Evangelicals as scapegoats?

UK Director Paul Cooke reports on media responses to a gathering in Mulhouse

In the last issue of France Mission Perspectives, FM supporter Mark Wibberley reported on the trip that he and I took to Alsace at the beginning of February when we stayed in Mulhouse. Just a few weeks later this French town hit the headlines. Why? Because Mulhouse is home to one of France’s few megachurches: La Porte Ouverte Chrétienne (Christian Open Door) – and this charismatic evangelical church was being blamed for the spread of Covid-19 in France.

From 17th-24th February, the church held its annual week of prayer and fasting with around 2,500 participants. On 5th March, Le Figaro newspaper ran a story entitled: “An Evangelical Gathering Spread Coronavirus in France”. Although technically accurate, the headline was misleading in tone since no government restrictions had been in place at the time of the gathering. Indeed, two days after it ended, 3,000 fans travelled from Turin to Lyon to support Juventus in a football match. And as late as 6th March, Emmanuel Macron and his wife went to the theatre, with the President affirming: “Life goes on. Except for vulnerable people, there’s no need to change our habits when it comes to going out.” Ten days later, he announced the start of lockdown.

By 24th March, there had been 1,000 deaths in France due to Covid-19. In response to the pain and grief, it was all too easy to look for scapegoats. On 28th March, a leading Alsatian health official described the effect of the gathering as “a sort of atomic bomb”. And the next day French Health Minister Olivier Véran referred to the gathering at La Porte Ouverte as “the tipping point” for the spread of the virus. Such comments prompted the National Council of French Evangelicals (CNEF) to publish a press release on 2nd April in which they denounced the way in which media coverage “and the remarks of certain personalities” had led to insults, lies, slanderous remarks, and even death threats against members of Porte Ouverte and the French evangelical community in general. The press release also expressed the CNEF’s sympathies for all those mourning loved ones as a result of Covid-19, offered thanks and encouragement to key workers, called on all believers to respect government restrictions, and underlined the role of evangelicals in supporting local people affected by the pandemic.

A few weeks later, Samuel Peterschmitt, the pastor of the Mulhouse megachurch who himself had contracted Covid-19 following the big gathering, struck a similar tone. In a video interview given to the BBC he concluded: “We must not have division, we must unite against the disease. We must not choose the wrong enemy.”

Will this all prove to be a media storm in a teacup? Perhaps… However, an article in Evangelical Focus quotes Christel Lamère Ngnambi, Brussels Representative of the European Evangelical Alliance, saying: “The bad press of these days can severely affect the work that evangelicals have done in the last 10 or 20 years to show who they really are”. In the second half of April, the CNEF conducted research among French evangelical church leaders and found that 31% were expecting to face difficulties as they came out of lockdown as a result of negative media coverage during the pandemic.

I took over as the UK Director of France Mission in 2010, the same year in which the CNEF was founded. One of the really pleasing developments over the past decade has been seeing a lot of positive media coverage in relation to the growth of evangelicalism in France. Please pray that this may continue and that French Christians may receive grace to embody the spirit enjoined in 1 Peter 2:12 – “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

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