PARIS (AP) — After allowing believers one last chance to pray, French authorities demolished a makeshift church and mosque Monday as part of a security operation at a camp in Calais populated by thousands of migrants.
Authorities are trying to re-establish order in the long-lawless camp, and Monday's operation was the culmination of a two-week effort to clear a 100-meter security zone around the perimeter of the camp, a regional official said.
The migrants and charity groups helping them were informed Jan. 19 of the pending demolition, the official said, adding that no one was hurt in the operation.
However, the pastor of the church said authorities had told him the church was "safe" from destruction.
The Rev. Teferi Shuremo clashed with police holding riot shields as excavation machines crushed the simple structure, leaving an empty muddy field beneath.
"They are trying to destroy peace," he told reporters, clinging to a huge wooden cross salvaged from the church.
About 4,000 people from Syria, Sudan and other countries are estimated to be camped out in Calais as they try to reach Britain, some recently moving into new facilities but most still sleeping in what's been called Europe's biggest slum. The French government has come under fire for failing to provide basic care for the migrants, who have built their own shelters, schools, stores and places of worship.
The regional official, who wasn't authorized to be publicly named, said the mosque had already been abandoned and no one protested its being razed. He said migrants are free to construct new places of worship.
Shuremo pledged to build another church. Asked where, he said, "I don't know. God will give me help."
Before the mechanical shovels started their work, churchgoers held one last prayer, hand-in-hand, and worked with volunteer activists to clear the site.
British volunteer Joshua Williams said activists have worked to protect some shelters from demolition, and salvage wiring and other useful material.
"This is a church. This is a powerful symbol for these people," he said in televised remarks.