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Arson Attacks on Churches Rising in Canada

Articles | January 18, 2024 | by Catholics for Catholics

By Joe Burkas of Catholic News Agency

Arson attacks against churches in Canada are on the rise, according to a Canadian news outlet, which reported that since May 2021, 33 churches in Canada have been burned down to the ground. 

The outlet, CBC News, reported that 24 of those devastating fires were intentionally set, while two were determined to be accidental. The rest were ruled to be suspicious or are currently under investigation. 

That number represents a marked increase in the number of churches destroyed by fire. Between Jan. 1, 2019, and May 2021, 14 churches in Canada burned down, according to the outlet’s review of police and court records along with media reports.

Unsubstantiated reports of ‘mass graves’ 

The new data comes on the heels of dozens of attacks on Catholic churches in Canada over the past few years following several unsubstantiated reports in early 2021 of “mass graves” found at former Catholic and Christian residential schools for Indigenous children.

More than 150,000 children attended the government-funded schools, the last of which closed in 1997. Some children died at these schools from sickness and many were likely buried at cemeteries near or on school property, according to anthropologist Scott Hamilton’s 2015 report on the burial of residential school children. 

Some of those burial sites are still maintained, while others have decayed, and lack of documentation has made them difficult to identify, according to the report. The 2021 reports that circulated about the burial grounds drew attention to the experience of the Canadian Indigenous community in part because of the testimony of many former students who said they had experienced abuse at the schools.

A 2015 report on the schools, commissioned by the Canadian government, included the testimony of former students who said they were sexually and physically abused at the schools. That report also says that the schools were created to separate Indigenous children from their families in order to “indoctrinate” them “into a new culture.”

The Canadian Catholic bishops have paid out millions of dollars to survivors of abuse and have issued public apologies for the Church’s role in the abuse in the schools.

Thirteen of the church fires occurred in small or rural towns, while 14 took place in churches located on reservations and Indigenous people’s territories known as First Nations’ land.

Catholic churches affected

Approximately 50% of the fires affected Catholic churches, while the rest were in churches of other denominations such as Anglican, evangelical, and United.

Arrests have been made in just nine of the church fires since 2021, the outlet reported, adding that police say no motive has been determined in the attacks.

In May 2023, a historic 121-year-old Catholic church in Northern Alberta burned to the ground, The B.C. Catholic reported.

The archbishop of Grouard-McLennan, Gérard Pettipas, said that St. Bernard’s Church was “irreparably destroyed” and the arson marked “a sad moment for the many people who have fond memories of this church.”

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Catholic Church burned to the ground in August 2022 in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, Global News reported. Two men were charged with arson following the fire.

On June 28, 2021, in the province of Alberta, a fire was extinguished in the early morning hours at the Siksika Nation Catholic Church, which police said they believed was set deliberately.

Two other Catholic churches in the same region of British Columbia, Sacred Heart Mission at Penticton Indian Band and St. Gregory Mission at Osoyoos Indian Band, burned down in June 2021.

“For many years, our priests have been welcomed to minister in these mission churches, and it is our hope that this ministry will continue. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by the fires and we are grateful that no one died or was physically injured,” Nelson Bishop Gregory Bittman said following those two fires.

While the CBC News report recorded 33 churches that burned to the ground, many more churches have been victimized by attacks.

According to the Canadian website True North, 96 Christian churches in the country have been vandalized, burned, or desecrated since May 2021, when it was first announced mass graves were found at residential schools.

Some Indigenous leaders spoke out against the vandalism and arson early on. 

In 2021 a fire destroyed the Sacred Heart Mission at Penticton Indian Band and St. Gregory Mission at Osoyoos Indian Band.

The Penticton Indian Band said in a statement: “We, along with the Osoyoos Indian Band, who also lost their church (Oliver area) are in disbelief and anger over these occurrences as these places of worship provided service to members who sought comfort and solace in the church.”

The statement said that while it is “not our place to say who to worship,” the Sacred Heart church building played an important role in the community. “Since 1911 some of our community’s first memories are of us gathering in that church,” the statement said.

For the original Catholic News Agency article, click here.

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