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The opposite way

Jihadist attacks in Europe are growing, but so are churches willing to enter its Muslim-majority enclaves

The opposite way

A Muslim woman attends Mass at Saint-Denis Cathedral. The Mass was a tribute to a priest who was murdered in 2016 by jihadist teenagers. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images )

PARIS—At Guy Moquet metro stop on line 13, no one is waiting for a train running in the direction of Seine-Saint-Denis. The platform is empty. Heading out to the suburbs, or the banlieues of Paris, on an otherwise busy Friday morning feels like a journey in the wrong direction.

It wasn’t always this way. As thousands looked on, the kings of France made festal journeys to these outskirts and the medieval Saint-Denis Cathedral, named for the patron saint of France, a third-century martyr. For 900 years the ruling monarchs were buried on the grounds of the church, whose exquisite Gothic architecture drew regular crowds.

Saint-Denis is 86 arrondissements, or administrative districts, away from the Eiffel Tower, where a zip line set up for the French Open was carrying tourist-adventurers out across a green lawn. Yet the Old World sites that beckon travelers to Paris in many ways are less its heartthrob than these northern suburbs, where immigrant waves from Africa and the Middle East are changing the face of Europe, their enclaves’ high birthrates overwhelming the below-zero growth of white European families, their religion overtaking a country dedicated to secularism.

On Fridays the mosque 200 yards from the cathedral overflows with thousands of worshippers. Women dressed in black burqas cross the cathedral courtyard to get there. Saint-Denis gained notoriety in 2015 following the Bataclan terrorist massacre that left 129 people dead. Police raided an apartment complex here in search of mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, killing him and two other suspects in a dramatic shootout involving snipers, assault rifles, and more than 5,000 rounds of gunfire.

On the Friday when I visited, there were mosque-going crowds but no visible clashes. At an outdoor market, the most visible battle was between women in bright African kaftans versus the dark djellabas worn by Middle Easterners. Arabic-speaking vendors competed with sellers shouting in French, hawking everything from shoes and socks to fidget spinners. A woman in a headscarf stood amid them all with a stroller, begging and holding a sign reading, “Famille Syrien.”

Radical Islam isn’t the only thing filling the vacuum left by the failure of French secularism.

French law prohibits face coverings and full burqas, but some Muslim women get around it by wearing a surgical mask beneath their headscarf. Store after store in Saint-Denis’ market area sells the head coverings as well as full-length hijabs.

“Saint-Denis clashes with the underlying French ideology—La République, the enlightenment scheme whereby there should be nothing between the will of a uniform, secular state and its citizens. No priests, no imams, no community elders,” wrote journalist Ben Judah.

Radical Islam isn’t the only thing filling the vacuum left by the failure of French secularism. A man handed me a sheet showing the hours for daily Ramadan prayers, then a block later a woman from Nigeria handed me a tract titled, “What do you know about God?” In simple French text with illustrations, the 60-page booklet explained the gospel. An insert included an invitation to a nearby church with services four days a week. “Impossible change is possible,” it read.

International Redemption Center, too, draws thousands of worshippers, and sends its teams into the banlieues every week to meet with immigrants, new and old, left empty by secularism and weary of violent Islamism. Christians who fear the Saint-Denises of the world forget an important trend: The church is growing fastest in parts of the world where Islam also is dominant, the global South. Most of the worshippers showing up at Saint-Denis Cathedral for Mass are from Africa. The Redemption Center’s eclectic congregation draws from Sudan, Morocco, Egypt, and white Europe.

Beneath the wave of jihadist attacks that threaten Europe is another wave, perhaps less discernible. New migrants who have lost everything, and see they have nowhere else to go, are finding their way into churches for the very first time. A small evangelical congregation I visited a year ago had about 10 families, but today after extending a welcome to arriving migrants, it has almost doubled in size, and sets aside rows of seats wired for translation in Farsi or Arabic. Out of Old Europe, a new Europe may grow.


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  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 07/17/2017 09:11 am

    That is so heart warming and so like God, to spread the Kingdom in quiet ways.