U.S. Department of State Denounces "Intolerance and Bias Against Minority Religions" in France

On February 25, 2000 the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the US Department of State released its "1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices". This is not a specialized report on religious liberty, but deals with human rights in general. Still more significant is that France's anti-cult crusade is discussed in detail as follows:
"The Government's response to some minority groups that it views as "sects" or "cults" has been to continue to encourage public caution. In 1995 after the release of poisonous gas in the Tokyo, Japan, subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, the National Assembly formed a parliamentary commission, also known as the Gest or the Guyard Commission, to study so-called "sects." In 1996 the Commission issued a report that defined sects as groups that place inordinate importance on finances; cause a rupture between adherents and their families; are responsible for physical as well as psychological attacks on members; recruit children; profess "anti-social" ideas; disturb public order; have "judiciary problems;" and/or attempt to infiltrate organs of the State. Government officials have stated that "sects" are "associations whose structure is ideological and totalitarian and whose behavior seriously oppresses fundamental liberties as well as social equilibrium." (These attributes are in addition to specific criminal behavior prohibited by law.) The Commission's report identified 173 groups as sects, including Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Scientology. The 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, because the document exists as a commission report to the National Assembly, there is no mechanism for changing or amending the list short of a new National Assembly commission inquiry and report. The ensuing publicity contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions. Some religious groups reported that their members suffered increased intolerance after having been identified on the list. A number of individuals who belong to groups on the list continued to report discrimination during the year--for example, the loss of a job or the denial of a bank loan--which they believe occurred because of their affiliation with a "sect." In a November 1998 report, the International Helsinki Federation criticized the identification of the 173 groups, which it stated "resulted in media reports libeling minority religions, the circulation of rumors and false information, and incitement of religious intolerance." The Commission's findings also led to calls for legislative action to restrict the activities of sects, which the Government rejected on grounds of religious freedom. Instead, the Justice Ministry issued a directive to all government entities to be vigilant against possible abuses by sects, and all government offices were instructed to monitor potentially abusive sect activities.
In 1996 the Government created an interministerial working group on sects (known as the Observatory on Sects) to analyze the phenomenon of sects and to develop proposals for dealing with them. The working group's final report in 1996 made several proposals, including the granting of legal standing to organizations that oppose sects; a modification of the law requiring associations to divulge information regarding the sources and management of their finances related to their effort to obtain tax-exempt status; a limit on the allocation of public campaign funds in order to limit public financial support for small fringe groups; the creation of a representative in each prefecture to provide information on sects to local officials; the creation of a permanent commission at the European Union level to reinforce international cooperation in controlling sect activities; and measures to restrict group members' entry into professional training programs.
In October 1998, the Government issued a new decree disbanding the Observatory on Sects and creating an "Interministerial Mission to Battle Against Sects" (mission interministerielle de lutte contre les sectes). Although the decree instructs the commission to "analyze the phenomenon of sects," it does not define what is meant by the term "sect," or how sects differ from religions. The Interministerial Mission also is charged with serving as a coordinator of periodic interministerial meetings, at which government officials are to exchange information and coordinate their actions against sects.
The Interministerial Mission continued to carry out its mandate during the year. However, publication of the Mission's 1999 report was delayed. According to press reports, this delay was due to government reservations about the content of the report, which reportedly advocated new legislation aimed at abolishing a number of so-called "dangerous sects." The Prime Minister's office, as well as some prominent government figures, publicly opposed such measures, citing concerns about the constitutional provision for "freedom of conscience."
In December 1998, the National Assembly debated and passed a proposal that would allow two specific antisect groups, both classified as "public utilities," to become parties to court actions involving sects. During the year the Senate passed a version of the same bill; the proposed legislation was sent back to the National Assembly for further consideration.
In December 1998, the Ministry of Justice issued a circular urging state prosecutors to cooperate with the Interministerial Mission in bringing actions against sects.
Also in December 1998, the National Assembly created a new parliamentary commission to study the way that sects are financed. On June 18, the Commission released its report, based on questionnaires sent to groups listed as "sects" in the 1995 Gest Commission report. The questionnaires, which were sent out in March, requested detailed information about the finances of these groups, including donations, investments, financial activities, and other sources of income. The report focused on multinational groups, especially Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists. The stated basis of concern was that these groups may use excessive or dishonest means to obtain donations, which then are transferred out of the country and beyond the reach of French tax authorities. The report also raised questions about volunteers, who should be compensated under the law for providing free labor to "for profit" organizations.
Some observers are concerned about the scrutiny with which tax authorities have examined the financial records of some religious groups. The Government currently does not recognize Jehovah's Witnesses or the Church of Scientology as qualifying religious associations for tax purposes, and therefore subjects them to a 60 percent tax on all funds they receive.
In January 1996, the tax authorities began an audit of the French Association of Jehovah's Witnesses, and in May 1998, the tax authorities formally assessed the 60 percent tax against donations received by Jehovah's Witnesses from September 1992 through August 1996. In June 1998, tax authorities began proceedings to collect the assessed tax, including steps to place a lien on the property of the National Consistory of Jehovah's Witnesses. The total amount claimed (including taxes, penalties, and interest) is over $50 million (300 million francs). According to the International Helsinki Federation's 1998 report, Jehovah's Witnesses "have been singled out for close scrutiny." The tax proceedings continued at year's end.
The authorities previously took similar action against the Church of Scientology. Tax claims asserted in 1994-95 against several Scientology churches forced them into bankruptcy. In the case of the Paris church the Ministry of Finance refused to grant the church authorization to import funds to pay the claimed taxes even though the church offered to pay the total amount of all taxes assessed, a percentage of which would have come from outside the country. Subsequently, in December 1997, the Government filed legal action for the claimed amount against the former officers of the Paris church and against the Church of Scientology International (a California nonprofit organization). The hearing in this legal action was deferred pending a decision regarding a 1998 administrative claim filed with the Conseil d'Etat by the Paris church that the Minister of Finance acted improperly in refusing to allow the church to import funds to pay the assessed taxes. In January the Conseil d'Etat requested the advice of the European Court of Justice, and was awaiting a response at year's end.
In July 1997, a Court of Appeals in Lyon recognized Scientology as a religion in its opinion in the conviction of Jean-Jacques Mazier, a former leader of the Scientologists, for contributing to the 1988 suicide of a church member. In response the Minister of the Interior stated that the court had exceeded its authority and that the Government does not recognize Scientology as a religion. The Government appealed the Court of Appeals decision, but on June 30, the Court of Cassation rejected the Government's appeal, but the Court stated that it lacked the authority to decide if Scientology was a religion.
There have been a number of court cases against the Church of Scientololgy, which generally involved former members who sue the Church for fraud, and sometimes for the practice of medicine without a license. A September case in the Marseilles Correctional Court received wide media attention after judicial officials admitted that 31/2 tons of documents pertaining to the case had been destroyed by mistake. In November the court found a former local leader of the Church of Scientology and four other Church employees guilty of fraud for swindling money from former members. The court sentenced the local leader to 2 years in prison, of which 18 months were suspended and the remaining 6 months served prior to sentencing, and a fine of approximately $16,700 (100,000 francs). The other four members received suspended sentences; charges against two other persons were dropped."

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