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Baptists weigh ‘Protestant’ label to boost identity among wary French

PARIS (BP)–Baptist congregations in France are increasingly adding the word “Protestant” to their names as they seek to avoid being identified as cults.

Widespread concern in France over cults such as the Church of Scientology led to the adoption of a tough anti-cult law in France last year. The climate has left many Baptists and other evangelical Christians concerned about their public image.

“Baptists are increasingly using the word ‘Protestant.’ Not all, but some have begun calling themselves ‘Protestant Baptist Church,'” said Etienne Lhermenault, general secretary of the Evangelical Baptist Federation of France.

While many French people have some general idea that Protestants are a legitimate church group, few would have any idea what an “Evangelical” or “Baptist” is, Lhermenault said.

Being part of the Protestant Federation of France also has financial significance, said Christian Seytre, the group’s general secretary. About once a month, he writes a letter to a bank or business certifying that a congregation is part of the Protestant Federation. Otherwise, the bank is afraid to make a loan or provide other services, he said.

The French government has tried to make the Protestant Federation and the Baptist federation sort of watchdog organizations for churches, a role its leaders have declined.

“The government wants the federation to police the churches and that’s not our function,” Lhermenault said. “If we say we don’t know a group, then to the government they are bad. But we don’t know everybody!”

“We don’t want to be the guarantee for every church in France,” Seytre said. “If a group meets every Sunday morning to worship God and read the Bible and they’re respecting the law, it’s enough. If it’s a Protestant church, we should not need to say they are good Protestants. If we don’t know a group, they might be harassed because nobody knows them. But if they respect the law, why should they need the endorsement of the Protestant Federation?”

“We try to tell the media and the politicians, if a group respects the law, they have a right to meet freely,” Seytre added.

The government attitude is especially dangerous in regards to newly formed missions or churches, Lhermenault said, “because when a new group starts, they are often isolated in the beginning.”

Historically Roman Catholicism has been the omnipresent religion in France, and any non-Catholic religious group is automatically suspect, said Southern Baptist missionary Dennis Barton, who coordinates the work of Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board across France.

“You see much of Martin Luther King in France. Buildings are named for him and so forth. But few French people know that he was a Baptist pastor in the United States, or that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is a Baptist,” Barton said.

“For many people here, if it is not Catholic or Jewish or Protestant or Buddhist, it is a sect,” Seytre said. “When people do not know anything about a group, they think, ‘Oh! It must be a sect or a cult!'”

French ignorance of non-Catholic religious groups combined with French fear of religious cults often makes life difficult for Protestant or evangelical Christians in France.

The French first focused on the dangers of cults back in 1978 when more than 900 members of an American religious cult known as the “People’s Temple” died in a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Then in 1995, 16 members of a group known as the “Solar Temple” died in a murder-suicide in eastern France.

Following that, cults became one of the biggest dangers to society in French minds. Surveys showed 73 percent of the French thought cults were dangerous and 86 percent favored banning them outright. One survey showed cults were the third most-feared thing to the French, after war and the like.

“Today [after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America] if you made the same survey they would say terrorists are the biggest danger,” Seytre said.

In religious cults, Seytre said, the French media saw a subject that would sell. The press began to carry many reports of religious cults. Unfortunately, many of them were inaccurate and poorly written, he said, even in the nation’s leading newspapers such as Le Monde.

“Ten years ago, 50 years ago, people here thought it funny if someone worshiped onions or meditated on their bellybuttons. Now such groups came to be seen as something dangerous,” he said.

Seytre told of what happened to a conservative congregation in Paris called the Church of Christ. “I have visited these people. Maybe they are very narrow. They are a strange group, but they are not dangerous and they are not a cult. But in Le Monde, Liberation, Figaro — the best French newspapers — they were compared to the cult in Japan which spread poison gas in Tokyo!”

Reports on religious groups in France seldom are done objectively. “You see reports of someone saying, ‘My wife is in a cult.’ You cannot verify it,” Seytre said. “You never see a sociologist or someone who has studied cults for years. Never. It’s always on an emotional level.”

“If a man divorces his wife, sometimes he accuses the evangelical pastor of being responsible,” Lhermenault said. “It may not be true but in some cases the media are jumping on the case and trying to blow it out of proportion”

“Even some of France’s most objective journalists are not well-versed on the complexity of different religions in France or Protestantism’s diversity,” Seytre added.

A further problem with how French media covers religion is that French journalists tend to see anything religious through Roman Catholic blinders.

“Any service is called a ‘mass.’ To be politically correct, if a Catholic cardinal is involved, he must be shown on TV programs or in newspaper pictures,” Seytre said.

He cited the case of a service commemorating those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America. On France 2, one of the nation’s main networks, the report on the service showed the Roman Catholic cardinal and a Muslim leader who attended but not the president of the Protestant Federation that had organized it.

“Whereas most journalists who write about sports are well-informed on sports, the same cannot be said about journalists who write about religion,” he said.

To get better media coverage of Protestant church life, the federation has hired a public relations consultant, which has helped, Seytre said.

    About the Author

  • Mike Creswell