Vandalism of worship places damages Basque city’s secular image
The Jewish cemetery in Bayonne was vandalized earlier this month.
The message posted on the door of the Saint-Esprit church in Bayonne in the southwest of France was laconic: “Following a fire, church closed (until further notice.)”
The church, a heritage monument, is the latest target of a wave of anti-religious acts plaguing the Basque city and its surroundings.
In Bayonne, religious properties of Muslims, Jews and Christians have been targeted since October 2019.
There is a pattern in the attack on holy places, confirmed Jean-René Etchegaray, mayor of Bayonne. “This is not a religious war, but a war against religion,” Etchegaray said.
“This worries me because Bayonne is a city of religious tolerance, where historically Israelites have always had their place,” said the mayor, who is a distant cousin of the late French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray.
The city’s Jewish cemetery is wedged between a petrol station and a water tower and is surrounded by a high wall. It remains locked.
On the other side of the road, a Catholic church has its cemetery, with its gates wide open. The crosses of the tombs seem more decorative than protective.
However, it was the Jewish cemetery that the thugs targeted in the beginning of this month.
At the town centre, a stone’s throw away from Mayor Etchegaray’s office, the ecumenical group of Bayonne had gathered for a meeting at the Protestant assembly hall.
“In Bayonne, the situation used to be calm. But now it’s getting worse,” a Protestant woman said.
“I am revolted, full of sadness and anger,” said a Catholic with a Basque beret on his head.
“The less people believe in God, the more they are against Him,” he said.
Members of an interreligious group that holds an annual “peace vigil” also seemed to be at a loss.
“What else can we do but show our disapproval each time?” they ask.
No one is forthcoming with an explanation.
Bayonne is not a bad place, said Father Michel Garat, parish priest of Saint Vincent de Paul parish and president of an interreligious group.
His ministry is located among low-rent housing blocks, where drug trafficking takes place in the open.
Opposite there is the café “Le Saint-Pierre”, run by a Muslim.
Father Garat pointed out to a “worrying social trend” throughout the country, linked to a “decline in secular thinking”.
“In recent years, some people have started to think that all religions are violent. Those who are sane stick to their words, others take action,” he said.
Vandalism is not limited to Bayonne.
In Pau, which is in Béarn, nine statues of the Virgin Mary were targeted.
“Is it the act of the evil spirit?” asked Father Jean-Jacques Dufau, a town center parish priest.
“Are the values symbolized by Mother Mary – purity, tenderness and motherhood – being targeted?” he asked.
“We will never know how many prayers were addressed to Mary in front of these statues,” he noted.
Looting in the Cathedral
About 30 kilometers away, in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, Father Jean-Marie Barennes has similar worries.
In November, the town’s cathedral was looted after breaking open the door.
“Some ornaments were stolen,” Father Barennes said sadly.
More than the loss of ancient objects, the priest noted the emotion of the inhabitants for whom the cathedral “is linked to the great moments of life”.
After the robbery, the residents sought to install lights in front of the 14th century building.
“Sainte-Marie Cathedral is our Eiffel Tower,” some people told him.
In Bayonne, Father Garat is planning a thanksgiving Mass.
In Pau, Father Dufau wants to “honour” the suffering of the faithful.
Despite many attempts, representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities of Bayonne refused to respond to interview requests from La Croix.