Attacks on churches are increasing, says French interior minister

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve at a news conference following the Paris attacks, at the Interior Ministry in Paris, France, November 25, 2015. Reuters

Religion is under attack in France, according to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

In an interview with La Croix, Cazeneuve said that attacks on Christian places of worship and cemeteries had gone up by 20 per cent in 2015, with 810 recorded. Anti-Muslim attacks had tripled since the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish kosher supermarket, he said, and while there was a five per cent decrease in anti-Semitic attacks they remained at a high level.

Cazeneuve said the "cardinal notion" in dealing with social divisions was "respect". "In the trial that we experience, the Republic must embody this notion with calmness and strength," he said. "Respect is expressed by secularism [laïcité], which guarantees the freedom to believe or not to believe, and therefore when the free choice of religion is made, also ensures that it can be practised freely."

He said the state must be "uncompromising" with this principle and that he had instructed the courts to prosecute offenders in the case of an "act of hatred against believers or desecration of places of worship or burial. This applies to all religions."

Asked how he would counter imams who used violent language, he said he had deported 40 "hate preachers" and self-appointed imams and that 45 mosques and other places of worship had been searched under emergency powers, with 10 of them being closed. He paid tribute to the "remarkable work" of the president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Anwar Kbibech.

Himself an agnostic, Cazeneuve said secularism "must be applied, calmly, quietly, without seeking to discriminate against a particular religion" and that "to launch a declaration of war against religions would be a fatal mistake". 

France's principle of secularism has been keenly debated in recent months. The country's Minister of Education has said it needs to be "reappropriated" following fatal terrorist attacks in Paris.

In an interview with the Guardian last month, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem defended France's secularist ethos as a positive influence but said it had been twisted by right-wing politicians and used to attack Islam. Far from rescinding on the country's secular philosophy, she said it was essential to the struggle against radicalisation in France.

"We have to reappropriate the concept of laïcité so we can explain to our young pupils that whatever their faith, they belong to this idea and they're not excluded," she said

"Secularism is not something against them; it protects them," she insisted.