Missionaries desert the Dark Continent to convert the secular French

Paris, France - The traditional image of the British missionary simmering in a cannibal's cooking pot or trekking through the African bush can finally be laid to rest.

New figures show that the modern missionary is eschewing countries such as Nigeria, Papua New Guinea or India in favour of that unlikely heart of darkness: France. The latest edition of Religious Trends, a compilation of Christian statistics published last week, shows that France overtook Kenya last year as the leading destination for British mission agencies.

In further evidence that Europe is increasingly seen as more spiritually needy than Africa or Asia, in third place is another country with strong Roman Catholic roots, Spain.

The situation has shifted markedly since 1991 when France languished behind Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa and Spain was eighth in the list, the report by the Christian Research organisation shows. Despite its cathedrals, clergy and plethora of saints, France is now considered one of the world's most secular countries, partly because of its clear separation of Church and state.

Its geographical proximity and relative lack of Bible-based Protestant churches has made it increasingly alluring territory for British evangelicals. Moreover, large parts of the Third World are now so teeming with Christians that they are no longer seen as obvious destinations - and they are even exporting their own missionaries to the West.

"There has been a crisis of confidence in Christianity across Europe," said Martin Thompson of the Church Mission Society. "We are beginning to see Europe as a strategic priority." According to France Mission, there are more mediums and occult practitioners in France than there are registered doctors, and practising Muslims outnumber practising evangelical Christians by 12 to one.