A controversial anti-separatist bill officially named ‘the Law to Uphold Republican Principles’ was adopted by the French National Assembly on 16 February (347-151 with 65 abstentions). It will pass to the Senate from 30 March. The 459-page bill has been the subject of fierce debate, receiving over 1,700 proposed amendments.
But this bill is not the one that was initially announced to fight against ‘Islamic separatism’ (jihad). It no longer specifies which separatism is the target.
According to the Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, the aim of the bill to ‘uphold republican principles’ is to stop ‘an Islamist hostile takeover targeting Muslims’ that ‘like gangrene [is] infecting our national unity’.
It was well-intentioned, but badly worded. Jihadist Islamism does not aim to separate, but to conquer – to encompass more and more countries and societies in the Islamic Ummah.
Now, however, on the pretext of not being able to target Islamism specifically, the parliamentary majority have started to speak of separatism in the plural, claiming that there are different types of separatism threatening the Republic.
The evangelicals: a scapegoat
Targeting a single religious radicalism is not very republican. So, to avoid giving the impression of looking in just one direction, other religious threats have been pointed out.
This is where evangelical Protestantism comes in as an alternative rhetorical embodiment of the threat. evangelical Christians were cited as supposed sources of ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’, ‘resistant’ to the progressive philosophy advocated by the authorities.
Several short sentences targeted, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes erroneously, evangelical Protestants.
On the airwaves of France Inter on 1 February 2021, Gérald Darmanin stated that he could no longer ‘discuss with people who refuse to write on paper that the law of the Republic is superior to the law of God’.
Mr. Darmanin’s remarks did not only concern Islamists. The next day, on the set of C NEWS, he declared that ‘evangelicals are a very important problem’, without detailing why we are a danger to ‘La Republique’.
He added, ‘obviously not [a problem] of the same nature as the Islamism that causes terrorist attacks and deaths.’
Marlène Schiappa, the minister of citizenship, accused French evangelicals of requesting virginity certificates, imitating a supposed American evangelical trend!
These erroneous ministerial blunders cast suspicion on evangelicals, feeding a scandalous amalgam between Islamists who advocate hatred and violence, who perpetuate ‘attacks and murders’ with the clear objective of overthrowing the Republic, and Christians, who strive daily to live in society as ‘workers for peace’, even if they legitimately assume moral and spiritual differences towards certain current mores.
Statements by the head of national security and the minister of citizenship in France have caused consternation among Protestant evangelical Christians who have protested that evangelical churches cannot be used as an argument to defend the liberticide bill that is supposed to stop radical Islamism.
‘France will win nothing in its fight against Islamic separatism by equating Christianity and Islamism. The first has shaped this nation that the Republic has inherited, the second wants to replace it,’ said Romain Choisnet, CNEF communications director.
Clearly, Mr Darmanin is using evangelicals to justify his freedom-destroying bill. Yes, the fight against the project of political jihadist Islam is essential, because it manifestly threatens public order. But this struggle, which is fully supported by evangelical Protestants, will never justify the Republic’s attempt at spiritual insurrection against the eternal laws of God.
Instead of considering Islam as an exception in the panorama of religions, our rulers prefer to equate it with evangelical movements, thus trampling on the very foundation of authentic secularism (la laïcité) magnificently enacted one day by Christ in a single sentence: ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ (Luke 20:25).
Christians do not want to trample the laws of the Republic, but they do believe that the Republic has no right to trample on God’s moral law – the unchanging charter of human duties and rights scorned throughout history by all totalitarian regimes.
Are evangelicals an ‘important problem’?
Always respectful of those who govern us, evangelicals are ‘disturbing’ only because of their moral and spiritual values, which they draw from biblical revelation and not from the latest fashionable deviances.
The 1789 Declaration of Human and Civic Rights reminds us in article 10 that ‘no one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order’.
Moreover, the principle of secularism prevails in France, and as the CNEF (Conseil National des Evangéliques de France) quite rightly reminds us, ‘secularism does not have to require us to choose between faith and republican principles, on the contrary! Secularism frees us from the State’s judgment of our faith, as long as it does not disturb public order’.
Let it be noted that it is not evangelicals who have any problem with ‘La République’, but that it is ‘La République’, through the voice of its Interior Minister, which has launched hostilities by considering us today as an ‘important problem’.
Impact on churches
The bill touches on several fundamental freedoms under French law, such as the organisation of education and founding of religious associations, making changes to the 1905 legislation on the separation of church and state.
The proposed measures are disproportionate, and will no doubt penalise churches and other religious associations. To summarise the potential impact of this law (if passed without amendment by the Senate):
An increase in administrative and financial measures for all churches, which will have a significant impact on small and medium-sized churches. For example, at present, a church can form a religious association (law 1905) by simple declaration. This gives the right to issue tax receipts (Gift-Aid) and other benefits. The proposed law would make the constitution of a 1905 association subject to a prior declaration of religious status by the prefect, renewable every five years. Churches would therefore be obliged to register/apply for permission to remain open every five years, knowing that it could be refused. This will add a heavy burden to all churches, but especially to those of small or medium size, which have neither the administrative nor the financial means to cope with it.
It is also feared that this may open the door for a next step, obliging religious associations, including churches, to sign a document stating their agreement with the laws of the Republic, including laws concerning homosexual marriage and abortion, etc, which run counter to biblical principles.
The bill misses its target completely. According to CNEF, 90% of the 2,500 evangelical churches are registered according to the 1905 law that is now subject to amendment. Muslims, meanwhile, are almost entirely registered according to the 1901 law.
Officials will monitor sermons for hate speech. Protestant historian Sebastian Fath has rightly said that ‘rather than strengthening freedom of conscience and guaranteeing freedom of worship, this project strengthens control over faith groups’. This ‘religious’ policing will specifically include the prohibition of incitement to hatred, violence, and discrimination, especially concerning sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the government sought to give reassurance that this does not apply to the domain of bio-ethics, there is a feeling that this bill may be problematic in relation to Christian doctrines of sin, marriage, and family. This concerns the content of messages preached in churches or any activities of churches.
The fundamental principle of the separation of church and state is undermined: ‘La laïcité’ is guaranteed by the French Constitution. The state does not endorse any religion. French evangelicals are not particularly against this as it guarantees religious freedom. However, with this new law, the state risks not holding its side of the republican pact. As we have seen above, it is the prefect (a representative of the state) who will determine the religious quality of an association, and who in some cases will have the right to close down places of worship. There is a shift from ‘minimum state intervention’ to ‘maximum’ intervention in religious affairs.
Controls on funding from abroad that could have a real impact on church planting and building projects. The bill proposes to impose heavier financial controls on religious associations which receive more than 10.000€ per year from abroad. This is the case for 10% of evangelical French churches. While there is legitimate concern about Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia funding mosques to expand their influence and to advance a rigorous version of Islam, as you can imagine, this will have an impact on church plants receiving monetary support from abroad. It will also impact small churches with building projects. Nearly all church treasurers are volunteers. Increased reporting and a new obligation to employ a trained accountant, will put further pressure on them.
Greater controls on home-schooling children. ‘Parents who educate their children at home represent a danger to the Republic.’ Initially, the government proposed to abolish this right completely (over concern that some families are using the system as a cover for radicalisation), but following an amendment, it will be subject to strict regulations. Home-schooling will not be permitted for religious reasons. From September 2021, families will have to obtain authorisation from the ministry of education rather than simply declaring their intention to home-school.
The impact of this law will be so serious that one wonders if it comes from a spiritual attack. evangelicals have been growing rapidly in France, and now number one million.
Every evangelical Christian in France agrees that radical jihadist Islam should be nipped in the bud, but this law, as it is formulated, is disconnected from its avowed aim.
No doubt, this bill aims to make the state the sole educator of children, to impose the state as the controller of religious life.
It is a shame that France is not more concerned about protecting the right to change religion. This new law does nothing to protect a person who decides to leave Islam. In Islam, apostasy is punishable by death (Qur’an 4.89; 8.11-18). Even in France, those who leave Islam, especially to convert to another religion, are often rejected by their families and their entourage. They are subjected to pressure, threats, and sometimes even violence. Frequently, they are forced to live their new faith in hiding and/or to move away. Such a situation is unacceptable in France, a land of freedom.
The draft law upholding the principles of the Republic should be an opportunity to denounce and punish these ‘obstacles to conversion’, in order to strengthen freedom of conscience, in particular that of people of Muslim origin.
The church fully respects the protective framework of secularism, while rejecting extremism and secularist intolerance. But the true church of Christ, whose vocation is heavenly, will not sign any pact that would call into question the very nature of the Christian faith, or that would call for an alteration of the gospel message.
For 2000 years, at all times and in all circumstances, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and despite the measures taken by Mr Darmanin and the parliamentarians, this good news will be preached in France and to the ends of the earth.
So despite the challenge this law creates for the church, evangelicals must keep their eyes on Christ. Now is a time for prayer, not grumbling. Please pray that the bill will be relaxed when it passes through the Senate in March or April 2021.