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.
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".
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Photo - Arenamontanus