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‘Pray for France that there will be peace'


November 15, 2005
-by Ann Graham Price

Paris – As the rioting that began Oct. 27 continues to erupt throughout France’s capital city, Mennonite ministry partners living and working there say the immigrant churches located within the troubled neighborhoods may represent “an important witness” for peace.

“There are a lot of churches of African origin in this area,” said Neal Blough, who with his wife, Janie, is a longtime staff member of the Paris Mennonite Center in Saint-Maurice. The Center is supported in part by Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and its partner Mennonite Mission Network.

“Those multicultural churches are a significant part of the future of Christianity in France,” he said. “They will be able to have an important witness in those neighborhoods. They see themselves as contributing to the Christian presence in the suburbs. Their role is to pray for France that there will be peace in the suburbs.”

These immigrant churches have strong ties to the communities that are being torn apart by violence. The rioting began in suburbs with high concentrations of immigrant populations.

In the suburb of Montreul, an area where heavy rioting has taken place, the 300-member Evangelical Church of the Rock must be "more than a mere onlooker," according to Sarah Miangu, wife of the church's pastor and a mediator by profession.

"The church should act its part as a good citizen by advising the political leaders how to tackle these problems, and families how to take care of their children," Miangu said. "It should model good conduct for the youth."

The emphasis on youth is important because the violence typically involves young people – often from North African or African immigrant families – who are poor, living in ghetto situations and have little hope for the future, according to Linda Oyer, a staff member at Paris Mennonite Center. The unemployment rate for young people in these areas is between 40 and 50 percent.

“It’s a lashing out [from a sense] of hopelessness,” Oyer said.

According to international news reports, the social unrest that has simmered below the surface for many years boiled over a few weeks ago when two teenage boys were electrocuted. As in many such cases, details about the incident are sketchy. Rioters say the boys were fleeing the police, although they had done nothing wrong. They ran into an area where there was high voltage. The police deny their involvement.

Fiery rhetoric from public figures added further heat. France’s minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, was quoted widely in the media at about the same time, promising to rid Paris suburbs of such “scum.”

His words inflamed an already difficult situation, Oyer said.

“The sad thing is, when they burn schools and cars, it’s the poor people in the neighborhoods who bear the brunt of it,” Oyer said. “They lose their jobs, cars and schools.”

But the violence is beginning to creep into other areas of French society. On the morning of this interview, Blough awoke to a radio report of a nursery school that had been set afire.

“We assumed it was on the other side of town,” he said. “But it was just down the street. A few cars in the parking lot just in front of it had also been burned. Preschoolers who couldn’t get into their classrooms were lined up outside for a bus to take them elsewhere.”

Still, Blough said, there isn’t a sense of panic.

For one thing, the rioting hasn’t yet reached the level of deadliness often found in inner-city North American violence.

“Some of it is gangs,” he said. “But some of it is just teenagers who are having a good time burning cars.”

Although a few police officers have been shot at, he added, “it’s been with buckshot,” thereby limiting the severity of their wounds. Private citizens in France cannot own handguns.

“We know that it’s really bad,” he added. “We are concerned about the situation, but we do not feel unsafe. We are not sitting in the midst of burning rubble. The question is, how nasty is it going to get? Nobody knows at this point.”

By early Wednesday morning, there were reports of some abatement in the violence. The French government invoked an old law allowing city mayors to impose curfews for minors between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., the hours when much of the rioting has occurred. The curfew is seen as a short-term measure until some of the underlying issues can be addressed.

Janie Blough attended a town meeting Tuesday night attended by a diverse group. The city mayor spoke candidly of the parents' need to exert more control over their children's lives.

Other such meetings in other suburbs have invited people to address the issues together.

Sarah Miangu believes her church must be a responsible citizen by participating in these town meetings so that people can learn to live together in spite of their differences.

In the meantime, there is a more immediate need.

"We need prayers for peace and unity," she said.