planners, they represent low-hanging fruit.


As an intellectual exercise, we should think through the consequences of such acts. What would be the cultural or political effect of an attack that devastated a cherished building such as Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame, Santiago de Compostela or the Duomo of Florence, or St. Peter’s in Rome itself? Or what about simultaneous Baghdad-style attacks on Midnight Mass services in two or more European cities?

The immediate response, undoubtedly, would be grief and fury, and Muslim leaders would be among the first to condemn the hypothetical attack, and with utter sincerity. They would declare that the terrorists represented an extreme fringe of the faith, who violated its basic precepts. Church authorities in turn would undoubtedly respond with words of forgiveness and reconciliation, and we would expect mass interfaith gatherings.

It is difficult though to avoid the likelihood of increased religious tension and confrontation. As an attack would result in dramatically increased and militarized security around other churches, it would promote a sense of siege, and encourage a rhetoric of crusade and jihad. The Vatican initially described the London subway attacks of 2005 as “anti-Christian,” but withdrew the comment when it was attacked as inflammatory. In other circumstances though, blatant anti-Christian motives might be impossible to conceal.

Conceivably, we might even imagine old-stock European Christians being galvanized to a new awareness of their culture and heritage, to a newly discovered sense of the Christian history they had always taken for granted. In England, for instance, the old crusader flag of St. George was virtually unknown forty years ago, but is now a standard symbol of national identity. We might also expect enhanced militancy from the Global South immigrants living in Europe, millions of whom are Christian, and whose home countries are the scene of interfaith violence. Might we expect retaliatory violence? Far-right nationalists might themselves adopt Crusader rhetoric and imagery, as they struck at mosques and Islamic centers.

I don’t pretend to predict consequences in any detail. It would, though, be valuable to think through such potential atrocities before they actually occur.

Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor Universityand author ofThe Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.


Tags:
Islamist MilitantsTerrorism
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