PARIS - One of the oldest democracies in Europe is accused of violating religious freedoms. France made headlines last summer, when it took bold steps to control the activities of certain religious and spiritual groups.
Passing a controversial anti-cult law, France embarked on what some feared was a trend to restrict and oversee religious movements. But the French are not alone. Several other European governments have expressed interest in adopting similar laws.
Thousands gather at a Sunday morning church service in the Mulhouse, France to worship, pray and hear from God. It's a familiar scene repeated weekly across this country and around the world.
But in this country, where the Constitution states "France shall respect all beliefs"-- evangelical churches like this one are under suspicion. Such scenes of absolute devotion to God are increasingly viewed as fanatical, irrational. Some even call this church, the largest charismatic church in the country, a cult.
That makes Pastor Samuel Peterschmitt's job of bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth, all the more challenging.
"Now in France, it is very difficult to preach the Gospel," says Peterschmitt.
And he should know. French security authorities monitor his services.
CBN News questioned one man on the validity of this practice.
CBN News: They mingle among the crowd?
CBN News: And what are they doing?
Samuel: They are listening, they are writing.
CBN News: They are taking down information?
Samuel: Yes, they are taking information and they know everything.
CBN News: They want to see what you are doing?
Samuel: They want to see what we are doing."
The church in Mulhouse is not alone. Using the equivalent of America's FBI, the French secret police have increased their scrutiny on minority groups across France.
Baptists, evangelicals, and Protestants, along with Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Scientology, report growing intolerance and discrimination.
To legitimize their crackdown, the government in Paris has armed judges with a new and powerful weapon. Eight months ago, the French National Assembly adopted an anti-cult law to battle the growing influence of religious movements. Catherine Picard, a member of the assembly, helped write the new law.
Picard is proud to say that the goal is to prevent groups of a "cult-like character" from using "psychological and physical" pressure to recruit and retain followers.
"With this new law, at no time can anyone manipulate someone by forcing them to join a group," explains Picard.
Section I of the anti-cult law makes "mental manipulation" a crime. Anyone found guilty of causing: "a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from serious and repeated pressures or techniques designed to alter judgement faces five years imprisonment. Courts can dissolve religious groups and impose heavy fines.
"The goal is to punish illegal religious practices that harm the dignity of individuals," says Picard.
"In my opinion, the goal of this law is the completion of the French Revolution-- the eradication of religion in the life of the public in France and the opening of the door for a purely secular society," says Joel Thorton, of the European Center for Law and Justice based in Strasbourg, France. The ECLJ is the international arm of the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice.
Thorton fears the anti-cult law could even criminalize evangelism by deeming it an exercise in "serious and repeated pressure."
"This law puts a person, who has a sincerely held religious belief that they need to work to convert people to their religious beliefs," he points out. "It puts them at odds with the government almost from the moment they begin to evangelize people in public or in private."
Ironically, in a nation that touts its motto: "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood," Picard has this warning for proselytizers.
"Proselytizing is not authorized by the French government. When religious groups talk about having the right to proselytize -- the local government may authorize such activities but in reality such practices are illegal."
Some argue the anti-cult movement in France intensified in 1995 following the mass suicide-murders of members of a secretive cult group.
Two years later, a commission formed to investigate the cult movement in France presented the French parliament with a list of a 172 groups considered dangerous. Among those implicated -- Catholic charismatics and evangelicals.
"From that day on we were branded a sect, a cult in France," says Pastor Vince Easterman, whose evangelical church in Paris was among those blacklisted. "After that list appeared, there was never an opportunity to defend ourselves, there was never an opportunity for an appeal."
"There is no doubt that in the last 10 years, France has become increasingly hostile to the Gospel and we have had to adapt ourselves to a changing society, a society that has little respect for the Bible and Christian moral values," notes Easterman.
Other elements of this new law include a ban on advertising or opening religious centers near schools, hospitals or retirement homes. Churches that traditionally help the down and out run the risk of being criminally convicted. Targeting the youth is also illegal.
"If we want to have children's church, Sunday school, that can be seen as influencing minors," he adds. "If we do work for old people, it's preying on vulnerable. If we what to have a time of prayer and fasting -- its seen as deprivation of food and sleep."
International human rights groups have condemned the law as anti-democratic and anti-religious. And the problem could spread.
"If something is not done in France you are going to see this law move across Europe, I believe, and you'll see a Europe that is united in its hostility to religion," suggests Thorton.
A dozen European countries are now searching for tactics to contain faith groups. And it's not just the Europeans.
China's Communist leaders are also looking to draw up similar laws based on the French model to monitor religious activities in that country.
CBN News: Did the Chinese contact you?"
"I met with the Chinese leader of religious affairs," answers Picard.
"That's not something that you want to be walking around and bragging about," says Thorton.
Meanwhile, French and European lawmakers are fueled by growing public resentment against a perceived intrusion by American religious groups.
"One person even suggested that it `was America's new way of invading Europe and exercising an imperial influence in Europe through the cults and evangelical churches," says Easterman.
"Europe is very concerned about protecting its democracies," states Picard. "We are fully aware that behind all these prominent religious movements, 90 percent of which comes from the United States, there are hidden agendas that are against the democracies."
Back in Mulhouse, Pastor Peterschmitt braces for a court battle. A former church member, armed with the new law, has brought charges against the congregation. If convicted, Peterschmitt could be imprisoned. His church would be shut down.
CBN News: Are you afraid of going to jail?
Samuel: No way. Why must I be afraid? I cannot say that I will be happy. But if I must go because I preached the Word of God and because the church wants to do the will of God, it will be in this thinking -- a joy!"
It is too early to predict whether enforcing this anti-cult law, passed here in French National Assembly, will become the norm or the exception. In the meantime, Christians in France and across Europe are bracing for what they fear could be a growing wave of religious intolerance.
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