When is a religion a sect? When can conversion, or evangelism, or even political campaigning, be described as "brainwashing"? The lower house of the French parliament last week adopted the first draft of Europe's most draconian law against religious sects.
Three years ago the German government published a pamphlet accusing the Scientology sect of totalitarian tendencies, and several Länder have banned sect members from jobs in the public sector, but attempts to impose a wider ban in Germany have hit legal obstacles.
If approved by the Senate or upper house, and then President Chirac, the French law would place a new criminal offence -"mental manipulation" - on the statute book.
The intention is to allow the police and the parents of sect disciples to bring legal action against sects, even if the "victims" have made no complaint.
The law would allow the French government to shut down sects convicted of mental manipulation on more than one occasion.
However, the vagueness of the wording and the sweeping nature of the new law have set alarm bells ringing in mainstream French churches, as well as the headquarters of the Scientologists and the Moonies.
"The role of the State is to protect religious liberty and guarantee its exercise, not to limit it," said Monseigneur Claude Dagens, the Roman Catholic bishop of Angoulême. "We want a laity which shows respect [for religion], not intolerance."
Michel Bertrand, president of the council of Protestant churches in France (themselves persecuted in the not so distant past), said: "We will not move forward through repression, nor by casting suspicion on all forms of religious faith."
He pointed out that the wording of the draft law could be interpreted as banning political campaigning.
The draft law, proposed by Socialist members of the National Assembly but approved unanimously by deputies of all parties on Thursday, follows a parliamentary investigation into the proliferation of sects in France.
Up to 500,000 French people are thought to belong to "new religions" or sects. The Scientologists are especially strong in France.
However, the Socialist-led French government has itself expressed doubts about the wisdom and legality of the draft anti-sect law in its present form.
The justice minister, Elisabeth Guigou, said the text might infringe the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantee liberty of belief, speech and association.
She called for a "pause" before the text goes to the Senate, to seek the views of both human rights groups and churches.
Under the text agreed on Thursday, it would be an offence to "exercise serious and repeated pressure on a person in order to create or exploit a state of dependence, which would lead the person, whether willingly or not, to act, or fail to act, in a way which would be gravely prejudicial to that individual".
Danièle Gounord of the French Church of Scientology said the draft law was "the death-knell of democracy in France". Members of the Rael sect proclaimed that a "climate of persecution" now existed in France. As a result, they said, sect members would seek political asylum in the United States.
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