MONTREUIL, France—The faithful are swaying, the walls are sweating, and the choir is belting out praise to the Lord. It’s Sunday morning, and hundreds of black evangelicals are meeting in exuberant prayer.
Cries of “Amen” rise from rows of neatly dressed adults and clapping children. Gospel singers lead the crowd in spelling the name “J-E-S-U-S.” It’s the kind of service that could be found in black churches anywhere in the United States.
But the sermon ends with “Dieu vous benisse” (“God bless you,” in French). The final hymn is in Lingala, a language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On their way home, these families are likely to hear passersby speaking Arabic, Turkish or Wolof, a language of Senegal.
The buoyant spirit of African evangelicals is moving through the gritty suburbs of France’s main cities, especially in the ring of rundown towns around eastern Paris, including Montreuil.
Hardly known 20 years ago, these fast-growing immigrant churches are slowly carving out a place in France’s religious landscape. They face hurdles from local officials and complaints from neighbors, but some small, hopeful signs have appeared.
“There is prejudice against us,” said Yvan Castanou, pastor of the Impact Christian Center in Ivry, a suburb south of Paris.
About 250 “ethnic churches” operate in greater Paris alone, serving 36,000 black evangelicals. Many are from Congo, formerly Zaire, but others are from Cameroon, Ivory Coast and other African countries.
“We have 15 nationalities in our church, including from the Caribbean, French-speaking Africans, English speakers from Uganda and Nigeria, even some Arab converts,” said Felicien Mas Miangu, pastor of Le Rocher Evangelical Assembly in Montreuil.
France, whose policy of separating church and state can turn anti-religious when applied by staunchly secular officials on the local level, has gone through two years of discovering who these evangelical Christians in its midst really are.
Often not religious themselves, local officials know little about Protestant denominations and sometimes suspect anything much different from Catholicism to be a dangerous sect.
Ethnic churches complain that local officials often bar pastors from building premises for services in their towns. Congregations that have rented unused warehouses for years suddenly hit snags at town hall when they try to buy the buildings.
“The evangelicals, especially the immigrants, face major difficulties,” said Mr. Clermont. “There are all sorts of municipal regulations, and the mayors apply them with extreme rigor.”