(RNS) Three international religious organizations -- Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Advocates International and the World Evangelical Fellowship -- have told a United Nations panel in Geneva that a French legislative proposal to regulate religious sects is a threat to religious liberty.
"Without the freedom to speak and the related freedom to hear ideas there can be no true freedom of belief as protected under international law," a WEF spokeswoman told a UNESCO subcommission earlier this month. "The bill threatens to undermine these rights and to set an unsuitable precedent in the region."
In June, the French National Assembly passed a bill declaring "mental manipulation" a criminal offense, and authorizing courts to disband groups identified as sects. A report released in February by the group that proposed the bill, the Interministerial Mission for the Fight Against Sects, included Scientology and the Unification Church among some 200 groups labeled as sects.
The bill "paves the way for serious abuses of freedom," the WEF spokeswoman said, and has language so vague it "appears to seriously infringe upon the freedom of speech, including speech intended to persuade another person to a particular point of view, whether philosophical, political or religious."
WEF said criminal activity -- "religious, political or otherwise" -- should be prosecuted, but insisted the French government give minority religious groups the same legal protection afforded majority religions.
"We are not advocating protection for groups that cloak illegal activities under the guise of religious freedom," she said. "Time-tested legal methods have protected society from criminal elements in the past and safeguarded minorities that may not be popular but are otherwise law-abiding. These are the tools that should be resorted to rather than blacklisting groups or conducting extra-judicial investigations."
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