French war on radical Islam catches churches in crossfire

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: battling extremism in France.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Earlier this year, France’s National Assembly passed a bill targeting Islamic separatists. But the measures included in the law would apply to all religions. That has the nation’s evangelicals worried. WORLD European correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt explains why.


JENNY LIND SCHMITT, CORRESPONDENT: The brutal murder of middle school teacher Samuel Paty last October shocked France. President Emmanuel Macron immediately vowed action against further sectarian violence. The tragedy fast tracked his plan to update French church-state separation laws. The goal is to keep a better eye on what is being taught in certain mosques and prevent potential hotspots of radicalization.

BERTHOUD: What this law is aiming at is radical terrorism.

Pierre Berthoud is professor and president emeritus at the Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence, one of France’s few evangelical protestant seminaries.

BERTHOUD: But it cannot name it, because if it named it, it would be accused of discrimination. But what the law is aiming at is radical Islamism, but it’s obliged to make a general law. 

France passed the original law in 1905, when the main religious difference was between Protestants and the Catholic majority.

Kévin Commere is a Baptist pastor and coordinator for the National Council of French Evangelicals. He says that the old law has always been protective of the rights of evangelicals.

COMMERE: As Evangelicals we are grateful for that law because we have a kind of freedom of speech, we have freedom of cults, of living our faith together. 

But the proposed changes are troubling. The first problem is administrative.

COMMERE: The treasurer of the association, of the church, his work is going to be much much much more complicated. The accounts that he has to handle will have to be handled almost professionally.

Financial reports would need to be certified by a public accountant, costing several thousand dollars. Evangelical congregations in France average 50 people, and many can’t afford to pay a full time pastor’s salary.

Smaller churches would be forced to either close down entirely, or to band together with other congregations to hold worship services, called “cults” in French.

COMMERE: The other main thing is that we’re going to have some kind of surveillance over what we’re going to teach and what we’re going to preach. This is a huge issue! There’s going to be some kind of cult police that’s going to watch over us, in this kind of surveillance kind of way. 

Authorities want to know what’s being taught in separatist mosques. But in order to not discriminate, they’ll also be checking in to see what’s taught in other worship services. That could be problematic for churches that preach biblical views on marriage and gender in a society where the mainstream no longer holds those views. An official might decide biblical views are “separatist,” and this law would give the authority to close the church.

The law also takes aim at education and funding for religious organizations from abroad. That’s meant to curb the influx of radical Muslim clerics into France. But again, any potential measure would apply to Christians as well. David Niblack is executive director of the Bible Institute of Geneva.

NIBLACK: We’re a small evangelical Bible School here in Geneva, and we’re partnered with a number of French church groups. I’d say three quarters of our students are coming from France. Geneva sticks out into France, we’re surrounded by France. And so most students are coming from France to study here in Geneva and then go to do internships and then ministry in France.

Niblack says the school is keeping a close eye on the progress of the law. A ban on foreign training would shut the Bible school down. But for now… 

NIBLACK: No one is worried that this is going to cause problems for French people studying here in Switzerland. It’s especially for those coming from outside of Europe. They may have to declare what kind of training and there’s a little bit more oversight from the government on their training. But it’s not an absolute: “No one can no longer study outside of France.”

Another problematic provision is that churches and other organizations will need to report all foreign donations over $12,000. But Berthoud says Christian mission organizations shouldn’t worry because the law is aimed at state funding, not donations from individuals or groups.


Perhaps the hardest thing that’s surfaced in the debate over the law are the misconceptions about evangelical Christians that have been repeated by politicians and the media. In an effort to not to point a finger at the nation’s Muslims, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, said quote, “evangelicals are a very important problem,” and that, quote, “we can no longer have discussion with people who refuse to write on paper that the law of the Republic is higher than the law of God.” Such statements are difficult for a group that’s already very much the minority, making up only 1 percent of the population.

The National Council of French Evangelicals has reported to the government what it sees as the most troubling parts of the legislation, and it has made suggestions for changes. And they’re also calling Christians to pray. Kévin Commere says Christians need to peacefully speak up, even as they work for the peace of their nation. 

COMMERE: We need to pray for evangelical churches as a whole. So that society could understand that evangelicals are not just Jesus freaks, to say such a thing, but we are wise, we can understand society. We are a friend of the Republic, a friend of the State, a friend of the Government, well in some ways. We do have faith, we do have beliefs, but we are not enemies of the State. 

The French Senate will take up debate at the end of March.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt.

(AP Photo/Francois Mori, Pool) French President Emmanuel Macron, center, pays his respects in front of the coffin of slain teacher Samuel Paty in the courtyard of the Sorbonne university during a national memorial event, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020 in Paris. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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