PARIS (BP)–It’s a sight that would shatter most Americans’ romanticized image of Paris.
Just a 15-minute metro ride from the trendy shops and quaint cafés of the Champs-Elysees, a virtual sea of North and West African Muslims spills out the gates of a neighborhood mosque. Like waves breaking on a beach, their bodies bend in unison as hundreds of men prostrate themselves before Allah. Their prayers are guided by an imam’s Arabic incantations.
The crowd’s prayer rugs cover a city block’s worth of sidewalk. Tourists point and take pictures. Some French pedestrians are visibly uncomfortable as they negotiate their way around the assembly.
But the scene isn’t an aberration. Instead, it’s evidence of a trend that’s changing the way Southern Baptists view the international mission field: Islam is expanding across Europe.
FROM CROSS TO CRESCENT
Fueled by immigration and high birthrates, the number of Muslims on the continent has tripled in the past 30 years, making Islam Europe’s fastest growing religion. While European Muslims build mosques and win converts, European Christians (excluding evangelicals) are witnessing what’s been called a near free-fall decline in church attendance.
Tourists make up the overwhelming majority of those crowding Notre Dame in Paris, snapping photos during Mass as if the cathedral was more museum than place of worship. Even more alarming are statistics that only 5 percent of the French own a Bible and 80 percent have never even touched one. The shift is so dramatic that many demographers now believe more people in Europe practice Islam than Christianity.
No one knows exactly how many Muslims call Europe home since most European nations don’t track ethnicity or religious affiliation in census data. Guesses put the number around 20 million.
France accounts for the highest concentration of Muslims in the European Union — 5 to 6 million, or about 8 percent of the population. Many entered the country as immigrants in guest-worker programs following World War II, but untold numbers have flooded France and other European nations illegally.
STRIVING FOR ACCEPTANCE
While the French government has made strides to help Muslim immigrants integrate into French society, things haven’t always gone smoothly.
In 2004, a law banning Muslim girls from wearing head scarves in French public schools ignited an uproar among immigrants. A year later, riots broke out in Muslim-majority areas of Paris after the deaths of two North African teenagers. The summer of 2007 saw peaceful but public protests by West African immigrants in a dispute with the French government over papers that would allow them to remain in France legally.
Such tension drives some immigrants away from their Muslim heritage while others gravitate toward it.
Osman* is among the men worshipping outside the Paris mosque. Handsome and energetic, the 20-something works as a technician for the city’s water department. Born in Paris, Osman’s parents are Christians who came to France nearly 30 years ago from Togo, West Africa. But after years of struggling to assimilate into French society, Osman finally found acceptance among other West African immigrants by converting to Islam.
Yet as Christianity’s presence in Europe wanes, there is hope.
SLOW BUT STEADY PROGRESS
Evangelical churches have seen slow but steady growth. In France, evangelicals numbered just 60,000 in 1940 but have climbed to nearly 500,000 today. Now about 3,000 evangelical churches worship in France — more than a third planted in the past 20 years. Immigrants are helping to swell the ranks of these churches, sometimes composing as much as 50 percent of the congregation.
Tony Lynn, a Southern Baptist missionary serving in Paris, said that most evangelical churches inside the city average 35 to 65 people on Sunday. Lynn and his wife Jamie — both from Michigan — have spent the past five years in Paris working to plant churches among the city’s 100-plus unreached people groups.
Lynn said one of the biggest obstacles to the Gospel is a hallowed tradition of secular humanism that the French call “laicite.” Rooted in the French Revolution by philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire, it has evolved into a cultural mindset that tolerates any religion so long as it remains hidden behind the veil of an individual’s private life.
This pluralistic dynamic negates the importance of religion while simultaneously making spirituality an open topic for debate. That, Lynn said, creates a carte blanche opportunity to talk about Christ.
“Conversation and intelligent dialogues are a type of art in Paris,” he said. “Once a rapport is established, people will discuss most anything.”
But laicite’s influence also has created a kind of identity crisis among younger generations of Muslim immigrants because they are raised in Muslim homes yet are exposed to a secular humanist environment, said Gracie Couloir,* a Southern Baptist missionary from Virginia who has served in France for the past 17 years.
Lynn believes new, innovative approaches are needed to combat these kinds of cross-cultural disconnects and effectively share Christ among both immigrants and French nationals. He said Southern Baptist volunteers are key to making that happen.
Helping meet the need are churches like Warren Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., which sent a volunteer team to Paris to share Christ’s love with Muslim women through a ministry known as the Esther Project.
“We did manicures, facials and makeup on women in a predominantly Muslim area,” Claire Hill, a member of Warren’s volunteer team, said. “The women seemed to thoroughly enjoy the girly things we did as well as our company. Although we didn’t know them … they were women just like us and there was much we had in common.”
Couloir said, “All we have to do as Southern Baptists is give them the Gospel in a way that they can understand it, and we can change the Muslim world.
“I think we really do have fields that are ready for the harvest here. We just don’t have the harvesters.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.