Faith papers: Transnational mobility, Christian networks, and citizenship in Morocco and Senegal

Johara Berriane

Translated by Jessica Edwards


Over the past 15 years, the renewed research interest in systems for the registration of persons has mainly focused on the role of state institutions. Indeed, documentary identification has often been considered a ‘technology of writing tightly associated with the rise of state power’ (Breckenridge & Szreter 2012, p. 3). Yet there have always been other actors involved in the registration and identification of individuals (ibid., p. 5), including religious actors. In Europe and Africa, Christian churches and missions were among the first to keep records (Denis 2007; Doyle 2012) and to produce and issue identity documents to members of their congregations (Denis 2007, p. 79; Kirsch 2008). Today, churches still produce identification documents that interact with identity documents from other sources. These selfregistration practices are not only found in ‘traditional’ (Catholic and Protestant) churches; paradoxically, the more recent religious congregations that formed in reaction to the institutionalized dimension of their predecessors also register their members and issue them with documents.

The purpose of this chapter is to study the member registration practices of evangelical congregations in Rabat and Dakar.1 Situated in predominantly Muslim contexts, these churches are tied in large part to the recent presence of foreign populations and tend to serve as migrant churches, particularly for people from Central Africa or the countries of the West African coast.2 While the first churches established in these two countries during or after colonization were founded by European or American missionaries, the more recent ones are mostly the result of African or Brazilian Pentecostal movements and/or individual initiatives of African migrants. In both Dakar and Rabat, these congregations belong to the revival movement that began in the nineteenth century, one of the main aspirations of which is to return to a form of early Christian community as promoted in the Gospels. Defining themselves as Pentecostal churches, they emphasize

Faith papers 303 the personal experience of divine gifts and the presence of the Holy Spirit and are thought of as a new form of ‘community without an institution’ (Marshall 2009, p. 208). They have been referred to as communities ‘of a new type, proper to the forms of diffuse, individualized, and nonisomorphic forms of connectedness in our globalized world' (ibid.), in which the sensations and aesthetic understanding of religion are central to the religious experience (Meyer 2010, p. 743). Yet even as they criticize the hierarchical aspect of traditional churches, these churches also make use of regulations, norms, categories, and procedures of ‘bureaucratization through formalities’ (Hibou 2013) to define their religious affiliations and negotiate their identities. Among the most important of these bureaucratic practices is the production of baptism certificates, cards, and letters of recommendation.

This raises questions about the meanings attributed to these ‘papers’ by their producers and users. To what extent does the production of documents by the churches studied here contribute to the emergence of Christian identities and even to the establishment of the church and its transnational influence in the circles concerned? What imaginaries are conveyed through the discourse on and uses of these ‘papers’ (Bayart 2013 and in this volume)? Finally, what part do these ‘papers’ play in situations of transnational migration and mobility?

I posit that as with other bureaucratic documents, the documents that churches issue are ‘vehicles for processes of subjectification' (Awenengo Dalberto & Banégas 2018, p. 9; Dardy 1998) and serve to develop a sense of belonging to a community. As such, by virtue of their materiality and content, they act ‘as mediators that shape the significance of the signs inscribed on them and their relations with the objects they refer to’ (Hull 2012, p. 253). These papers are also ‘constitutive of bureaucratic rules, ideologies, knowledge, practices, subjectivities, objects, outcomes, and even the organizations themselves’ (ibid.). Rather than being just neutral purveyors of discourse, these documents enable the coordination and control of the faithful ‘from a distance’ (Noiriel 1993. p. 17), and are of central importance in identifying both the ‘Christian’ and, on a moral level, the ‘good Christian.' While situated in a tradition of ecclesiastical registration and administration, such uses and representations of Christian identity papers ‘not only place individuals in a [Christian] social space of recognition, but also underline the strength of the identificatory imaginary of the state’ (Awenengo Dalberto et al. 2018, p. 26) and its diffusion in these social spaces.

Based on observations and interviews with leaders of evangelical communities and congregants in Rabat and Dakar,3 this chapter analyses the production and use of these documents in migrant churches. As well as the papers produced by the congregations studied, it looks at the religious documents that believers carry with them when they travel or emigrate, the uses of which are similarly instructive about the meanings of religious documents on the African continent and beyond. Finally, these documentary practices may also be criticized or even rejected within Christian communities, which indirectly reflects the meanings attributed to the ‘identity document’ and its relation to authority, as well as its effects on the constitution of the group.

Through a detailed description of two baptism cards, the first part of the chapter examines the role of these registration practices in the formation and influence of evangelical churches in the two contexts studied. The second part looks at the representations of the identity document as a purveyor of rights that are reflected in the discourse and use of baptism cards, and which indicate the spread of the imaginaries of the documentary state in the Christian spaces concerned. Finally, the third part focuses on the letter of recommendation as another graphic artefact that evangelical churches mobilize to control mobilities, maintain networks, and consolidate the faith of followers who migrate.

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