Back to Index
U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The 1905 law on separation of church and state--the foundation of current legislation on religious freedom--makes it illegal to differentiate on the basis of faith. However, the Government took some actions during the period covered by this report that targeted religious minorities that it describes as "sects."

The Government uses many categories to describe associations. Two of these categories apply to religious groups: "associations cultuelles" (associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes) and "associations culturelles" (cultural associations which are not exempt from taxes). Associations in these two categories are subject to certain management and financial disclosure requirements. An association of worship can organize only religious activities. It may not operate a school or employ a board president. A cultural association, on the other hand, is a type of for-profit association whose goal is to promote the culture of a certain group. Although a cultural association is not exempt from taxes, it may receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations (such as schools). Religious groups normally use both of these categories; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, for example, runs strictly religious activities through its association of worship and operates a school under its cultural association.

Religious groups must apply with the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and therefore receive tax-exempt status under the 1905 statute. The prefecture, upon reviewing the documentation supplied regarding the association's purpose for existence, then can grant that status. In order to qualify, the purpose of the group must be solely the practice of some form of religious ritual. Printing publications, employing a board president, or running a school can disqualify a group from receiving tax-exempt status.

According to the 1905 law, associations of worship are not taxed on the donations that they receive. However, the prefecture can decide to review a group's status if the association receives a large donation or legacy that comes to the attention of the tax authorities. If the prefecture determines that the association is not in fact in conformity with the 1905 law, its status can be changed, and it can be required to pay a 60 percent tax rate on present and past donations.

According to statistics published by the Ministry of the Interior, 109 of 1,138 Protestant associations, 15 of 147 Jewish associations, and 2 of 1,050 Muslim associations currently have tax free status. Roughly 100 Catholic associations are tax exempt; a representative of the Ministry of the Interior reports that the total number of non-tax-exempt Catholic associations is too numerous to make an accurate estimate.

For historical reasons, contrary to practice in the rest of the country, the Jewish, Lutheran, Reformed (Protestant), and Roman Catholic groups in three departments of Alsace-Lorraine enjoy special legal status, in terms of taxation of individuals donating to these religious groups. Adherents of these four religions may choose to have a portion of their income tax allocated to their church in a system administered by the central Government.

The Government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation. The vast majority of the population is nominally Roman Catholic, although many Catholics do not practice their faith actively. (According to one member of the Catholic hierarchy, only 8 percent of the population are actually practicing Catholics.) Muslims are the second largest group in number. According to various estimates, about 6 percent of the country's citizens are unaffiliated; Protestants account for 2 percent; and the Jewish and Buddhist populations each account for 1 percent. Jehovah's Witnesses claim that 250,000 persons attend their services either regularly or periodically. According to various estimates, Orthodox Christians number between 80,000 and 100,000; the vast majority of these persons are associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches. The Jewish community numbers between 600,000 and 700,000 persons. It is divided among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox groups. According to press reports, up to 60 percent of the Jewish community celebrates at most only the high holy days such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. One Jewish community leader reports that of the practicing Jews in the country, the largest number are Orthodox.

Missionaries must obtain a 3-month tourist visa before leaving their country. Upon arrival missionaries must apply with the local prefecture for a carte de sejour (a document that allows a foreigner to remain in the country for a given period of time), and then must give the prefecture a letter from their sponsoring religious organization.

The State subsidizes private schools, including those that are affiliated with churches. Public schools also make an effort to supply special meals for students with religious dietary restrictions.

Central or local governments own and maintain religious buildings constructed before 1905, the date of the law separating church and state.

The Government has made efforts to promote interfaith understanding. The Government also has strict antidefamation laws prohibiting racially or religiously motivated attacks. For example, the Government has programs to combat racism and anti-Semitism through public awareness campaigns, and by encouraging dialog between local officials, police, and citizen groups.

However, the Government's response to some minority groups that it views as "sects" or "cults" has been 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 to study so-called "sects." The Commission, also known as the Gest or the Guyard Commission (after the names of its chairman and rapporteur respectively), was tasked with "studying the phenomenon of sects" and "proposing, if necessary, the adaptation of existing laws" to address 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. According to the International Helsinki Federation, in its November 1998 report to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Human Dimension Implementation meeting in Warsaw, the identification of the 173 groups "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 (issued in the summer of 1996) proposed to: (1) give legal standing to organizations that oppose sects, thereby allowing them to initiate civil actions against sects; (2) modify the law requiring associations to divulge information regarding the sources and management of their finances related to their effort to obtain tax-exempt status; (3) limit the allocation of public campaign funds to groups and parties with 2 percent or more of the eligible voting population's support, thereby limiting public financial support for small fringe groups; (4) place a "resource" representative in each prefecture to communicate information to local officials regarding sects; (5) create a permanent commission at the European Union level to reinforce international and European cooperation in controlling sect activities; and (6) implement 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. Some observers assert that this commission targets groups not on the basis of their presumed illegal activities but on the basis of their religious or other beliefs.

In December 1998, the National Assembly created a new parliamentary commission to study the way that sects are financed. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice issued a circular urging state prosecutors to cooperate with the Interministerial Mission in bringing actions against sects.

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. The proposal was expected to be debated and voted upon by the Senate in the fall of 1999.

On June 18, 1999, the National Assembly released its second report on "sects," which addressed the finances of the groups. This report was based on questionnaires sent to groups listed as "sects" in the 1995 parliamentary report. The questionnaires, which were sent out in March 1999, 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 are then 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.

The Government has not outlawed any of the groups on the list; however, several groups have reported that they have experienced discrimination since the publication of the 1995 National Assembly report. For example, leaders of l'Institut Theologique de Nimes (ITN), a private Bible college founded in 1989, claim that the institute and its members began experiencing discrimination in 1996, after the group was named on the 1995 list. The founder and leader, Louis Demeo, is head pastor at an associated church (Eglise Evangelique de la Grace), which also runs a private high school and a private primary school. However, the church itself was not named on the list.

ITN members claim that press articles noting that the group is one of the 173 groups labeled a "sect" in the parliamentary report have resulted in a discriminatory attitude toward ITN. Negative publicity reportedly has prompted members to leave the church. One member of the church lost her job, and three young persons were denied internships with local businesses. In addition, an employee at the Chamber of Commerce reportedly lost his job due to his past ties to the church, and because his brother is an active member. Church leaders have claimed that, after months of preparation, ITN's bank refused to grant a loan to them because of the group's inclusion on the list and despite their ability to repay the loan. ITN members claim that an ITN missionary was denied a credit card due to his status as a member of the church.

ITN's leadership claims that when other defamatory newspaper articles appeared the city of Nimes revoked ITN's privilege to use a room in the town hall to work with juvenile delinquents even though the institute had used the room for 10 years. In addition, after the list was published, the police allegedly visited a worship service to see if a woman involved in a difficult divorce case was attending. Her husband reportedly claimed that she was a member of a cult. According to ITN, the woman's brother was a church member and the woman had only attended the church approximately 10 times in 10 years.

ITN leaders have contacted various government officials and sought support from various local and international organizations. They report that thus far they have been unable to obtain a meeting with any government official.

Some observers are concerned about the scrutiny with which tax authorities have examined the financial records of some religious groups. According to the 1905 law separating church and state, religious associations are not taxed on voluntary donations that they receive, although all churches pay taxes on certain activities. Religious groups must differentiate between activities carried out as an association of worship, which are not taxed, and activities carried out as a cultural association, which are subject to tax. The Government currently does not recognize Jehovah's Witnesses or the Church of Scientology as qualifying religious associations, 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, formally assessed the 60 percent tax against all 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," and their "fiscal management has been examined with an intensity that suggests harassment."

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 an administrative claim 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.

Treatment of religious minorities often is determined by local authorities. For example, in January 1999, the mayor of Saint-Sebastien-sur-Loire issued a special decree against the association "Say No to Drugs and Yes to Life" to prohibit it from distributing flyers and booklets or other material on the danger of illicit drugs. According to press reports, his decision was based solely on the fact that the Church of Scientology sponsors the association that published the material. However, in April 1999, Scientologists were allowed by the Paris prefecture to mount a large display in downtown Paris describing their group and its practices. According to press reports, the police received complaints for allowing such a demonstration by a "dangerous sect;" the police responded to such complaints by noting that "the freedom to demonstrate" was provided by law, as long as it did not "disrupt public order."

In July 1997, a court of appeals in Lyon recognized Scientology as a religion in an opinion that rescinded 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. In June 1999, Mazier was sentenced to 3 years in prison and a $81,833 (500,000 francs) fine.

Problems experienced by Muslims appear to be based on cultural differences more than on differences in their religious beliefs. Debate continues over whether denying some Muslim girls the right to wear headscarves in public schools constitutes a violation of the right to practice their religion. In 1989 local school officials in Grenoble denied Muslim girls the right to wear their "foulard" (headscarf) due to a law that prohibits proselytizing in schools. Their action was upheld in a decision rendered in 1989 by the Conseil d'Etat, the highest administrative court in the country, which ruled that the "ostentatious" wearing of these headscarves violated a law prohibiting proselytizing in schools. After much unfavorable media attention to the wearing of such headscarves, the Ministry of Education issued a directive in 1994 that prohibits the wearing of "ostentatious political and religious symbols" in schools. The directive does not specify the "symbols" in question, leaving school administrators considerable authority to do so. The Conseil d'Etat in 1995 affirmed that simply wearing a headscarf does not provide grounds for exclusion from school and subsequently struck down some decisions to expel girls for wearing headscarves.

Similarly, in November 1997, the naturalization of Moroccan national Khaddouj Tahir, a French resident since 1977, was refused because she wore a hejab veil during her final interview. Naturalization officials stated that "her garments showed a refusal to integrate into the French community." However, on June 18, 1999, the Government Commissioner recommended that the administrative court repeal its October 1998 expulsion decision regarding a girl less than 10 years of age who refused to remove her headscarf. The Government Commissioner stated that no threat to public order was posed and that the school administrator was incompetent to make the definitive decision.

Other religious minorities reportedly also have experienced problems with the wearing of special religious clothing. In October 1998, a British Sikh studying French and teaching English at a high school was told by the headmaster that he was not permitted to wear his turban while teaching. Through his British sponsoring organization, he was able to find a high school that allowed him to wear his turban. The same individual had a similar problem while applying for his carte de sejour. Security officials said that he would be required to remove his turban for the accompanying photo in order to expose his ears and hairline. He resolved the security services requirements by sliding his turban back so that his ears and hairline showed.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Interfaith relations at a popular level are amicable.

The annual National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (NCCHR) report on racism and xenophobia, released in March 1998, confirmed a downward trend in the number of threats or attacks against Jews since 1992: a total of 80 threats and 3 acts of violence in 1997 compared with 90 and 1 in 1996, respectively.

In April 1998, a Bordeaux court sentenced Maurice Papon to 10 years' imprisonment for his actions as secretary general of the Prefecture of Gironde from 1942 to 1944. Papon was found guilty of complicity in committing crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of hundreds of Jews to Nazi concentration camps during the World War II German occupation.

The Conseil des Eglises Chretiens en France (CECEF), formed in 1987 and made up of three Protestant members, three Catholics, and three Orthodox Christians, serves as a forum for dialog among the major Christian churches. There is also an organized interfaith dialog among the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish communities, which discuss and issue statements on various national and international issues.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy has been engaged actively on the issue of religious freedom. Representatives from the Embassy have met several times with the Interministerial Mission to Battle Against Sects. In March and April 1999, a visiting delegation from the State Department, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Helsinki Commission met with officials from the Foreign and Interior Ministries, two antisect groups, and members of the National Assembly. Several other visiting officials--including the President, the Secretary of State, and the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor--also have discussed religious freedom issues.

The U.S. Government, by raising concerns about some French official statements and policies toward religious minorities, aims to develop a common understanding with the Government on the types of governmental actions that are--and are not--in accord with international agreements on religious freedom. The United States also seeks to assure that groups labeled as "sects" receive the opportunity to address French officials about their situation.

[End of Document]

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Books] [Press Releases] [Conferences]

Revised last: 24-03-2000