Pastor Louis DeMeo, an American who founded the Institut Theologique de Nimes in Uchaud, France, is in the thick of the turmoil surrounding moves within the nation's legislature to outlaw evangelical Christian work in that country.
According to DeMeo, in January 1996, the National Assembly of France printed and released to the public a report containing a list of 172 "possibly dangerous cults." On this list was the Institut (ITN), which is a Baptist Bible college and seminary, founded by DeMeo, who also founded a church, Eglise Evangelique de la Grace.
"The thing that is interesting is that the French government really didn't do a proper investigation and, as a result, this has caused all sorts of conflicts bi-laterally between the French and the American government," said DeMeo.
"In our case, it has come up a number of times in various places. In 1999, I was asked to come to the United States to testify in Congress about the discrimination that we had undergone," DeMeo said.
"A week after I spoke up in Congress, someone came on our Bible college campus and put a rag down one of the student's gas tanks and lit it on fire. Four cars blew up. Not only that, but some of the students have not been able to get bank accounts. We wanted to build a church on our own property, our Bible college property, and the government refused us," said DeMeo. "It's all underground -- nobody talks about it. But we have proof that this is actually what happened and we're not the only case. There are other cases. The French people, for example, don't want to talk about it. They are glad they got off the hook, but they don't want to confront the French government. I could say a lot about that, but it has to do with being a socialistic country, where they don't necessarily feel they have the access to their politicians that we would see in America."
DeMeo said the French government is behind the persecution. He said one person in particular needs prayer, "for a Paul experience on the Damascus Road." He heads up the inter-ministerial commission against cults.
"This man not only has started something in France, but he has gone into Eastern Europe. A lot of what is happening in Eastern Europe right now, missionary activity, is being dampened by the influence of the French in the way they perceive evangelical Christianity," DeMeo said.
DeMeo added: "I have to say this, the French really cannot make a distinction between evangelical Christianity and cults, such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and, of course, their No. 1 enemy is Scientologists. So they sort of mix evangelical Christianity with Scientologists.
"There is a group in France called the French Protestant Federation, and if you're under their covering then you're OK. But the Assemblies of God, which is some 500 strong in France, they're not under that covering. What's happened is there's only about 40 percent of the churches exist under this covering of the French government.
"We have a tremendous burden, after being there 20 years, and planting this Bible college, to train up French nationals to speak out about these things and also to pray for the leaders that may be in the government that they would be bold Christian leaders that could speak about the Gospel," DeMeo said.
"We cannot speak about this as just a Christian issue -- we cannot say that, because it is a human rights issue ... In the French Constitution ... a French citizen has the right to believe in whatever they want. But this right has been taken away," he said.
DeMeo's church and the ITN have existed in France for 17 years, but have never been the subject of government inquiry, said DeMeo. "Thus, our inclusion in the government cult list was not only unexpected but extremely unjust, given the fact we have never been given an official hearing or explanation for our inclusion on this list."
It was also surprising, he said, because his focus has always been on supporting and re-establishing the Protestant faith that has been a rich part of French culture.
By Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent