Among those gathered were local residents who had long opposed the demolition. But many others, including right-leaning politicians and writers, took to Twitter to decry the state of Christian life in France, which is nominally secular but historically — and culturally — Catholic.
Images of police forcibly removing priests and worshipers from the church were shared widely online. According to the newspaper Le Figaro, about 30 protesters were removed by police, who said this happened "without incident."
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, posted, "And if we built parking lots on top of salafist mosques, instead of our churches?" Her niece, National Front rising star Marion Le Pen, posted pictures of a priest and an altar boy being pulled out of the church and simply said, "France, 2016."
Legal difficulties had led the building's former owner, the Association of Catholic and Apostolic Chapels, to agree to sell the church's land to a real estate developer years ago for more than 3 million euros (about $3.35 million), far beyond the means of its congregation. There are plans to build an apartment building at the site after demolition.
While the church was boarded up last year and set to be demolished in October, Catholic worshipers led by the priest Guillaume de Tanoüarn had been occupying the space and delaying the demolition. When news spread that an eviction was planned for Wednesday, protesters traveled to the church for Mass.
The situation has drawn the attention of anti-immigration groups and the far right, including supporters of Action Française, who took part in the protest on Wednesday. Many observers drew direct parallels between the attack on Hamel and the scenes at the church, suggesting that France's Christians were under siege. Last year, more than 40,000 French citizens signed a petition declaring "hands off my church" after a Muslim leader made an off-the-cuff suggestion that France's empty churches could be repurposed as mosques.
Catholicism has a long history in France — the southern city of Avignon was the papal seat from 1309 to 1377 — and it remains influential in the country's culture. However, polls show that the number of people who describe themselves as Catholic has been falling dramatically in recent years, with a corresponding drop in church attendance; just 4.5 percent of the country regularly attended Mass, according to a 2006 poll, compared with 27 percent in 1956.
However, a recent investigation by the Catholic newspaper La Croix found that the threat to churches wasn't as severe as might be expected and that French citizens tended to have a strong attachment to churches. Fewer than 300 churches had been demolished between 1905 and 2014, the newspaper reported, out of more than 42,000 in total, with most recent demolitions occurring in now-dormant industrial areas.
Churches built before 1905 are the property of the state, which also pays for their upkeep. St. Rita church was not owned by the state and was used by the small Gallican Catholic Church, drawing crowds for its traditional Latin Mass and its monthly animal Mass. The church is named for the patron saint of lost causes.
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