A long running dispute between a religious order and ecologists in France turned physical this week as local police call for calm.
Nuns physically clashed with environmental activists at a protest against the construction of a new 3,500 seat church in the south of France this week.
A group of activists entered the building site in Saint-Pierre-de-Colombier on Monday and Tuesday to chain themselves to the excavator and stop construction.
Members of the Missionary Family of Notre Dame were on hand to stop them and tensions boiled over.
In footage that has gone viral on social media, a nun can be seen rugby tackling a protester to the ground.
Her sisters formed a human chain around the construction machinery and prayed in an attempt to stop the protesters from disrupting the builders.
Local police say that three people suffered minor injuries.
The nuns say they are praying for their opponents
In a statement the Missionary Family of Notre Dame says: “Its members have not committed any act of violence; they have blocked violent and illegal actions, and have endeavoured to ensure that their rights, which were being violated in our home, are respected.”
The statement went on to say they pray for their opponents and the Family “recalls the beautiful words of the psalm: "Love and truth meet, justice and peace embrace."
Pierrot Pantel, ecological engineer for the National Association for Biodiversity, says that the activists’ actions were peaceful and their goal was to chain themselves to the excavator to stop construction.
“Obviously, we're breaking the law [by protesting on private land], but we're breaking the law because we're trying to prevent another offence, a much more serious one, because it's irreversible,” he adds.
Why are nuns and environmental activists fighting in France?
The environmental activists argue that the project will harm the habitat and lead to the loss of the plant ‘le réséda de Jacquin', a protected species. They argue that environmental code has not been respected and the construction should not go ahead.
“It’s absurd on so many levels,” Pantel tells Euronews Green.
“The building permit was obtained in a rather fraudulent manner, that is to say that false statements were made, which allowed the Missionary Family of Notre Dame, the project owner, to obtain its building permit,” he claims.
The dispute has been ongoing for several years and legal challenges have previously delayed work on the church.
Earlier this year an administrative court ruled that there was no doubt about the legality of the Ardèche prefecture’s order to resume work. It said that the order was based on an environmental study that concludes that if measures to avoid and reduce damage are taken then the impact on the habitat will be negligible.
This is contested by the Association Des Amis de la Bourges, one of the groups involved in this week’s protest, who say that ‘le réséda de Jacquin’ is not mentioned in the environmental study.
The Missionary Family of Notre Dame wants construction to go ahead and says that the work is “in strict compliance with town-planning and environmental laws, and with all the necessary authorisations.”
Sophie Elizéon, police chief of the Ardèche region, called for calm, according to local media.
She added that "for the time being, there is nothing to prevent the work from continuing. The building permit is still valid, following a ruling by the Lyon administrative court on March 23, 2023."