Religious Repression in France:
Fraternity, Equality and Tyranny?
By Dan Fefferman
France, the land of "liberty, equality, fraternity," may soon become known as the land of modern-day religious tyranny. The French Senate will soon debate a bill, already passed by the Assembly, that would legally dismantle unpopular religious groups and imprison members who attempt to rebuild them.
After unanimously passing the Assembly June 22, the legislation drew a storm of protest from human rights groups, mainstream churches, and even the US government, which has criticized France for creating "an atmosphere of intolerance" toward minority religions.
Among the more draconian provisions of the bill are:
• The dissolution of a religious corporation if its managers have been convicted for offenses such as fraud, illegal practice of medicine and other crimes. Lawsuits to ban a group can be initiated not only by a government prosecutor but also by private parties including anti-cult groups.
• A three-year prison term and a 300,000 francs ($40,000) fine for any person who participates in the reconstitution of a banned corporation.
• A fine of 50,000 francs for a banned group’s actions "intended for young people," the fine being applicable to both individuals and associations.
• The creation of a new crime of "mental manipulation," with a penalty of two years in prison and a fine of 200,000 francs. Not only human rights groups and countries such as the United States have gone on record to express their concern about what the initiative portends. Mainstream religious groups in France itself have also expressed concern.
The president of the French Protestant Federation, Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, considers the bill "dangerous." He warned that the Protestants should be "particularly alert…in the face of this project to legislate on cults."
The French Council of Catholic Bishops demanded that the Parliament must "amend its text." Council spokesman Fr. Stanislas Lalanne, quoted in LeMonde, said, "A crime of mental manipulation is so vaguely defined that it can bring on uncontrolled floods of unwanted consequences."
In an apparent effort to salvage France’s international reputation and fend off challenges on constitutional grounds, Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou ordered a "pause" in the legislative process after it passed the Assembly to consult with the French National Commission of Human Rights and others legal advisors.
In the meantime, even Alain Vivien, president of the governmental Mission to Fight Cults (MILS), reportedly sent a note sent to the Prime Minister’s office stating that the word "mental manipulation… is not the most appropriate one."
Vivien and Guigou are suspected by religious freedom proponents to be seeking a way to salvage a hopelessly flawed piece of legislation that would eventually be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights. That process, however, could take many years. How many "sects" would be outlawed in the meantime, and how many of their members held in prison for attempting to propagate the doctrines of banned religions, is anybody’s guess.
An indication of the intolerance of French officialdom toward new religious groups was evident this October. The Foundation for Religious Tolerance, which is run by Scientologists, was denied a permit to march in Paris, despite such permits for the same march route having been granted to Palestinian groups and others wishing to express their right to freedom of speech.
Organizers were forced at the last minute to move the event to a private park on the outskirts of the city, out of public view. At a press conference at Bastille Square the same day, scores of riot police arrived to break up a small crowd of supporters who had gathered to cheer movie star Kirstie Alley and musician Isaac Hayes, who decried the government’s policy toward religious groups.
The next day, members of several minority religions testified about problems they had experienced due to government discrimination at a public hearing cosponsored by the US Friends of the United Nations and the French human rights group Omnium de Libertes.
Sandrine, a member of the Hare Khrishna movement and mother of two children, testified that because of her religious affiliation, the government removed her children from her custody after she returned to France from Mexico. She said that social welfare agencies refused to return her children to her unless she promised not to attend the local Khrishna temple. Only after several months and the intervention of a concerned human rights lawyer were her children reunited with their mother.
Other cases involved false imprisonment by police, government-sanctioned pressure against businesses associated with "sects," job discrimination, travel restrictions against religious leaders, discrimination against schoolchildren for wearing distinctive clothing, denigration of religions in public school curricula, and failure by the police to protect minority religionists from attack.
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