News and Commentary

Rwandan Refugee Says He Started Nantes Cathedral Fire
Firefighters stand in front of Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France, on July 20, 2020, two days after a fire broke out in three places at the gothic cathedral of Nantes in western France, destroying stained glass windows and the grand organ and sparking an arson investigation. (Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP) (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)
LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

A Rwandan man has confessed to setting fires in a 15th-century cathedral in Nantes, France, that damaged the inside of the church and destroyed a host of centuries-old relics.

The man’s attorney, Quentin Chabert, announced the confession at a Sunday news conference, according to The New York Times. The name of the 39-year-old alleged arsonist has not been released.

“My client is relieved to have told the truth,” Chabert said, adding that the Rwandan man “regretted his act.”

No motive for the act has been given. The alleged arsonist is a refugee that had volunteered at the church and was responsible for locking the building up at night. Authorities had arrested and questioned him earlier in the investigation but had let him go.

Police arrested him again on Sunday after uncovering new forensic evidence that pointed to the volunteer as the one responsible for setting fires in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. If found guilty of arson, the volunteer faces up to a decade in jail and a fine equal to about $175,000.

“We have determined that the man was in the area of the cathedral the morning the fire broke,” Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennès said. “We noticed, in two or three locations where the fire started, troubling elements that could corroborate a criminal act.”

The fire gutted parts of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul on July 18, destroying a number of artifacts including a 17th-century organ and an 1835 painting by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin depicting the first bishop of Nantes, St. Clair. Pieces of 16th century stained glass that made up parts of the cathedral’s windows were also lost in the fire.

Dozens of firefighters contained the blaze within a few hours, limiting any structural damage that could have put the church in danger of collapsing. The church was seriously damaged in a previous fire decades earlier in 1972, though the July 18 fire appears to be far less extreme.

“It is a part of our history, a part of our heritage. We all have these images in mind, this story in our hearts, but at this stage the situation does not seem to be comparable to that of 1972,” Nantes Mayor Johanna Rolland said.

A fire that broke out in the rafters of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year caused serious damage to the church’s roof and almost brought the whole structure down. The church’s iconic spire was destroyed and several large pieces of the roof caved in, leaving gaping holes in the medieval cathedral’s ceiling. The French government has pledged to restore Notre Dame to as it looked before the fire.

Work on the church is expected to continue for years and crews are rushing to finish before the 2024 Olympics, which will be held in Paris. Authorities believe the fire started with an electrical short from equipment being used in a separate restoration project. The spark started a fire that spread through the church’s old, wooden rafters and melted its lead roof.

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