Who is setting fire to the churches of Lausanne?

This church in Pully was one of six targeted Keystone Archive

In the past year, six churches in the Lausanne region have been daubed with anti-religious graffiti, and four of them set on fire. The latest attack came on Thursday morning in port of St Sulpice. Police are no nearer to knowing the identity of the culprits.

This content was published on July 20, 2001 minutes

The Vaud cantonal police say the blaze at St Sulpice followed a similar pattern to the previous attacks. A protestant church was targeted, a fire was started deliberately and offensive, anti-Christian slogans were painted on the walls.

"There's a real sense of indignation that the house of God has been violated. These are acts of hatred towards the Church, and we don't know why," says Daniel Schmutz, president of the protestant church's Synod Council in the canton.

"There is also a sense of uncertainty. We don't know where or when the next attack will happen," he told swissinfo.

Increased concerns over further attacks

Deputy superintendant Maurice Gehri, a spokesman for the cantonal police, told swissinfo that it was impossible to say with absolute certainty that the attacks had been carried out by the same person, or persons, although there was a "strong possibility".

The church in St Sulpice escaped relatively unscathed. Only the spire was damaged. Nevertheless the attack is sure to increase concerns that other churches will be targeted.

"It's very worrying. We cannot put an officer in front of every church," Gehri says, adding that the police have only been able to take measures "in accordance with our capabilities".

The first attack, on June 1 last year - Ascension Day - gutted a church in Chamblandes, near Pully. A month later, the church of Saint-Paul in Lausanne was targeted, but the fire failed to take hold.

Then, on Easter Monday, the Priory in Pully, one of the best-known places of worship in the predominantly protestant canton, was reduced to a burned-out shell by a spectacular fire which left not only the church, but also the local community devastated.

The fire was so intense, it melted the bells and took over 100 fire fighters to put out. Police have offered a reward of SFr10,000 for information regarding the Priory fire.

"These are not only places of worship. They are focal points for the community, and the places where all the important family occasions take place," Schmutz says.

"These attacks affect everyone - not just those close to the church," he adds.

Police keeping an open mind

Two other churches, both in Lausanne, have been spared the flames, but not the abusive anti-Christian graffiti, some of it - crescents, references to Kosovo, the phrase "Allah Akbar" - Islamic in nature.

But investigators are not assuming that the culprit is Muslim. They believe it is possible that it could equally be someone out to discredit the Islamic community. The graffiti contained a number of errors, they say, that a devout Muslim would not have made.

"We have to be very careful about reading too much into these inscriptions, as they may have been made to throw us of the scent," Gehri said. The police have consistently refused to reveal what the graffiti says, to avoid copycat attacks.

For now the identity of the arsonist remains a mystery: "All lines of enquiry remain open," says Gehri.

The Synod Council is advising other parishes to take "discreet protection measures", particularly during Christian festivals and holidays. Daniel Schmutz says churches are being advised to ensure that the buildings are empty after services.

"We don't want to lock the churches. They remain a sanctuary for the population," he said.

by Roy Probert

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