PARIS - A new law against sects expected to be adopted by the French National Assembly Wednesday is being described by opponents as an assault on human liberty and a dangerous precedent for countries like China seeking to crack down on minority faiths.
Among those expressing grave concerns about the law -- which would allow courts to shut down associations once found guilty of a range of crimes -- are the US administration, the established churches, European deputies and human rights groups.
The Church of Scientology, one of 172 groups officially designated as "sects" in France, has spearheaded the campaign against the bill, warning of the arbitrary powers it will give to judges to suppress beliefs and behaviour that run against the mainstream.
"If it is voted through, this law will allow the judicial authorities to dissolve any religion, any spiritual or other group labelled 'sect-like,'" wrote church-member Daniele Gounord in a special edition of its newspaper Ethics and Liberty.
"The law attacks the essence of the freedom of conscience and association in France," she said.
Officially entitled "the law to reinforce the prevention and repression of groups of a sect-like character," it is the amended version of a bill which was widely criticised when it passed a first reading last June because of a controversial clause making a crime of "mental manipulation."
That definition has now been removed after pressure from churches and human rights groups who said it was dangerously imprecise.
Instead a new clause punishes "the abuse of ... a person in a state of psychological or physical dependence caused by the exertion of heavy or repeated pressure or techniques liable to alter his judgement, to induce ... such person to do or forbear an act that is seriously prejudicial to him."
But the Scientologists believe the new wording is "mental manipulation" under another guise, and churches and human rights groups said it would leave judges with a dangerous latitude to interpret what constitutes "serious prejudice."
A second provision would allow courts to close down associations after members have been convicted of crimes such as personal violence, illegal use of medicines or misleading publicity.
"It is the ambiguity which is dangerous," said Guy Canonici, president of the Christian Federation of Jehovah's Witnesses in France. "Nowhere is the word sect used. Instead the law talks of sect-like movements.
"As there is no definition, it means that at some point in the future any group or association that was out of favour or unpopular could be designated sect-like. It opens the door to all kinds of abuses," he said.
According to the Church of Scientology, "A court of law should not have the power of life and death over any new religion."
Since the bill was published, US assistant secretary of state for human rights Michael Parmly has spoken of Washington's concern about its "dangerously ambiguous" language, and 50 members of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly called for its suspension until the completion of a report on religious rights in France.
The heads of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in France have also written to Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin voicing their "reservations" about the law, which could "damage fundamental liberties."
Human rights groups and minority faiths have warned that the legislation is part of a dangerous trend visible in other parts of the world, and could be used by China -- for example -- as a template for laws to suppress the Falungong sect.
"France is still seen as the cradle of human rights. Whatever law is passed here other countries can copy and say it must be acceptable because it is French. But this law kills freedom," said Jean Dupuis of the Church of Scientology.
Sponsors of the French law deny that it targets beliefs of any kind, but only groups who use coercion, emotional pressure and mind-management techniques to indocrinate individuals and enslave them to their cause.
Polls show high popular support for action against so-called sects. Public consciousness was boosted in France after the mass suicides of members of the Order of the Solar Temple in 1994 and 1995.
Subsequently a parliamentary commission drew up a list of 172 designated sects -- including Quakers and Buddhists as well as unorthodox groups such as the Raelians -- and in 1998 the government created an agency, the Interministerial Mission to Combat Sects.
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