African evangelicals struggle for respect in France

Montreuil, France - The faithful are swaying, the walls are sweating and the choir's belting out praise to the Lord. It's Sunday morning and hundreds of black evangelicals are meeting in exuberant prayer.

Cries of "Amen!" rise from rows of neatly dressed adults and clapping children. Gospel singers lead the crowd spelling out the name "J-E-S-U-S!" It's the kind of service that could be found in black churches anywhere in the United States.

But the sermon ends with "Dieu vous benisse!" ("God bless you" in French). The final hymn is in Lingala, a language spoken in Congo. On their way home, these families are likely to hear passers-by speaking Arabic, Turkish or Wolof.

The buoyant spirit of African evangelicals is moving through the gritty suburbs of France's main cities, especially in the ring of rundown towns around eastern Paris including Montreuil.

Hardly known 20 years ago, these fast-growing immigrant churches are slowly carving out a place in France's religious landscape. They face hurdles from local officials and complaints from neighbours, but some small hopeful signs have appeared.

"There is prejudice against us," said Yvan Castanou, pastor of the Impact Christian Center in Ivry, a suburb south of Paris.

"It's against evangelical churches. Some officials see them as an invasion from the United States, associated with (U.S. President) George Bush and the conquering spirit," he said.

"The second fact is that when you're black...," he added, his voice trailing off before launching into a litany of complaints about life as an African immigrant in France.


There are 1.1 million Protestants in this traditionally Catholic country of 60 million. Once mostly Lutheran and Reformed, they are now more than one third evangelical, thanks in part to recent African, Haitian and Asian immigrants.

About 250 "ethnic churches" operate in greater Paris alone, serving 36,000 black evangelicals. Many are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, but also from Cameroon, Ivory Coast and other African countries.

"We have 15 nationalities in our church, including from the Caribbean, French-speaking Africans, English speakers from Uganda and Nigeria, even some Arab converts," said Felicien Mas Miangu, pastor of Le Rocher Evangelical Assembly in Montreuil.

France, whose policy of separating church and state can turn anti-religious when applied by staunchly secularist officials on the local level, has gone through two years of discovering who these evangelical Christians in its midst really are.

Often not religious themselves, local officials know little about Protestant denominations and sometimes suspect anything much different from Catholicism to be a dangerous sect.

The unfamiliar ethnic churches burst into the headlines in early 2004 when two magazines branded evangelicals as "Bush's allies" and "a sect that wants to conquer the world."

Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, head of the French Protestant Federation (FPF), said the evangelicals were "victims of collateral damage" from France's confrontation with its large Muslim minority and French hostility to the Bush administration.

While this prejudice also hit white French evangelicals, many of whom came from other Protestant denominations or Catholicism, it was especially hard on black immigrants whose poverty and lack of political clout made them easy prey.

Ethnic churches complain that local officials often bar pastors from building premises for services in their towns. Congregations renting unused warehouses for years suddenly hit snags at town hall when they try to buy the buildings.

"The evangelicals, especially the immigrants, face major difficulties," Clermont said. "There are all sorts of municipal regulations and the mayors apply them with extreme rigour."


Castanou said local officials were more helpful to the larger Muslim minority, which with six million faithful has much more political influence than small immigrant Protestant groups.

"When the Muslims sneeze, everybody panics," he complained. "But we are Christians. We black people are expressive in the way we praise God, but we don't want fights or confrontations. It seems that this attitude doesn't help."

Pastors like Castanou who can't find new premises have to hold services in rented halls, to the growing annoyance of neighbours who object to the loud music every Sunday morning.

"We have written to our neighbours asking for forgiveness," he said. "We are trying. But we cannot not sing. That is not our culture. We have to sing and we have to dance."

The best-known harrassment case occurred last February when the communist mayor of Montreuil barged into Sunday morning services at six black churches demanding to conduct safety inspections on the spot. He evacuated four of them.

"I was getting ready to get up and preach when he came," said Mas Miangu, whose church is located in a disused warehouse in an industrial zone in Montreuil.

"Just by chance, an FPF official, a Frenchman who is the national prison chaplain, was there and told him we were not a sect but a member of the FPF," he said. "The mayor left."

"He would not have done this in a mosque or a synagogue," added Mas Miangu, who came to France from Congo 30 years ago. "We consider this both anti-religious and racial segregation."


Both the FPF, which has taken in several black churches as members, and the separate French Evangelical Federation sued the mayor, Jean-Pierre Brard, for violating religious freedom.

They also lobbied successfully at the highest levels.

At the FPF's 100th anniversary in October, President Jacques Chirac noted the growth of evangelical churches and said: "All schools of French Protestantism ... have the same rights and duties. Religious freedom is not divisible. I will see to that."

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin admitted some churches had problems securing premises and pledged government support.

Brard met a Protestant delegation in early December and assured them he would treat all faiths in his town equally, which means building and buying permits should materialise.

"He may have been a bit clumsy but he's not a racist," delegation member Pierre-Patrick Kaltenbach later said in a conciliatory comment about Brard.

"We have to get rid of this idea that the Africans are foreigners who are illiterate and talk funny," said Kaltenbach.