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Anti-Cult Law in France

"France's Anti-Sect Bill could hinder Religious Freedom"

by Willy Fautre ("Worthy News," July 20, 2000)

BRUSSELS, Belgium (Compass) -- The French National Assembly has adopted Europe's toughest anti-cult legislation, which would create a controversial new crime of "mental manipulation" punishable by a maximum fine of $75,000 and five years imprisonment. Christian leaders are concerned about the bill's possible consequences.
"Without understanding the risks, it is dangerous to create a crime of mental manipulation -- something that sooner or later will be assimilated with a crime of opinion," said Stephan Lauzet, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance. "The situation is sufficiently worrying that we should remain vigilant."
The new anti-cult bill dated May 30 and unveiled on June 6 was authored by Member of Parliament Catherine Picard and signed by all French Socialist members of the National Assembly. It went through the Law Commission on June 21 and was voted on the next day in the National Assembly. It must now go back to the Senate for approval of the latest amendments. The Senate approved a less stringent bill last December.
The bill, which contains 11 articles, represents the latest effort to pass repressive legislation against minority religions.
In 1996, the French government published a list of 173 "dangerous sects" that included an evangelical church with connections with Baptists in the United States, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists.
Article 1 of the Assembly bill provides for the dissolution of a corporation or association whose activities "have the goal or effect to create or to exploit the state of mental or physical dependence of people who are participating in its activities" and which infringe on "human rights and fundamental liberties," when this association, or its managers (or de facto managers) have been convicted "several times" for offenses such as fraud, illegal practice of medicine, and several other criminal offenses.
Article 6 bans sects from advertising and prohibits them from opening missions or looking for new members within a perimeter of 200 meters from a hospital, a retirement home, a public or private institution of prevention, curing or caring, or any school for two to 18-year-old students. Violation can bring a sentence of two years imprisonment and a $30,000 fine.
Article 8 punishes any promotion or propaganda by an association or group falling under Article 1 "intended for young people" (age not defined) under penalty of a $7,500 fine, applicable to both individuals and associations.
Article 9 establishes the new crime of "mental manipulation." Mental manipulation is defined as any activity or activities "with the goal or the effect to create or to exploit a state of psychological or physical dependence of people who are participating in the group's activities, to exercise on one of these people repeated and serious pressure and to use patent techniques to change the person's judgement in order to lead this person, against his or her will or not, to an act or an abstention which is heavily prejudicial to him/her." The penalty is three years of imprisonment and a fine of $40,000.
If the victim is considered particularly weak due to his or her age, illness, etc., the penalty is five years imprisonment and a $75,000 fine.
This bill has given rise to considerable concern not only among so-called "sects" but also among the religious establishment, which fears the reawakening of anti-Catholic forces and a new wave of religious intolerance.
In its June 23 editorial, the French daily newspaper "Le Figaro" wondered if the Catholic Church would not be targeted by the anti-cult 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.' Nevertheless, that is the way Carmelites live."
Pope John Paul II, formally accepting the credentials of the new French ambassador to the Holy See, Alain Dejammet, on June 10, devoted a part of his speech to religious liberty: "To discriminate against religious beliefs, or to discredit one or another form of religious practice, is a form of exclusion contrary to the respect of fundamental human values and will eventually destabilize society, where a certain pluralism of thought and action should exist, as well as benevolent and brotherly attitude. This will necessarily create a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition and suspicion, not conducive to social peace."
Father Jean Vernette, the episcopate's delegate on the cult issue, said in an interview with the daily Catholic paper "La Croix" on June 22, "How can one make, with no mistake, the difference between spiritual guidance and mental manipulation? My fear is that the fight against cults, although necessary, will become, for some people, the vector of a new fight against religion."
Reverend Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation, said in the June 22 "La Croix," "Where is the limit between the persuasive speech, the passionate sermon and mental manipulation? In fact, all the religious movements must feel threatened by the anti-cult fight. I am still waiting for an accurate definition of mental manipulation. Is it possible that one day I will be suspected too?"
The Protestant weekly magazine "Reforme" devoted a full issue to cults and warned against "aberrations" of public opinion and political powers.
Aaron Rhodes, the chairman of the International Helsinki Federation, told Compass, "For several years, we have been one of the rare European human rights organizations to warn France about the dangerous deviations of its anti-cults policy, the introduction of measures and laws of exception."
From July 1 to December 31, 2000, France will be chairing the European Union. Some observers fear that it will use its position to promote anti-cult policy.

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