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Religion Today Blog Christian Blog and Commentary

Claire Giangravé

Religious persecution, missions, Christianity around the world

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — After a man killed three people Thursday (Oct. 29) at the Catholic cathedral in Nice, France, Pope Francis expressed his closeness to the French Catholic community, offering prayers for the victims as well as wishes that “the beloved French people may respond united for good against evil.”

The attack, one of three on Thursday attributed to Muslim extremists, took place in the Basilica of Notre-Dame in Nice as a man reportedly yelling “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” stabbed the cathedral’s custodian and two women, one of whom was taken to a nearby café but later died, according to The Associated Press.

“It’s a moment of pain, in a time of confusion,” said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni in a statement to reporters. “Terrorism and violence must never be tolerated. Today’s attack sowed death in a place of love and consolations, such as the house of the Lord.

“The pope is informed of the situation and is close to the grieving Catholic community,” the Vatican statement continued. “He prays for the victims and their loved ones, so that the violence will cease, and they may return to see each other as brothers and sisters and not enemies so that the beloved French people may respond united for good against evil.”

Francis’ comments were conveyed in a letter sent to Bishop André Marceau of Nice and signed by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in which he condemned “in the strongest possible way such violent acts of terror.”

The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, said a suspect had been arrested and was being treated at a hospital after being injured during the arrest, according to reports. Some reports suggest that the man worked with the aid of an accomplice, though investigations are still underway.

Only a few hours after the attack, a man was killed after attacking police agents in Avignon, France, and another was arrested after wounding a guard in front of the French Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It’s not clear if the attacks are related.

Muslim groups in France condemned the attack in Nice, asking “all Muslims in France to cancel all festivities for the Mawlid,” a holiday that began Wednesday that celebrates the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.

Tensions among the Muslim population in France have been high since the trial in late September of 14 people accused of aiding the January 2015 attack at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had republished images of the Prophet Mohammad. Seventeen staffers at the magazine died.

On Oct. 5, a French high school teacher, Samuel Paty, who had presented the Charlie Hebdo vignettes during a class on freedom of expression, was decapitated at his home in the Paris suburbs. French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Paty’s killers as  “cowards” and “barbarians.” After Thursday’s attack in Nice, Macron increased the number of troops deployed in the streets of French cities as a security measure.

In an interview with Religion News Service, Arnaud Bouthéon, co-founder of the Catholic group Mission Congress and a leader of the Knights of Columbus in France, said, “The Catholic community in France must not give in to sterile anger but must also have the courage to name and denounce evil.”

The caricatures, often obscene and offensive, have contributed to making Muslim faithful “feel despised, opening the way to barbaric violence,” said Bouthéon, adding that French Catholics face the challenge of being “peacemakers, with temperance and courage.”

The Catholic lay movement of St. Egidio echoed Francis’ call for unity, citing an interreligious appeal for peace signed in Rome on Oct. 20 by Christian and Muslim representatives.

“We invite believers of all faiths, in particular Christians and Muslims, to disassociate religion from any form of violence perpetrated in the name of God,” said a statement from the community of St. Egidio.

In the United States, the Catholic Association, a group focused on religious freedom, said the recent attacks in France are part of a global assault on religious liberty by radical Islamism and secularism. “These attacks come in the wake of an endless series of arson and vandal attacks on Catholic churches worldwide,” said Ashley McGuire, senior fellow of the organization.

“Today we add our voices to those offering prayers and condolences for the families of the latest victims of violent radicalism,” she added.

The French bishops’ conference, in expressing “immense sadness” at the news from Nice, said the attacks were a reminder of the martyrdom of the Rev. Jacques Hamel, who was killed by a terrorist in July 2016 while celebrating Mass in his church in Normandy. Such attacks aim at “generating anxiety” within society, they added, urging Catholics to hold on to the values of unity and fraternity.

“Despite the pain that grips us, Catholics refuse to surrender to fear and, with the entire nation, they want to face this blind and insidious menace,” the bishops’ statement said.

Church bells rang throughout France on Thursday, calling faithful to pray for the victims. All churches in Nice are closed and under police protection, said Marceau, the Nice bishop, in his own statement.


Article originally published by Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy: ©RNS/AP Photo/Daniel Cole

(RNS) — America’s megachurches have ­­continued to thrive over the past five years, attracting more worshippers, becoming more diverse and opening new locations.

A pre-pandemic, national survey of megachurches from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found the median megachurch draws about 4,100 attenders to its worship services, up from about 3,700 in 2015. 

The average megachurch budget is $5.3 million, up from $4.7 million in 2015. Seven out of 10 have more than one location. Six out of 10 (58%) say they have a multiracial congregation.  

Despite the decline among Christian groups overall, most megachurches seem to be doing well, said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and director of Hartford Institute.

“They continue to do things that other congregations should be doing,” Thumma said.

Thumma said the use of contemporary worship — along with a focus on small groups and international diversity — has helped megachurches continue to grow. Megachurches, in general, he said, also tend to steer clear of controversy, staying away from culture wars or political battles.

According to the survey, few megachurches said they distribute voter guides (14%) or encourage voter registration (14%), or participate in get-out-the-vote efforts. Sixty-three percent said their church avoids political discussions when they gather. One in 5 said their congregation is politically active. Two-thirds disagree when asked if “everyone in this congregation has the same political position.”

Thumma said the growing diversity in megachurches reflects the changing demographics of the United States. Megachurches, he said, also attract younger worshippers than other kinds of churches.

“Megachurches are one of the few groups of churches that have a wide representation of people under 45,” he said. People in that age group, he said, tend to be more demographically diverse and more open to diversity. More than three-quarters of the churches (78%) in the survey said they were intentionally trying to become more diverse.

Still, Thumma pointed out, megachurch pastors themselves are not a diverse group. The average megachurch pastor is a 53-year-old white man who has been in place for 15 years. And many are in danger of losing effectiveness as leaders, he said.

According to the survey, most megachurches experience their biggest growth when their pastor has been in place for between five and 19 years. After 20 years, the growth drops off. The survey also found that after 15 years, a megachurch’s spiritual health begins to fail.

“The gist is that the period between 10 and 15 years of a pastor’s tenure produces the most spiritually vital congregational dynamic,” according to the report. “Prior to and after that point, it is a less robust picture, on average.”

Thumma said that after 10 or 15 years, megachurches need to reassess to see if the way they are operating still meets the needs of the community around them. After that much time, things have likely changed and the church may have fallen into a rut.

 “You can’t live on your charisma and assume the church is just going to keep flourishing and flourishing,” he said.

Among other findings:

- Only two-thirds (68%) of megachurch attendees show up on any given Sunday, down from 82% in 2015 and 90% in 2000.
- Half (51%) cooperate with other churches on community service projects.
- One in 5 (21%) cooperate with people of other faith traditions on community service.
- One in 5 (19.1%) declined by at least 2% in the last five years.
- Sixteen percent merged with another church.
- Just over half (56%) had between 1,800 and 2,999 average attenders per week, while 5% had more than 10,000 attenders.
- The average megachurch offered about seven services a week.
- Twenty-eight percent have paid, professional security at services. Thirty-eight percent have volunteer security.
- Two-thirds (65%) of megachurches identify as evangelical.
- Twelve percent identify as Pentecostal or charismatic.
- Twelve percent identify as “missional.”
- Seven percent identify as liberal, moderate or progressive.

Thumma said that overall, megachurches seem to be growing less comfortable with the term “evangelical” and are more open than in the past to working with those they disagree with on theological or political matters.

“You can see them moving ever so slightly toward the middle,” he said.

The survey included 580 megachurches with an average weekly attendance of 1,800 adults and children or more, and was part of the larger Faith Communities Today study. The survey was conducted from January until May 2020. The study was conducted by the Hartford Institute along with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Leadership Network. 

The full survey can be found at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website. 

Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.


Article originally published by Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy: ©RNS/Creative Commons

Three people were killed at a church Thursday in Paris after someone attacked church members with a knife.

After the attack at Notre Dame Basilica, the prime minister raised its security alert status to the highest level, AP News reports.

The church killings were the third attack in two months in France, following the start of a trial of 14 people linked to the January 2015 killings at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. The gunmen claimed to be part of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. The newspaper had published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Police were able to wound the assailant in Thursday’s church killings. He is in the hospital, but police have not released his name.

“He cried ‘Allah Akbar!’ over and over, even after he was injured,” said Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi. “The meaning of his gesture left no doubt.”

The attack also came after Islamic State extremists had released a video on Wednesday calling for attacks against France.

Also Thursday, in Avignon, police shot an armed man to death after he refused to follow officer's warnings to drop his gun. At the French consulate in Jiddah, a man stabbed and wounded a guard.

Less than two weeks ago, an attacker beheaded a French middle school teacher who showed the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad for a class on free speech.

In September, a man attacked bystanders with a butcher knife outside Charlie Hebdo’s former office.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith issued a statement and asked French Muslims to show “mourning and solidarity with the victims and loved ones” and refrain from events this week celebrating the birth of Muhammad.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister also condemned the church attack.

“We stand in solidarity with the people of France against terror and violence,” the statement said.

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Arnold Jerocki/Stringer

Amanda Casanova is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. She has covered news for since 2014. She has also contributed to The Houston Chronicle, U.S. News and World Report and She blogs at The Migraine Runner.