Just days after al-Qaeda terrorists flew passenger planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, a mosque all the way over in Montreal was firebombed. Another mosque was then vandalized in Hamilton, where a rather confused assailant also set a Hindu temple ablaze. A few weeks later, two Ontario mosques – one in Burlington and one in Mississauga – were firebombed in the same weekend. In the U.S., a bullet flew through the window of the only mosque in Hernando County, Fla. The Islamic Center of Tallahassee was broken into and trashed. A man rammed his car into a mosque in Evansville, Ind.
Indeed, hundreds of places of worship were targeted in apparent acts of retribution for 9/11, as if the al-Qaeda operatives who killed thousands of people that day represented anything but the most perverse version of Islam.
This was nearly 20 years ago. And though much of the Western world at the time was in an acute state of panic and rage, these acts were indefensible then – as they remain now.
The situation is not entirely analogous to the spate of apparent arsons that have struck mostly Catholic churches across Canada, following the reported discovery of remains and unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children outside former residential schools. For one, the Catholic Church as an institution bears responsibility for the horrific treatment and abuse of Indigenous children in a way that the Muslim faith does not for the events of 9/11. For another, there has been little real accountability on the part of the church or the individuals who abused children (with rare exceptions, such as the handful of former employees of St. Anne’s residential school in northeastern Ontario who were criminally convicted); meanwhile, it was absolutely certain, even in those early days, that the U.S. would spare no expense in seeking justice for the victims of 9/11. Indeed, when it seems as though the whole country has simply shrugged off an unconscionable injustice, it’s not surprising that some would want to literally light the world on fire.
But like the attacks on mosques after 9/11, these acts function mostly just to victimize innocent worshippers.
Some have excused the attacks at Catholic churches in recent weeks as mere assaults on buildings – structures – which cannot compare to the suffering actual people have been made to endure. In a sense, that’s true. Yet attacks on places of worship act as a particularly pervasive type of intimidation – one that sends a message beyond the confines of a single congregation.
In the 1960s, the bombing of Black churches was not simply a way for Klan members to terrorize congregants, but it was a method of destroying organizing hubs and community centres and of attacking the civil rights movement writ large. The Soviets desecrated churches in an attempt to stamp out faith in anything other than the state. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple as retribution for a Jewish revolt. To destroy a place of worship is not simply to topple a building: It is to threaten a whole community, to strike a place of hope and prayer, to attempt to sever a connection to God.
In Canada in 2021, lighting Catholic churches ablaze might seem like less of an affront to good conscience than vandalizing a Montreal mosque after 9/11, or, say, spray-painting a Toronto synagogue in response to clashes between Israel and Gaza. To be sure, few would openly endorse such actions (as the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association appeared to do last week when she tweeted, “Burn it all down,” in response to a report of two more Catholic churches set afire in Canada).
Catholics in this country aren’t a persecuted religious minority – not for the past century, anyway – in the ways that Muslims and Jews are, which might be why the desecration of Catholic places of worship over the past few weeks hasn’t spurred the type of passionate universal outcry that the torching of multiple mosques or synagogues absolutely would have. That, and the fact that no one wants to be seen as caring more about the burning of buildings than the atrocities carried out against Indigenous children and their families.
Many residential school survivors themselves have come out and called for an end to these arson attacks. At a news conference in Vancouver, Jenn Allan-Riley, the daughter of a residential school survivor who had herself suffered through the Sixties Scoop, pointed out that these actions are only further sowing division.
“Burning down churches is not in solidarity with us Indigenous people,” Ms. Allan-Riley, who is also a Pentecostal assistant minister, said. “Whoever is doing this, you’re going to wake up a very ugly, evil spirit in this country.”
Indeed, as many have pointed out, a number of the churches that have been set ablaze serve primarily Indigenous Catholics, depriving them of a space where they might have sought solace in dealing with the recent discoveries on the sites of former residential schools.
The rage, the sadness and the feeling of hopelessness are all understandable. But the desecration of places of worship across Canada is not.
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