House of God

Driving on the A1 expressway to Charles de Gaulle Airport, one sees, gradually emerging, the town of St. Denis with its rows of low-income housing. Until recently St. Denis stood out for its urban sprawl, massive soccer stadium and royal burial plot. Then, in early August, hundreds of immigrants stormed its basilica and occupied it. The immigrants, who for the most part settled in France decades ago, wanted working papers. So for 14 days, St. Denis became the capital of the sans-papiers (French for people without papers).

The Catholic clergy endorsed their cause. The church is the house of God, explained Olivier de Berranger, the Bishop of St. Denis, so it is our duty to grant asylum to those who seek it.


The last general census, taken in 1999, puts the number of legal immigrants in France at about 4 million, a little more than 3 percent of the total population. Marginalized from this community are almost 100,000 illegal immigrants. Most have worked in France for decades but are unable to obtain resident permits because of strict anti-immigration legislation. This strong anti-immigration policy is ironic for a nation that, as the French sociologist Emmanuel Peignard wrote in a recent article, views itself as an arch defender of human rights and likes to think of herself as a land of asylum. The undocumented migrants argue that the ability to earn a decent wage is a fundamental human right. French authorities say that economic migrations and political asylum are not the same.

For the Catholic Church in France, however, the struggle of the undocumented runs deeper than resident permits. At a time when the pope has lashed out against the all-out financial globalization of the past decade, the problems of illegal immigrants provide a concrete occasion for the local clergy also to question this economic reality. There is the fundamental right to emigrate, explains Bishop Jean-Luc Brunin, the auxiliary bishop of Lille in northern France, and there are the rights of immigrants. he says. Why in a global economy, he asks, should everything freely circulate except people? For Bishop de Berranger the church needs a text that summarizes the effect of globalization on the poor.

In Paris, protests peaked in early September, when the sans-papiers said they would occupy different churches every Sunday until the government granted them an unconditional legalization. After St. Denis, the interior ministry, which oversees all immigration issues, had agreed to review 15,000 legalization demands but only on a case-by-case basis.

The movement kicked off its first and only Sunday occupation at the end of a morning service at St. Ambroise, a parish in central Paris. A week later, eager to dampen this sudden radicalization, Bishop de Berranger, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris and six other bishops called for an end to all church occupations. They said the church would continue to support the sans-papiers but that occupations had reached their limit. Although the move surprised the sans-papiers, most remained grateful for the clergy’s initial support. Ali Mansouri, a spokesperson, said they could not forget what the church had done.

In early November, the church, remaining faithful to its new policy, asked police to remove about 200 undocumented migrants, who at the end of an evening service attempted to occupy the St. Jacques-St. Christophe parish.

More importantly, according to Bishop Brunin, who also heads the French bishops’ Committee on Immigration, the occupying of churches fueled a necessary debate on immigration in France. The role of the church is to participate in this debate, he asserted, so it can explain the new realities brought on by globalization. We have to accept that in a global economy there are going to be more immigrants, he added.

In this debate the church has traditionally backed immigrants. In 1996 Pope John Paul II urged the church to educate Christian communities about the plight of immigrants, because those communities could be contaminated by a public opinion hostile to immigrants. The church, he said, is where illegal immigrant workers are recognized and welcomed as brothers. That same year the French clergy backed a group of mostly West African immigrants who occupied the St. Bernard Church in Paris until riot police forcefully removed them.

Bishop Brunin says that at a time when immigration into France and other industrialized countries is likely to increase, people have to be educated about its cause and consequences. Emmanuel Peignard writes, Immigration is still in some cases put forward as the remedy for the ageing population. But according to Bishop de Berranger, the government has yet to accept this pressing reality. Today, in his view, there is a lot of government hypocrisy on this subject.

Education is crucial, according to Bishop Brunin and Bishop de Berranger, because with growing immigration, issues such as immigrant rights or integration with the native population will have to be resolved. We also have to think about the developing countries, observes de Berranger. The clergy cannot turn a blind eye to the long-term consequences of massive migration. The growing migration to industrialized countries, he points out, will hurt developing countries by depleting them of needed human capital.

In France, cooperation between the church and the immigrant community is ongoing. Parishes have helped immigrants navigate the French bureaucracy to obtain resident permits; they have also provided them with basic necessities like lodging or food. The French Catholic Church has always sided with immigrants, says Bishop de Berranger, because behind this problem there is a real question of justice. These are people stripped of any rights, who could easily be forgotten, according to Bishop Brunin. For the sans-papiers France remains first and foremost an opportunity to earn hard cash they can wire home to feed their families.

Some, like Touré Mohamed, 34, who recently arrived from Mali in West Africa, views his coming to France as poetic justice. During colonial times they exploited us. Now it is our turn to come back, he explains.

Yet for people without papers the exploitation continues. Long working hours, constant fear of police roundups and low wages are daily realities. When you see how they live here, the sort of isolation they are ready to face in settling here, you can only imagine that it is worse where they come from, Bishop de Berranger said.

Sissoko Anzoumane, 38, who has been in France for 11 years, says migration was his only choice. If I could have stayed home to feed my family I would have.

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