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After Charlie Hebdo, Could European Churches Be Next?


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

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

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