For many years now Barnabas Fund has warned that Islamist attacks on churches happen particularly at Easter, Christmas and New Year – with Islamists tending to assume that the latter is a specifically Christian holiday. More recently we have begun to warn that the current spate of attacks on churches in the Middle East and other Muslim majority contexts such as East and West Africa will spread to Western countries.
Over the past year we have seen a wave of attacks on churches in Europe by Islamists, including attempts to burn down several churches in Spain and France and the murder of Father Jacques Hamel while he was conducting worship at his church in northern France. What we are seeing now are two broad types of attacks on churches in the West by Islamists:
Firstly, there are direct attempts to destroy churches and kill Christians. Just before Christmas Australian security forces foiled a terrorist attack on St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. Christians in Melbourne gave a defiant response to the planned attacks with more than 1,500 turning up at the cathedral on Christmas Day. The planned attack appears to have been directly inspired by specific calls from Islamic State in September for such attacks in Melbourne, calls which at the time led Barnabas Fund to issue a warning that churches in the Melbourne area should take extra precautions.
Secondly, other attacks appear to aim at desecration of churches with a particular focus on anything that is perceived to be Christian symbolism. Reports are now emerging of a number of such attacks over the New Year period. The Daily Express reported that a parish centre in the town of Brühl in the German state of Baden Württemberg was described by police as having been left a “picture of devastation” on New Year’s Eve after being smashed up and Islamist slogans scrawled across the walls. In a series of separate incidents on New Year’s Eve in Austria the church in Auerbach in the north-west was also smashed up with 22 paintings and icons stolen and later burnt in nearby woods. Another chapel a few miles away at Brunau am Inn was likewise attacked on the same day. Yet another church at St Radegund in the same region was similarly attacked with prayer books burnt. Meanwhile, the next day, New Year’s Day, in Italy a church was similarly vandalised, with the attacker telling police when he was arrested that he wanted to destroy Christian symbols because he was a Muslim.
The attacks in Germany, Austria and Italy represent a much less organised and lower level of violence than the foiled attack in Australia. However, one of the lessons that the West needs to learn from the persecution of Christians in places such as Iraq and northern Nigeria is that it is progressive. If no effective action is taken against small-scale attacks, they can progress within just a few years to violent attacks that kill Christians. The type of low-level Islamist attacks experienced in Austria have in fact been going on there for several years. As the foiled attack on Melbourne Cathedral demonstrates, it is time for the West to wake up to this threat.
In 2016 we published ‘Pray and Protect’ which contains practical security suggestions for churches and sent out copies to many churches we are in contact with.