Flames engulf St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, Alberta, June 30, 2021, in this still image taken form video obtained from social media. CNS photo/Diane Burrel, social media via Reuters

‘Intolerable’ violence no answer for anger

  • July 14, 2021

With 20 churches across Canada — mostly Catholic — torched by mid-July in the fallout of the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools, the silence from political leaders has been deafening, says Deacon Andrew Bennett.

“We have to recognize that it is never right to burn a place of worship whether it be a church, a mosque, a synagogue — it’s never right,” said Bennett, program director for religious freedom and faith community engagement at the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute. “The anger that some people have about residential schools, and the woundedness that comes with that, is understandable, but the violence is inexcusable and intolerable.”

But it is the lack of voices speaking out against such actions that is more disturbing, he said.

“What is more unacceptable is the relative silence and indifference coming from much of the mainstream media and political leaders.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did condemn the church burnings, adding that anger against the government and the Church was “understandable.”

Matters weren’t helped when the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association tweeted her support for the burning of churches. In a June 30 tweet Harsha Walia wrote “burn it all down,” though she later said her words were taken “out of context.” 

As of July 13, nearly 20 churches across Canada had been set ablaze while dozens of others were vandalized with orange or red paint strewn on the outside of the building or on exterior religious monuments.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver, where a number of the churches are located, issued a July 5 statement calling for “reconciliation, dialogue and atonement” rather than “hatred and violence” in the wake of attacks.

“The right path forward is one of reconciliation, dialogue and atonement with Indigenous people and in following the way they would lead us in that process. It is painful and disturbing to find people in positions of local authority urge mobs toward increasing hatred and violence. Churches are made up of people, and many of them here are made up of Indigenous people, refugees and migrants — the very people we should all seek to protect rather than terrorize.”

Indigenous leaders have also voiced their disgust with the church burnings.

The Canadian Catholic Civil Rights League has released several statements condemning the vandalism, most recently on Canada Day. The league said “we stand with the victims of the residential school program and seek healing and reconciliation,” but “violence and property destruction does not answer those needs.”

The league is working on a database to track incidents of vandalism and hate against Catholic churches in Canada. “It will be completely searchable from our website,” Christian Elia,  the league’s executive director, told The Catholic Register. “You will be able to cross reference it for arson, stolen property, eucharistic desecration, assault.”

Peter Noteboom, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, thinks the database will be a great resource.

“Data is super important,” said Noteboom. “I think we know anti-Black racism has the highest incidences of hate recorded in Canada, and I find the Canada Anti-Hate Network to be an especially valuable location to track anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and if other religious communities are added, like Catholics, on top of that, I think that will be very helpful.”

Bennett is also supportive of the CCRL’s plan.

“It is essential, absolutely essential. Whenever you see violations against religious freedom, and that is what these are, hate attacks, you must document them with as much information as you can gather,” he said. “You need eyewitness reports and photographs, and you need to make it public so that people are aware. You also need to call out inequity in how people treat these types of attacks.”

Bennett calls upon the laity in each community to help in the effort of safeguarding other churches from experiencing vandalism by engaging with local government and media representatives, or by exerting any influence they might have to raise awareness.

(With files from Michael Swan)

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