On April 15th fire rapidly spread from its origins in the attic of the iconic 850-year-old Notre Dame Catholic Cathedral in Paris, France, where restoration work was underway. The fire occurred on the first day of Holy Week celebrations leading to Easter, the main Christian holiday. The Paris prosecutor's office said it is treating the fire as an accident for the time being, ruling out arson and possible terror-related motives, at least for now.
Thousands stood on the banks of the Seine river and in the plaza of the nearby Hôtel de Ville watching in quiet horror, gasping and covering their mouths while wiping away tears, as the fire tore through the cathedral. Until the early morning hours, when the fire was finally declared out, onlookers sang Ave Maria and other hymns as some kneeled and prayed.
The cathedral closes at 18:45 and the fire started 5 or 6 minutes afterwards. French news LCI said two fires were reported. Early testimonies say the fire took in the attic, at the base of the spire that surmounts the transept of the cathedral. The spire, which stands 93 meters high and is made of 500 tons of wood and 250 tons of lead, collapsed with the ceiling. The highest part of the cathedral stands at 295 feet, which made it difficult for firefighters to get high enough to spray water directly at the fire. Adding to the difficulty, a strong westward wind blew, causing the intense core of the fire to blow onto one of the two bell towers – that fire was quickly put out. 400 firefighters were dispatched to save the symbol of Christianity’s beauty and history. No one was killed but a firefighter received serious injury. An eyewitness commented that at one point early on, the smoke was coloured green and yellow.
The Notre Dame is more than a Catholic cathedral, it is one of the world’s greatest pieces of art and architecture that informs European and western culture and heritage. It is a Unesco World Heritage site. Generations upon generations built the Notre Dame over 200 years, beginning in 1180 and completed in 1260. It is a jewel of medieval Gothic architecture that has survived war, weather, and changing trends. It survived the loss of its spire once before, in 1786, after the spire’s supporting structure was so weakened by centuries of weathering that restorers removed and replaced it. Notre Dame witnessed the crowning of Emperor Napoleon. It survived riots from the Huguenots, the French Revolution, and World War II. Pierre Guillaume Bonnet, a 45-year-old marketing director, said, ‘‘It’s really kind of scary. France is not doing very well and it is these symbols we are losing. I am afraid this is a bad sign.”
After many hours, Paris fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet told reporters outside the cathedral, "We can consider that the main structure of Notre-Dame has been saved and preserved." Nearly all artwork and relics, including the Crown of thorns and the tunic of St. Louis, were removed and saved, and the next day showed that the Rose stained glass window had been spared. Many irreplaceable and invaluable items had been removed days earlier, including statues that adorn the rooftop. Photos from the next day showed the restoration scaffolding still largely intact. The fire was fully extinguished Tuesday morning, but the extent of the damage and expected cost of repairs remain unclear. The interior has been largely preserved though there is extensive damage from the water and the spire’s collapse inside the church.
Accident or Arson?
Though mainstream news outlets were quick to report that arson had been conclusively ruled out, which was impossible to know while the blaze burned, the cause of the fire remains undetermined. Independent freelance journalist Sotiri Dimpinoudis spoke with a firefighter who said it was impossible for the fire to spread so fast due to electrical equipment or wires in the wooden space, which were prohibited for fear of sparks. The firefighter said regulations were strictly and always followed by the company, where electrical wires from the construction crew were guided on the side of the building or the cranes whenever used, and these were not in contact with the wooden space. He said the fire could be “sabotage". The Police Nationale’s criminal investigation team will now interrogate more then 200 workers who worked at the renovation site and those who were fired from the company. A firefighter who put out the arson fire last month at the Saint Sulpice church said, "there was a odd smell in the air at the time of the fire" at Notre Dame.
Cathedral staff have reportedly told people they know that the fire was intentional. For example, TIME columnist Christopher J. Hale tweeted, “A Jesuit friend in Paris who works in #NotreDame told me cathedral staff said the fire was intentionally set.” Mr. Hale deleted the tweet within minutes after it attracted attention.
On Tuesday, TVE television news showed footage of a man dressed in what could be described as Islamic dress with a long dark beard, carrying what appeared to be a dark bag, walking on the balcony of one of the two towers shortly after the start of the fire. The individual is clearly not a firefighter or clergyman and French authorities said no workers were present on site that day. Another photo from the public at a further distance shows someone standing on top of the roof as it begins to burn.
The fire occurred exactly one month after the Christchurch, New Zealand terror attack. Terror intelligence researchers at SITE reported that Jihadists celebrated the inferno, calling it “retribution and punishment.” According to the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, the ISIS affiliated Al-Muntasir media organisation published a poster online of the Notre Dame ablaze with the word “Its construction began in the year 1163 and ended in 1345. It's time to say goodbye to your oratory polytheism” and accompanied by “Have a good day”. Al-Munatsir has previously shared propaganda rejoicing in Islamic attacks that have terrorized France.
Photos circulated on social media of people of Arabic descent smiling in the crowd outside of the cathedral, along with an April 13 Facebook post written by a ‘Dennis Arends’ that claimed, "Three days from now, The Notre Dame church in France will burn up in flames." Under Facebook videos of Notre Dame burning were hundreds of happy comments and ‘laughing’ face emoticons posted by Arabic names.
In 2016, three young Jihadi women were involved in a foiled plot to blow up a car packed with gas cannisters near the Notre Dame. One of them, Ines Madani, was sentenced yesterday to eight years in prison by a French court following a three-day trial during which she was accused of encouraging would-be jihadists to go to Syria and participate in attacks against France between March 2015 and June 2016. Ms. Madani’s trial for trying to set fire to the car filled with six gas cylinders near Notre Dame will begin on September 23.
Increasing Attacks on Churches
In 2018, 475 Christian churches were vandalized, desecrated, and partially burned across France, and over 20 churches in the past four months alone. Vandals have smashed statues, knocked down tabernacles, scattered or destroyed the Eucharist, and torn down crosses, signalling the rise of anti-Catholic sentiment in the country. Attacks against Jewish symbols have also risen by 74 percent.
Last Sunday, the historic Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris was set on fire just after midday mass on Sunday. Police are still investigating the attack, which firefighters have confidently attributed to arson. Built in the 17th century, Saint Sulpice houses three works by the Romantic painter Eugene de la Croix and was used in the movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
11 French churches were attacked in the two weeks that followed the Christchurch, New Zealand terrorist attack. Last month, at the Saint Nicholas Catholic Church in Houilles, in north-central France, a statue of the Virgin Mary was found smashed and the altar cross had been thrown on the ground, according to La Croix International, a Catholic publication. Also in February, at Saint-Alain Cathedral in south-central France, an altar cloth was burned and crosses and statues of saints were smashed. The attack prompted Lavaur Mayor Bernard Canyon to say in a statement, “God will forgive. Not me.”
In the southern city of Nimes, near the Spanish border, vandals looted the altar of the church of Notre-Dame des Enfants (Our Lady of the Children) and smeared a cross with human excrement. Consecrated hosts made from unleavened bread, which Catholics believe to be the body of Jesus Christ, were taken and found scattered among rubbish outside the building. The Tablet reported that in February alone there had been a record 47 documented attacks on churches and religious sites.
The Vienna-based Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, which was founded in cooperation with the Council of European Bishops Conferences (CCEE) but is now independent said there had been a 25 percent increase in attacks on Catholic churches in the first two months of the year, compared with the same time last year.
Executive Director Ellen Fantini said, “I think there is a rising hostility in France against the church and its symbols," and that while France had a long tradition of secularism, it was seen as a culturally Christian country, and so any "attack on the church as a symbol of religion was also an attack on authority and patrimony.” Ms. Fantini added, "The pressure is coming from the radical secularists or anti-religion groups as well as feminist activists who tend to target churches as a symbol of the patriarchy that needs to be dismantled.” According to Ms. Fantini, anti-Christian attacks are being minimized despite representing the largest share of hate crimes.
Rebuilding the Cathedral
Pope Francis tweeted, "Today we unite in prayer with the people of France, as we wait for the sorrow inflicted by the serious damage to be transformed into hope with reconstruction. Holy Mary, Our Lady, pray for us."
FRANCE 24 news reported that when French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to reporters inside the Elysee Palace he announced work will immediately begin to rebuild the Notre Dame "in a way consistent with our modern diverse nation," a comment which is unlikely to go over well with Catholics and those who intend to see the cathedral restored to its original design and use.
Prior to the fire, as one of Europe’s most visited sites with about 12 million tourists a year, the Notre Dame was in dire need of repairs. Centuries of weather had worn the stone and fumes from decades of traffic gridlock worsened the damage. Under France’s strict secular laws, the government owns the cathedral and the Catholic archdiocese of Paris uses it permanently for free. The priests believed the government should pay for repairs since it owned the building, but under the terms of the government’s agreement, the archdiocese is responsible for Notre Dame’s upkeep and the Ministry of Culture gives it about 2 million Euro annually for that purpose. However, staff had said that money covers only basic repairs, far short of what is needed.
French billionaires have now stepped up to fund the restoration and rebuild of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, which is nearing 1 billion Euros in donations. Bernard Arnault, the richest person in France and third-richest in the world who owns the French luxury conglomerate LVMH, pledged 200 million Euros. François-Henri Pinault and his son William, who own the luxury group Kering and brands including Gucci and Alexander McQueen, will give 100 million Euros. The Bettencourt Meyers family owns the cosmetics company L'Oréal and is the second-richest family in France, pledging 200 million Euros. French oil giant Total pledged 100 million Euros. Crédit Agricole, one of France's biggest banks, pledged 5 million Euros. The New York-based French Heritage Society has also launched a restoration fund for Notre-Dame.
French wood supply companies have announced they will supply and donate Oak trees to rebuild the attic structure, saying they want the cathedral to be rebuilt quickly.
An eyewitness of the fire told reporters that she was at a café later in the day and overheard a group of people who were unconcerned with the cathedral’s destruction because it was “just an old building” and “France is secular, anyway.” This point of view is likely held in the minority, but perhaps an event as tragic as this serves to be transformative for our collective psyche, reminding us of the value that our culture, history, and heritage holds - and the central role Christianity plays in it - before it’s too late.