Evangelicals See Snags as French Stress Secularism

Evangelical Christians in France face growing problems as authorities enforce secularism, favor Muslims or view them as supporters of President Bush, French Protestant leaders say.

Evangelicals, who make up 40 percent of the French Protestant Federation, complain of bureaucratic hurdles when trying to open churches and of being seen as sects because they differ from France's traditional faiths.

Leaders of mainstream and evangelical Protestants, who together make up only about two percent of the population in traditionally Catholic France, stress religious freedom is not under threat. But the problems have prompted them to speak out.

"Evangelical churches face more and more administrative problems from local authorities," Stephane Lauzet, secretary general of the French Evangelical Alliance (AEF), told Reuters. "It shows the difficulties officials here have with religion."

"We are victims of collateral damage from the debate in France about Islam," added Jean-Arnold de Clermont, head of the main umbrella group, the French Protestant Federation (FPF).

There are about a million Protestants in France, a country of 60 million. Most are from the Lutheran or Reformed traditions but evangelical ranks are growing, both in established churches and in new congregations of African, Haitian and Asian immigrants.


With their literal reading of the Bible and eagerness to publicly profess their faith, evangelicals stand out in a country where strict official secularism has made religion mostly a private issue.

Their ranks are growing at a time when France is stressing secularist laws — such as the ban on headscarves in state schools — to counter spreading Islamist influence among its 5 million Muslims.

But Clermont said some laws were used selectively, bent to help Muslims build mosques without funds from abroad but applied too strictly against evangelicals trying to establish churches.

"They're looking for solutions for Muslims and don't realize they're discriminating against evangelicals," he said.

Local officials in northern Paris have refused to let a large Haitian evangelical congregation buy a warehouse they use as a church, saying it has too few parking spaces.

"But they've already been there for 12 years," Clermont said, without parking space ever being mentioned as a problem. He said other congregations had similar difficulties.

Lauzet said evangelicals also had more problems getting permits for new church buildings. "Officials seem to be more attentive to the Muslims than to us," he said.


Both men said that many French, unfamiliar with the varied faces of Protestantism, linked the evangelicals with the U.S. religious right and with Bush, highly unpopular in France.

The left-leaning weekly Le Nouvel Observateur ran a cover story last spring with a picture of Bush and the headline "Evangelicals — the sect that wants to conquer the world."

The magazine apologized after the FPF and AEF protested.

"There may be some confusion here, but look at the Haitians — they have no connection with America," Clermont said. "France is not being invaded by evangelicals coming directly from the South of the United States."

The deeper problem, he said, was that some French officials wanted to limit religion's role in public life and squeeze all churches into large groups like the FPF to deal with them easily. Most of the new evangelical churches are outside the FPF and remain totally independent.

"The local authorities want to deal with the religiously correct and that means what they can recognize," Clermont said. "When they don't recognize something, they want a good conduct certificate from the Federation, but they are not all members."

Lauzet said even some energetically secularist bureaucrats betrayed hidden religious prejudices. "To them, anything that's not Catholic is a sect," he said.