Zaman: Notre-Dame in Context

As Notre-Dame burned, the world’s other tragedies remained ignored.

by Raniyan Zaman | 4/23/19 2:10am

Solemn crowds of Parisians gathered on April 15 to watch as one of the city’s greatest icons, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, burned. The news sent shockwaves around the world and has prompted immense sorrow for one of the greatest emblems of France and a marvel of Gothic architecture. 

Notre-Dame has stood the test of time, prominently featuring in centuries of French history. That a fire could diminish its grandeur is understandably upsetting. But for an incident in which no one died and barely any art was damaged, the reaction has been, to say the least, overdone. Media outlets have churned out headline after headline about the fire. President Emmanuel Macron promised that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt “even more beautifully.”

No doubt, Notre-Dame will rise again. But many other symbols of worship and living religious communities don’t have this luxury. They aren’t benefiting from the same resources, time, and tears that are being poured into this piece of architecture. Barely two days after the cathedral began to burn, Notre-Dame had already been promised over €1 billion. Meanwhile, tragedies that took lives aren’t being met with the same outpouring of support. This past Easter Sunday, suicide bombings in Sri Lanka targeted several Catholic churches and hotels, killing 290 people and injuring over 500 more. The victims’ families, the ruined churches and their grieving communities deserve the same and more respect, empathy and resources as the material symbol of Christianity in France. But it would seem France’s luxury industries and wealthiest individuals — the bulk of Notre- Dame’s current donors — can’t be bothered. The reaction from the rest of the world has been comparatively slow. And media coverage has focused more on who was responsible than healing, donation and the affected community.

Similar tragedies have also recently afflicted other religious communities. Exactly a month before Notre-Dame caught fire, 50 Muslims were gunned down while praying in Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.It took thousands of small donations for the total to reach almost two percent of what has already been promised to Notre- Dame. And there are plenty of other places on the globe where billions of dollars could go, such as towards efforts to repair the Rio de Janeiro National Museum or aid for the ongoing Yemeni famine.

The issue isn’t just an international one. Indeed, there are plenty in France itself who could use an extra billion euros. There’s definite irony in French President Emmanuel Macron’s choice to forgo his policy speech and focus on the Notre-Dame fire. His speech would have focused on France’s Yellow Vest protesters, who believe that the French government is neglecting its working class. These concerns have led to widespread rioting and have sparked a national debate. But Notre-Dame somehow took precedence.

That said, in light of what has happened at Notre-Dame, people have begun re-examining their local communities with fresh eyes. Within hours of the fire, donations to three predominantly black churches in Louisiana that were damaged by arson reached almost $2 million. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Notre-Dame is its duality: In its centuries overlooking Paris, the cathedral has witnessed both dictatorship and revolution, tyrants and liberators. If Notre-Dame’s burning can inspire and sustain a surge of conscientiousness for legitimate tragedies, then this disaster may just be the most important chapter of its history thus far.