France's Evangelical Churches Face Bureaucratic Hurdles

Evangelical churches in France, part of a growing Christian movement worldwide, are encountering growing administrative difficulties as the country re-examines its secular principles.

The French Protestant Federation said it must frequently intervene to protest official actions that could be considered attacks on religious freedom but were more likely the result of ignorance.

Because of France's Catholic traditions, explained federation president Jean-Arnold de Clermont, public officials consider legitimate only those religions which have a recognized head, like a bishop, and a recognized service, like the Mass.

Anything that differed from that pattern was regarded as a sect.

In one recent incident, a Haitian Evangelical congregation in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis decided to buy the warehouse it had been renting for church services over the past 12 years. City officials refused to approve the sale, claiming that the building didn't have adequate parking facilities.

"What the municipality did in the Haitians' case was completely legal but stood out because the congregation had been using the space for 12 years already," said de Clermont.

Municipal officials involved in the case were motivated by their political views, he said. Not familiar with the evangelical movement, they associated the Haitians with American Southern Baptists, drew a parallel to religious conservatives and to President Bush, and so decided to reject the Haitian application.

A French magazine last year declared in a headline article that evangelical churches were sects and criticized what it said was the use of religion as a political tool in the United States.

Nonetheless, de Clermont rejected the view that freedom of religion was under attack in France.

"Liberty of religion is intact but it is true that the ignorance of some public officials has often placed us in difficult situations."

"Freedom of religion is fundamental to French law," he said. "Administrative zeal or administrative rules should not bring into question this freedom of religion."

In another recent example of difficulties faced by some Christians, officials in a Paris suburb refused to renew the tax exempt status of an Evangelical Lutheran organization. On close examination the officials found that the group's statutes - drawn up 50 years earlier and in use ever since - were not in order.

The federation took its protest about the case to the prime minister, who had listened with great sympathy before the issue was resolved, de Clermont said.

He attributed the incidents to the fact there had been much debate over the past two years in France over the question of secularism.

"Some officials are looking more carefully and zealously at any domain that involves religion. It's not very serious and it's marginal but it's very annoying."

After a heated debate about the country's secularist traditions, a law banning Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols from schools went into effect in France last September.

While only 10 percent of the population attends weekend religious services, France is a largely Catholic country with Muslims making up some 10 percent of its population, Protestants only 2.2 percent, and Jews about one percent.

According to a recent census, the number of Protestants has grown by some 10 percent over the past 15 years. This growth comes mostly from evangelical churches, including Baptist, Pentecostal and numerous independent denominations.

The French Protestant Federation often is called upon to explain the specifics of the widely diverse Protestant movement to government authorities.

At a recent meeting of religious leaders called by the Ministry of the Interior to discuss anti-Semitism, a Reformed Church pastor discovered that he was the sole representative of the Protestant faith, attending along with a Catholic bishop, a Muslim cleric and a Jewish rabbi.

He had to inform the officials that they should also have considered inviting Lutheran, evangelicals and other Protestant representatives to participate in the discussions.