Society

'Perilous' Churches In Paris - Ethnic Evangelicals Forced To Rent From Slumlords

What's a Pastor to do when the city council refuses to sell him land or to let him build his church in their neighborhood? Many are forced to rent small, overcrowded rooms, which can lead to senseless tragedies.

Escape or salvation? (Arenamontanus)
Escape or salvation? (Arenamontanus)
Stéphanie Le Bars

PARIS - To arrive in this place of worship in the outskirts of Paris, you must make your way between parked cars squeezed in a tiny courtyard, and then climb a narrow staircase to the attic of a building on an otherwise non-descript residential street.

It's Sunday and evangelical Protestants are celebrating mass to the sound of a traditional accordion, crowded under the beams of a frame that is too low for the tallest of them. Despite the large assembly, doors and windows remain closed. One of the leaders of the ceremony warns: "Try not to linger in the courtyard or on the sidewalk, to avoid disturbing the neighbors."

The association's leaders — who wish to remain anonymous — admit discreetly that the attic might not be fully up to zoning codes. Still, some 100 people have been gathering here every week for the past six years, happy to pray in their native language. Like the Philippine, Tamil or North African churches that use it every Sunday, the Egyptian association rents the place from an African community. For lack of anything better.

In April, in Stains (10 kilometers north of Paris), the floor of a Haitian evangelical church collapsed, leaving two dead, and highlighting the particularly precarious situation in which thousands of believers pray every week in and around Paris. Cellars, warehouses, banquet halls in suburban hotels, rooms that have been made bigger in spite of security rules. Faced with the capital's exorbitant cost of housing, the 400 evangelical churches in the region — and still counting — are considering every possible solution.

For rent: prayer room

The time slots allocated by traditional Protestant churches and even by Catholic parishes are no longer sufficient. The situation is a blessing for some homeowners, who are happy to cash in. "Slumlords have moved over to the religion business, renting below-standards rooms for two hours at 300 euros," laments Pastor Marianne Guéroult, in charge of establishing links between the French Protestant Federation (FPF) and such "immigrant" churches.

Francis, head of a Ghanaian church in the Seine-Saint-Denis department in the northeast of Paris, has only one thing in mind: to leave the 60 square-meter place rented every Sunday from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. for 600 to 1,000 euros per month. His church has more than 100 followers who cram themselves in the room "for their faith." "We need larger, nicer premises, because we can't fit any more people in this room. Sometimes people are so disgusted by the conditions that they don't come back," says Francis, who did not want to give his real name.

In the building, the churches "take turns' throughout Sunday. "We hear the songs from the masses taking place next door. We can only use musical instruments for 10 minutes, and we try to sing without instruments so as not to disturb the neighbors." With a monthly budget of "800 euros tops," Francis is rather pessimistic about finding a suitable room in the suburbs.

Alexander, president of the Egyptian association, has 2,500 euros per month at his disposal, but since 1997, he has been faced with a long list of refusals. "First, a mayor refused to sell us a place at the foot of a public housing block, on the grounds that it was not suitable for worship. More recently, we were forbidden to build on a piece of land that belonged to us," he laments placidly. His colleague is more blunt: "We were told that we have two disadvantages: one, we're Arab; two, we're evangelical. We have no support whatsoever. Maybe if we prayed in the street on Sundays, we'd be heard." The allusion to Muslims is clear and, in evangelical circles, often bitter. "Local councils refuse to rent us some premises for fear of having to rent more space to Muslims!" says Alexander. He hopes the Stains tragedy will make public authorities aware of the urgency of the situation regarding evangelical churches.

The FPF claims it has received "about 20 requests' from churches looking for prayer rooms. Support and legal aid is also provided by the French National Council of Evangelical churches (CNEF): "In Seine-Saint-Denis, half of the 100 churches we help are not satisfied with their premises," says vice president Daniel Liechti.

"For ten years I have been looking for a place, to no avail," confides Haitian Pastor Luc Saint-Louis, at the head of a community of 150 people. Being a non-white person seeking a room for an independent church was very difficult. When we decided to buy a former supermarket, the fact that a member of the CNEF was with me helped reassure the city council." This is actually a growing trend. "With the exception of underground churches led by self-proclaimed pastors, and whose numbers are difficult to assess, the churches want to play it by the rules and blend into French Protestantism," says Pastor Guéroult.

Nervous city councils

Financial difficulties, nonexistent networks, ignorance of procedures… These problems alone cannot explain the situation. Some city councils' lack of familiarity with the evangelical community is often a cause for mistrust. "We are told that what we do is not compatible with an industrial zone, that it's not the kind of activity this land was set aside for something else, or that there are already other places of worship in the city," says Boubacar Doumbia, pastor of the Assemblies of God, whose church finally got to move into the premises it acquired ... in 2006.

Representatives of the churches confirm that local authorities are hesitant. "Municipalities highlight the possibility of dangerous communitarianism," says Marianne Guéroult. "Why don't they helps us find temporary worship places, to give churches time to find a proper place?" Daniel Liechti asks, hinting at political reasons. "Unlike Muslims, evangelicals don't always live in the town where the church wants to settle. What's more, the city councils don't understand that religious people prefer to gather with people they know and appreciate, meaning that several places of worship are necessary within the same city."

Since the Stains tragedy, communities fear that security controls may be reinforced; some are afraid they might be kicked out altogether. In the prayer room of his dreams, Alexander would organize a Sunday morning Protestant cult in French, "for the youth," and in Arabic in the afternoon, "for the elderly". More than anything else, he would like to have somewhere he could finally call "home".

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Arenamontanus

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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