ROME -- The Jesuit biweekly La Civiltà Cattolica has come out against a French anti-sect law that critics fear could be used against the Church.
The Catholic hierarchy of France opposed the law, which took effect in May, saying it could be used against some practices of traditionally accepted religions, including monastic life.
Because of the law, France ended up in Aid to the Church in Need's 2001 Report as one of the countries that violate the right of religious liberty.
The article in the July 26 issue of La Civiltà Cattolica was written by Jesuit Father Paolo Ferrari da Passano and reviewed by the Vatican before it was published.
The article noted that the Church does not favor a law aimed at the activity of religious groups, since the criminal codes in general include provisions for the defense of society against abuses by destructive sectarian groups.
Father Ferrari wrote: "The defense of public order does not give the state the right to interfere in the internal affairs of a religious group in regard to its beliefs and doctrines."
"Legislation on sects," he added, "could raise the suspicion that it is, or might become, a weapon in the hands of those who not only want to combat but also restrict these groups, and reduce the public relevance of the religious factor: It could become a threat to religious liberty and the profession of faith, of any faith."
With the French law, for example, the state could eventually censure traditional religious practices, such as fasting, or the schedule of sleep in some monasteries.
WASHINGTON - A House subcommittee said Wednesday new European laws that treat some religious groups - sometimes including Mormons - as dangerous cults are giving world dictators an excuse to crack down on religious dissenters.
For example, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House International Affairs Subcommittee on Operations and Human Rights, said, "China's Communist leaders are studying the French precedent for possible use against the Falun Gong movement."
She said she called the hearing to focus on actions by such countries as France, Belgium and Germany against "cults" because many countries "are considering similar legislation."
Assistant Secretary of State Lorne W. Cramer said many European countries have formed government agencies to collect and disseminate information on what they consider to be harmful cults, including evaluating their risk for brainwashing, financial exploitation and isolation from family.
For example, "The Belgian list of sects includes Baptists, Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, the Roman Catholic prelate of Opus Dei and the Young Women's Christian Association," he said.
The subcommittee was most worried about a law passed by France in May that allows fining or dissolving religious groups if a leader has two or more convictions on such vague things as "endangering the physical and psychological well-being of a person," or "violation of another person's freedom, dignity or identity."
Cramer said the State Department is "very concerned that the French model of anti-cult legislation will be adopted and misused by countries that possess neither the French rule of law nor France's history of protecting human rights." Actress Catherine Bell, star of the TV series "JAG," and a member of the Church of Scientology (a target of anti-cult laws in many European countries), said, "It is ironic that the official in charge of Paris' bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games cited China's human rights record as a reason the Games should not go to Beijing.
"The testimony presented today makes clear that not only the Chinese, but also the French government, is in violation of the nondiscrimination clause in the Olympic charter," she said.
She added, "If we cannot persuade the French government to uphold standards of human rights, what must be our chances of success when dealing with countries like the Sudan or Iraq?"
Singer Isaac Hayes, another Scientologist, told how French police refused to allow a march he joined last October by people of many religious faiths to rally for religious freedom.
"These officials were nervous, frightened and intolerant," he said. "I could not help being reminded of 1989, when Chinese tanks advanced on the
students in Tiananmen Square. . . . The French officials showed that same fear, that same intolerance of the right to hold and express personal belief."
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who visited France to talk to officials about the new law, said, "We have seen evidence that some French officials are actively promoting the model" of legislation it passed worldwide.
Ros-Lehtinen said some Western European countries took steps against "cults" in part because of the "Solar Temple" suicides in Canada, France and Switzerland, but much of it seems to be a reaction against anything seen as an American import.
"Some newspapers in Europe have referred to these so-called sects and an American Trojan horse," she said. "French lawmakers spoke frequently about the perceived problems relating to U.S. churches and evangelicals from America."
A French statute that outlaws religious "sects" charged with a crime is giving non-democratic regimes an excuse to crack down on religious dissenters, lawmakers said in House hearings yesterday.
Such a law passed in a major democracy gives cover for China to jail the Falun Gong spiritual group and for other regimes to suppress minorities, according to testimony before the International Relations Committee's operations and human rights subcommittee.
"It has been widely reported that China's Communist leaders are studying the French precedent for possible use against the Falun Gong," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and subcommittee chairman.
"State Department officials have confirmed that many [European] countries are considering similar legislation," she said.
The French law, passed May 30, came in a response to a trend in Europe to create "sect lists" of religious groups deemed undesirable. In France, a criminal infraction by any group member can close the entire organization. The religious group may also be prosecuted for "mental manipulation." While international human rights groups have decried the law for its potential abuses, the reaction has risen especially in the United States, where many of the groups on the sect lists - Baptists, Hasidic Jews, Scientologists, charismatic Christians, the YMCA and Jehovah's Witnesses - have roots.
A French official said yesterday that since France helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II, it is wrong to see the nation as abandoning freedom of religion and conscience.
"The French law has been misinterpreted here," the official said. "The purpose of the law is not to ban sects, but to have legal tools for dealing with illegal conduct by individuals and organizations." The French law has been justified mainly by the 1994 and 1995 suicides and murders by Solar Temple members in France, Switzerland and Canada.
But in hearings yesterday, the law also was tied to a socialist and anti-religious outlook among some French lawmakers and European officials who resent intrusion by American religious groups.
"France is leading by bad example," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, who was in Paris on Monday and spoke with key authors of the French statute. He said "hopefully a backlash" by the French media and public will force a review and repeal of the law.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who also visited Paris, said writers and advocates of the French law are visiting other nations promoting a similar crackdown on sects. "We have seen evidence that some French officials are actively promoting the model" of legislation, he said.
In testimony, Loren W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for human rights, said it is ironic that the United States was ousted from the United Nation's Human Rights Commission as France and Austria - both of which have sect lists - were voted in.
"My guess is that this law is not broadly supported" by other Europeans, Mr. Craner said.
He said economic sanctions in U.S. human rights laws could be applied to France, but recommended that several countries ally against the law "so it is not viewed in France as an American issue."
Also testifying yesterday were musician Isaac Hayes and actress Catherine Bell - both members of the Church of Scientology who have protested the law in France - and Sameera Fazili, a Muslim lawyer.
After France's National Assembly on June 22 unanimously passed a bill restricting the activities of "religious sects," some members of the U.S. Congress are accusing the French government, as well as other western European countries, of engaging in religious persecution.
"Under the law's vague provision concerning the dissolution of religious and spiritual groups, a new criminal offense of psychological or physical subjection is created which could be applied to virtually any organization involved in matters of belief," warned Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.
The subcommittee held a hearing on Wednesday to explore alleged widespread religious discrimination in Western Europe.
Ros-Lehtinen and other witnesses cited cases of hate crimes against Muslims in Germany, government surveillance and harassment of Scientologists in Germany and France, and widespread classification of Southern Baptists, Quakers and Hasidic Jews as "sects."
Witnesses warned that the French About-Picard bill is dangerous, not only to French citizens, but also internationally because communist China could use it to suppress the Falun Gong movement.
Ros-Lehtinen pointed to a recent article by Joseph Bosco, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service that described Chinese officials as "triumphantly canvass[ing] American academics [and] touting the French law as partial vindication for China's much-criticized human rights posture."
> "Unfortunately, we are sadly observing many former havens of freedom and religious expression becoming new and subtle arenas for religious discrimination," said Joseph K. Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, testifying before the subcommittee.
The French law empowers judges to dissolve a religious institution if its representatives are convicted of various legal transgressions. It also outlaws "mental manipulation" and makes the crime punishable by a large fine and a five years prison term.
Other witnesses described oppression and harassment of religious groups that pre-date the recent law.
Panda Software in France, a worldwide producer of anti-virus software based in the U.S., "has had government and private contracts cancelled, beenpermanently precluded from future procurements and has been the subject of damning and false public accusations by French officials," said Panda president Patrick Hinojosa.
"The French government does not like the religious choice of Panda's founder and so placed his religious denomination on a list of 172 'disfavored' religions, along with Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus and others," said Hinojasa.
Because the company's founder was a member of the Church of Scientology, Hinojasa alleges, the company was accused of creating software to compromise government databases and directly funding the church.
"This allegation is patently absurd," said Hinojasa. In any case, "Panda and the Church of Scientology have no connection whatsoever."
A delegation from the subcommittee led by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) visited France this week to meet with the bill's sponsor in order to voice American objections. Smith noted that other countries must bring pressure on France to repeal the law, given the animosity between the two nations.
Anti-Cult Law in France - Index Page
Full text of the law in French
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