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"Under Suspicion: Faith in France"

by George Thomas ("CBN News," July 25, 2003)

Using the equivalent of America's FBI, the French secret police have increased their scrutiny on minority groups across France.

PARIS – One of the oldest democracies in Europe is accused of violating religious freedoms. France made headlines, when it took bold steps to control the activities of certain religious and spiritual groups.
Passing a controversial anti-cult law two years ago, 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 one CBN News visited in the town of Mulhouse, 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," said Peterschmitt.
And he should know. French security authorities monitor his services. The pastor explained to us how this practice works, how the authorities mingle among the crowd, listening and writing. "Yes, they are taking information and they know everything. They want to see what we are doing," said Peterschmitt.
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: an anti-cult law to battle the growing influence of religious movements. Catherine Picard, a member of the French National 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," Picard said.
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," said 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," said 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, it puts them at odds with the government almost from the moment they begin to evangelize people in public or in private," he said.
Ironically, in a nation that touts its motto, "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood," Picard has a warning for proselytizers. She said, "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 were Catholic charismatics and evangelicals.
"From that day on we were branded a sect, a cult in France," said 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."
After six years of legal wrangling, Easterman was forced to change the name of his church from Christian Life to Union of Protestant Assemblies. Since then, other churches have even considered removing the word "evangelical" from their names for fear of negative media attention.
"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," Easterman said.
Other elements of the French 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 explained. "If we do work for old people, it’s preying on vulnerable. If we want to have a time of prayer and fasting, it’s 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," Thorton said.
A dozen European countries are now searching for tactics to contain faith groups. And it is 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.
Picard acknowledged, "I met with the Chinese leader of religious affairs."
"That's not something that you want to be walking around and bragging about," said 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," said Easterman.
"Europe is very concerned about protecting its democracies," Picard said. "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 braced for a court battle. A former church member, armed with the new law, brought charges against the congregation. If convicted, Peterschmitt could be imprisoned. His church would be shut down.
But he says he is not afraid of going to jail. "No way," he said. "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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