Just days after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, a band of five young immigrants desecrated a statue of the Virgin Mary at the parish of San Barnaba in the Italian city of Perugia, breaking it and urinating on it.
The pastor of the church, Father Alessandro Scarda, said that the vandals broke the statue in two and began “kicking it like a soccer ball,” after which they “urinated on the two pieces, which were later recovered, cleaned and glued.” The statuette has been returned to its grotto, a site where locals often gather in prayer.
When the youths arrived, a man was praying at the foot of the statue, holding the photo of his deceased wife. The assailants ripped the photo from his hand before turning on the statue of the “Madonnina.”
According to eyewitnesses, the act of vandalism was perpetrated by “a small group of people of North African origin,” though the culprits are still at large and have not been identified.
The witness who observed the act of desecration immediately called the police, but when officers arrived the youths had already fled.
The local bishop hastened to disassociate these acts from religiously motivated violence. “We must condemn these acts of vandalism,” he said, “but we will not attribute meaning to them that do not have,” though he also acknowledged other recent “episodes of intolerance towards Christians of our city.”
“We cannot attribute this act of vandalism,” he said, “to religious hatred.” The bishop stressed the importance of not feeding “mutual distrust” between Muslims and Christians. He also suggested that the vandals may not have been religiously motivated because “Muslim believers pray to and venerate the Virgin Mary.”
“We must recognize that for Islam the figure of Mary is very important: she is the Mother of the Prophet Jesus conceived in virginity” and is considered “the most holy woman also by the Muslims,” he said.
Some locals have criticized Pope Francis for appeasing immigrants—mostly Muslims—and denying the dangers of religiously motivated violence.
On Wednesday morning, however, Francis vehemently condemned “the brutality towards Christians, children and churches” carried out in Niger in recent days.
“Let us pray,” he said, that “religious sentiment may never become an occasion of violence, oppression and destruction. You cannot make war in the name of God!”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.