Police have confirmed that a fire in the French church of Notre-Dame de Grâce on Easter Sunday appears to have been intentionally set, making it the latest in a string of desecrations of Christian churches in the country.
The fire was started in a large, wooden confessional around 4:30pm and proceeded to consume a dais in the presbytery of the eighteenth-century church located in the southern French town of Eyguières, near Provence.
“Flames several meters high were coming out of the church,” said the mayor of Eyguières, Henri Pons, before a team of 30 firefighters with six vehicles arrived and managed to contain the blaze.
An area of some 20 square meters in the church was destroyed but observers have noted that the damage would have been far worse had it not been it not for the bold intervention of a local inhabitant.
A man who lives in front of the church saw the flames emerging from a stained-glass window, the mayor said. He “used fire extinguishers from the village movie theater and courageously entered the church while waiting for firefighters to arrive.”
“If this brave citizen, a former top sportsman, had not intervened, the church would probably have burned to the ground,” the mayor reported. “It was Easter Sunday and there was almost nobody in the village.”
The local hero, a judo champion by the name of Joel Jouve, said afterward that the air in the church was “unbreathable” and there was very little light when he entered, but he was able to find two holy water fonts, which he emptied onto the fire.
“I shouted for someone to find me fire extinguishers and I used them on the fire,” he said, adding he was just happy to have “saved something.”
According to the local parish priest, the Catholic community is still in shock.
“After Notre-Dame in Paris and especially the attacks in Sri Lanka, this fire moved the faithful who were preparing to celebrate the joy of Easter,” said Father Christophe Nowak. “They are in shock and messages of support have been arriving.”
“It is an ordeal but life must go on,” the priest said.
An investigation has been opened to determine the causes of the fire, enlisting the assistance of experts from the Gendarmerie Scientifique. Investigators are treating the blaze as arson.
A dozen Catholic churches were desecrated across France over the period of just one week this past March and the recent spate of church profanations has puzzled both police and ecclesiastical leaders.
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