France is set to pass a law aimed at cults that human rights campaigners fear could lead to the persecution of minority religious groups and possibly make evangelism illegal. The bill, which was signed by all the Socialist members of the National Assembly, was approved on June 22 and now awaits Senate approval.
Concern has been growing in France about the spread of cults following the murder and mass suicides of members of the Solar Temple in France, Switzerland, and Canada in the 1990s. The proposed law arises from a parliamentary commission into sects formed in 1995 after the Aum Shinrikyo cult released nerve gas on the Tokyo subway. The bill is intended to make brainwashing a crime and protect the victims of dangerous religious movements.
Some observers believe, however, the legislation could have far-reaching implications, not only for religious liberty in France, but in encouraging East European nations seeking to impose tighter restrictions on their religious minorities. The law would create the offense of "mental manipulation," and give the state power to dissolve religious groups and imprison and fine members found to be "creating a state of mental or physical dependence" among participants.
Some religious leaders fear the vague wording would allow all religious minorities to be tarred with the same brush. "Overly aggressive evangelical preaching could be interpreted by some as mental manipulation," said the Rev N J L'Heureux, religious liberty moderator of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
French Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou described the bill as a "significant advance," however, declaring it would give the state "the legal tools to efficiently fight groups abusing its core values."
At the advice of Guigou, there will be a "pause" before the Senate vote to hear the representations of religious and human rights organizations and to check whether the law infringes the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention guarantees liberty of belief and association, as does the French Constitution, which declares in Article 2: "France shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law It shall respect all beliefs."
The law would prevent organizations found guilty of mental manipulation from setting up churches or offices within 200 meters of schools, hospitals, care, or retirement homes -- a move that could effectively ban cults from the inner cities. Professor Massimo Introvigne of the Italian-based Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), warns the new law would make it "almost impossible for cults to operate at all, almost everywhere [in France]."
Cults also would be barred from advertising or publishing any literature intended for young people. The law would permit police, anti-cult organizations, and parents to take action on behalf of so-called cult victims who may still be willing members of the religious movement in question. The penalties would be up to five years' imprisonment, a fine of up to half a million francs, and the legal dissolution of the cult.
The law has been condemned by CESNUR as "really extreme" and by the Independent newspaper of London as "Europe's most draconian law against religious sects." Michel Betrand, the president of the Council of Protestant Churches in France, said the law cast "suspicion on all forms of religious faith." The Washington Times newspaper noted the law could "proscribe incidents of evangelism even by the religious faith of President Clinton and Al Gore, who are both Southern Baptists."
That reference highlights one of the key contentions -- the definition of a cult. A 1996 report prepared for the French National Assembly listed 173 so-called 'dangerous' cults, including Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses. But the Charismatic Catholic Renewal Movement also was on the "danger" list and Baptists were cited as an example of a "benign" cult.
The report, "Cults in France," was condemned by the Routledge World Report on Freedom of Religion and Belief as "not accurate" and based on "misconceptions."
The United States State Department also has criticized the way the cult blacklist was drawn up. Its 1999 Religious Freedom report states: "The [Cult] report was prepared without the benefit of full and complete hearings regarding the groups identified on the list. Groups were not told why they were placed on the list [and] there is no mechanism for changing the list."
According to the U.S. State Department the ensuing publicity resulted in "an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions" that led to a number of so-called cult members losing their jobs. Those concerns are shared by the International Helsinki Federation. Its 1998 report said the cult blacklist had "resulted in media reports libeling minority religions and incitement of religious intolerance."
France points to precedents in other European countries where legal measures are being taken against sects. Germany, Austria ,and Belgium also have drawn up official lists of dubious religious movements. Between them they have blacklisted organizations including the YWCA, the Quakers, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Bah'ai, Mormons, and the Assemblies of God, according to CESNUR, an information exchange established by Roman Catholics to provide scholarly research into new religious movements.
CESNUR believes the blacklists have been overly influenced by the horror stories of anti-cult campaigners. The group is opposed to special legislation against cults or mind-control, and warns: "Any minority happening to be unpopular could easily be accused [of] brainwashing. Each group [should] be examined on its own merits and not relying exclusively on information provided by hostile ex-members."
The U.S. State Department agrees. It wants groups labeled as sects to be given the opportunity "to address French officials about their situation." The religious movements giving the greatest concern in France are American in origin, however, including the Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology. In 1999, a French National Assembly report criticized both organizations for obtaining donations by excessive or dishonest means and transferring the money out of the country. The same year, the government affirmed that it did not recognize Scientology as a religion.
Danièle Gounod of the French Church of Scientology told a news conference she believed the draft law sounded "the death-knell for democracy in France." She warned: "Watch out for individual liberties." Martin Weightman, director of the European Human Rights Office of Scientology added: "If this law were passed, France would take a serious step away from a democratic society towards an extremist one."
Conversely, France argues that the whole purpose of the bill is to protect human rights. The head of the commission into cults, Alain Vivien, argued that dangerous religious movements "flout the most elementary rights" so legislating against them is therefore in the best interest of human rights.
France also has hit back at the U.S. for meddling in its internal affairs, condemning international religious freedom measures approved by Congress as "an unacceptable intrusion." Last month France clashed with the U.S. at an international conference in Warsaw, refusing to sign a declaration stating that democracy was a universal human right. Instead France warned the U.S. against preaching to other nations.
As France is a predominantly Catholic country the one person who may have the right to preach is the pope. In June, when he formally accepted the new French ambassador to the Vatican, Pope John Paul II reminded him that "religious liberty is the first human right." The pontiff warned that discrediting religious practices would "necessarily create a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition, and suspicion, not conducive to social peace."
Some human rights groups have expressed concern that religious intolerance could spread beyond France as a result of the law, encouraging East European nations, such as Russia, in their efforts to curtail religious liberty. The British-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) warns: "Russia and the Central Asian states will take note of the law and may use it to justify their own draconian measures," saying "If the EU permits it, then we can do it, too."
"The actions of the few must not jeopardize the freedom of the many," said Tina Lambert, CSW's advocacy director. "A balance must be sought between the protection of those vulnerable to exploitation by sinister groups and religious freedom as provided for in international human rights conventions. This bill does not achieve this important balance."
After Roman Catholics, Muslims make up the largest religious minority in France, while Protestants account for 2 percent of the population, and Jews and Buddhists each make up 1 percent. There are an estimated 250,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in France and a growing number of Scientologists.
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