Religious liberty advocates on Capitol Hill are concerned about a proposed French law to imprison religious "proselytizers" for up to two years for "mental manipulation" of the public.
The bill aims to limit the spread of what French officials have called 173 "dangerous sects" in France. These include Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists and Unificationists, among others, but also well-known evangelistic denominations such as the Baptists.
The proposed crime, which critics say could cover many religious, advertising and interest groups, is to "exercise serious and repeated pressure on a person in order to create or exploit a state of dependence." The bill would allow the French government to shut down a religious group when two representatives are found guilty of at least one legal infraction.
The legislation must be reconciled with a less stringent bill approved in the French Senate in December. It then would go to President Jacques Chirac for approval.
Once approved, French law could proscribe incidents of evangelism even by the religious faith of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who are both Southern Baptists.
"This is something that we are going to have to watch closely," a senior State Department official said yesterday. "In a worst-case scenario, it could turn out to be a nasty piece of legislation."
French Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou last week called the bill "a significant advance giving a democratic state the legal tool to efficiently fight groups abusing its core values."
However, she said, the new criminal code could conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights, and she recommended a "pause" before the French Senate votes so that human rights and church groups can comment.
T. Jeremy Gunn, who as a member of the U.S. Institute of Peace had visited France on religious liberty matters, said several French officials resorted to "ad hominem" attacks on American officials by charging they belonged to the "sects" in question.
State Department officials who have spoken to French lawmakers say that many of them describe the legislation - drafted by members of the Socialist Party - as advocacy work by a charismatic citizen named Jacques Guyard. Mr. Guyard leads an anti-sect movement and was author of the government's sect list.
"There is a hope [among some French officials] that this will rise above personality," the State Department official said.
"Overly aggressive evangelical preaching could be interpreted by some as mental manipulation," the Rev. N.J. L'Heureux, moderator of the religious liberty panel of the National Council of Churches, said in an interview.
Mr. L'Heureux, a Methodist, was one of eight witnesses who testified before the House Committee on International Relations June 14 regarding the French law and other efforts in Western Europe to curtail new, minority religious denominations.
The push in Western Europe to form "sect commissions" and legislate against sects began after the 1994 and 1995 suicides and murders by Solar Temple members in Canada, Switzerland and France.
Scholars say Western Europe is the most secular part of the world and many young people are looking at unconventional approaches to find a deeper meaning to life. For example, in traditionally Catholic France only 8 percent of the population attends Catholic services, according to a Catholic bishop cited in the State Department report.
France, Germany, Austria and Belgium set up commissions to list sects, which in Belgium include even the YWCA. But France is the first to make so-called religious "mind control" a crime.
The French sect list, published in 1996, was followed by the establishment in 1998 of a government agency called the Interministerial Mission to Battle Against Sects. "The fact that it is called a 'battle against' assigns a prejudice," the State Department official said.
Testimony before the House committee suggested the young democracies of Russia and Eastern Europe are working out the relationship between majority and minority religions and might be influenced by the proposed French law.
The European Union so far has rejected the rush to blacklist small religions. France's former foreign minister, M. Alain Vivien, is chairman of the French anti-sect commission. According to the House testimony, he was in Germany, Russia and Poland this month promoting anti-sect work.
In Rome, Pope John Paul II welcomed France's new ambassador to the Vatican on June 14 by saying "religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right." He urged the French news media "to be vigilant and to treat fairly and objectively the different religious denominations."
Sensational coverage of the French sect list had stirred public fears and some harassment, the State Department's 1999 report on religious liberty said.
In response to the proposed law, Michel Bertrand, president of the council of Protestant Churches, said, "We will not move forward . . . by casting suspicion on all forms of religious faith."
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