In November 2021 the league noted the “surge” in attacks against churches followed initial reports starting in May 2021 of possible unmarked graves on the property of former residential schools for indigenous Canadians, which were run by Catholic and Protestant entities under the supervision of the federal government.
The preliminary claims about the graves rely on the analysis of ground penetrating radar findings and have yet to be confirmed by exhumation and other analysis. It is also possible that the graves are from community graveyards and include remains of non-students and non-indigenous peoples of the area, including residential school staff and their families.
Sarah Beaulieu, the anthropologist who performed the initial radar testing near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, in July 2021 characterized the 215 radar signatures as “probable burials” and “targets of interest.” The use of ground detecting radar at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan was reported to have found 751 graves.
News reports erroneously depicted the possible graves as “mass graves” and often failed to clarify that the findings had not been confirmed. The reports appeared to have inspired church burnings and other vandalism.
“There have been no indications that these attacks have been carried out by indigenous people and indigenous leaders were quick to condemn these acts of violence,” the Catholic Civil Rights League said in November. “Indeed, there were churches burned down on indigenous land and those serving indigenous Catholic communities.”
For decades, Catholic leaders, indigenous Canadians, and others have sought to address the legacy of Catholic organizations and institutions’ historic involvement in the residential schools, which sought forcibly to assimilate indigenous Canadians.
The final report on the residential schools from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in 2015 that the system was part of a policy of “cultural genocide.”
Some of the schools date to the 1870s. Attendance tended to be compulsory and children were often removed far from their families. The federal government provided poor oversight and few resources, while the schools themselves provided substandard education and negligent housing and care for their boarded students.
An estimated 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of disease, injury, neglect, or abuse over the decades. Tuberculosis was a major killer, as was influenza. The children disproportionately died from disease compared to non-indigenous Canadians.
Pope Francis apologized for the abuses at the residential schools in his visit to Canada last month.
Catholic leaders in other countries have voiced concern about an increase in crimes against churches.
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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has counted at least 157 criminal incidents at Catholic churches in 37 states and the District of Columbia since May 2020. These include incidents of arson, the beheading of statues, vandalism with anti-Catholic language, and the defacing of headstones. Several of the vandalism incidents in the U.S. referred to the controversy over the residential schools in Canada.
In February 2022, French authorities said provisional figures indicated more than 800 anti-Christian incidents were reported in the country the previous year. France’s Interior Ministry recorded 996 anti-Christian acts in 2019, an average of 2.7 per day.
In France, vandalism and attacks on Christian churches often appear to lack any organized coordination or shared ideological motives. Many perpetrators appear to be disaffected young people, the psychologically disturbed or the homeless. Religious sites also suffer from neglect and a lack of maintenance by public authorities, who own France’s religious buildings under a 1905 law.
Nonetheless, there have been several high-profile terrorist incidents, including the 2016 murder of Father Jacques Hamel as he celebrated Mass at a Normandy church. His attackers were men aligned with the Islamic State.