London - French Christians are bracing for problems resulting from the passage this week of a controversial new law aimed at controlling the activities of dangerous religious sects, but also likely to affect ordinary churches.
Some churches were already considering removing the word "evangelical" from their names, the president of the French Protestant Federation (FPF), the Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, said from Paris Thursday.
Ignorance and paranoia, fuelled by negative and sensationalist media reports, have led to a situation in which any non-mainstream churches are lumped together in people's minds with cults, say critics of the law, which was passed by the French parliament on Wednesday.
Opponents include human rights groups and mainstream Protestant and Catholic leaders. Some have called the move an assault on human rights, fearing it could encourage autocratic regimes like China to further suppress minority religions there.
The law's sponsors argued that it would give the courts powers to clamp down on sects that use methods like brainwashing or drugs to attract young people. Judges will be empowered to shut down a sect if two of its representatives have been convicted of an offense such as using misleading publicity.
The law also makes provision for a new offense of "mental manipulation," punishable by a fine of up to $75,000 and five years' imprisonment.
But exactly what is defined as a sect or cult is unclear.
Following the suicides and murders of members of the Solar Temple cult in Canada, France and Switzerland in the mid-1990s, a French parliamentary commission drew up a list of 172 designated sects.
Organizations whose names appeared on the list ranged from unorthodox groups like the Raelians, to large sects like Scientologists, the Unification Church and Jehovah's Witnesses, to evangelical and pentecostal-type churches.
'Clean Your Own House'
The French Protestant Federation represents 16 major churches and 5,000 associations, including Reformed, Lutheran and Pentecostal churches, as well as the Federation of Evangelical Baptist Churches of France.
FPF president De Clermont said Thursday that on about 10 occasions since he took office in 1999, the inclusion of the word "evangelical" in the name of a church or appearing in its mission statement had "got people into trouble."
In some cases, the churches concerned found it difficult to rent premises, or to get help from official bodies.
De Clermont attributed the problem to ignorance. Earlier Thursday he had been challenged by a leftist politician during a television program to remove such groups from the federation's ranks.
"He told me: 'You have to clean your own house. This is why you are afraid [of the new law], because you know that on the fringes of your churches there are people under the name evangelical who are no more than sects.' "
De Clermont said the law was ambiguous. "It's not precise enough. We feel that one day it could be used against any church if the mood changes in society."
French politicians were very proud of the law, he said, arguing that they were leading the way in the fight against cults, and expressing hope other European countries would follow their lead.
But he hoped other government bodies in Europe would ask hard questions of the French, and "not to leave the churches in France as the only ones to say there is a real danger."
Earlier Thursday, an FPF spokesperson said the law effectively challenged the constitutional separation of church and state - entrenched in 1905 - by trying to define what religion is acceptable and what is not.
"We're having to learn to change our vocabulary," she said. "Everyone is frightened when you say 'evangelical.' "
The spokesperson said even those officials who drew up the "blacklist" of sects later conceded that some organizations should not have been included - yet it had proved impossible to remove those names from the list.
Protestants are not the only Christians concerned. Pope John Paul II said when accepting the credential of a new French ambassador to the Vatican last June that discrimination against "one or other form of religious practice ... will necessarily create a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition and suspicion, not conducive to social peace."
A French daily editorialized around the same time that the lifestyle of a Carmelite nun could easily fall foul of the anti-sect law in the future.
"A young girl who has chosen to live outside of the world, who has given up her belongings, left her clothes, cut her hair, who obeys without a murmur to anything, works hard without any salary and gets up several times a night to recite prayers learned by heart may be considered one day, by a judge, as the victim of 'mental manipulation,' " Le Figaro commented.
Earlier this week Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), the U.S. co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission - which monitors human rights in Europe - was quoted as saying he hoped the commission would investigate the new French law.
"There is a very strong anti-religious bias that has emerged in Europe," he was quoted as saying. "If you're an evangelical, you are a nut."
Commission spokesman Ben Anderson said from Washington Thursday the French law could well be the subject of debate at a parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to be held in Paris in July. U.S. Congressmen will participate in the gathering.
The Helsinki Commission, whose formal title is the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is an independent agency monitoring the human rights commitments of the members of the OSCE. It comprises nine members each from the House of Representatives and the Senate.
In further reaction to the passage of the French legislation, the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy said in a statement the law could criminalize evangelism by deeming it an "exercise [in] serious and repeated pressure on a person in order to create or exploit a state of dependence."
"This law represents the latest effort of extremists in France to pass repressive legislation designed to infringe upon the rights of targeted minority religions by manufacturing a means to ban disfavored minority religions from France," said the institute's president, Joseph K. Grieboski.
Religious adherents elsewhere could also be affected by the move, he said, noting that the authorities in Hong Kong were closely monitoring the law as a potential model to act against the Falun Gong spiritual movement, regarded by the Chinese government as a dangerous sect.
"It is great shame that a liberal democratic society like that of France - a bastion and cradle of western democratic thought and civilization - would deprive its citizens of their most basic human rights," Grieboski said.
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