France is moving forward with Europe's severest legislation against minority religious groups, igniting fears among civil-liberties organizations that it could invite similar measures by other governments.
Ignoring criticism from mainstream church leaders and foreign governments, especially Washington, France's National Assembly has passed a law "to reinforce the prevention and repression of groups of a sect-like character."
The French bill is awaiting final passage by the Senate, which is expected some time in the fall.
"This law makes the practice of one's religion into a criminal offence," said Joseph Grieboski, president of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
The legislation contains two controversial parts.
First, it creates a new category of crime, carrying a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, for 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 judgment."
Second, it enables courts to order that officially designated cults be dissolved if two leading members are convicted of crimes such as fraud and child abuse.
Critics of the legislation say its language is too vague, leaving such terms as "sect," "dependence" and "pressure" undefined.
The respected French daily Le Figaro pointed out that the lifestyle of a Carmelite nun could fall afoul of the legislation.
Others have said the law's vague language might describe some commercial marketing techniques.
There is also concern that France's attitude may be spreading.
Belgium, Germany, Austria and several Eastern European countries have also officially identified "sects," many of them American, for close monitoring.
Newspapers in Hong Kong have reported that the territorial government is planning similar legislation to control the Falun Gong movement, which is outlawed as an "evil cult" in the rest of China but is still legal in Hong Kong.
"Lawmakers and administrators in such countries use anticult initiatives of the minority [of]Western European states . . . as justification for even harsher measures that have adverse impacts on a wide range of smaller but legitimate religious groups," Professor W. Cole Durham, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Utah's Brigham Young University, said at a U.S. Senate committee hearing last month.
But French parliamentarian Catherine Picard, co-author of the bill, said critics have misunderstood the legislation and its objectives.
"We don't care about religion, that's not our problem," she said. "You can worship an orange in your kitchen as long as you don't disturb public order, as long as you don't force people and act in illegal ways."
According to a recent French poll, 73 per cent of respondents believe cults are a danger to democracy and 86 per cent would ban organizations such as the Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology, to which the French government has been paying close attention for 10 years.
"Right off the bat, I think they'll nail Scientology," said Rev. Louis DeMeo, a U.S.-born Baptist pastor who has lived in France for 20 years.
But Scientology is hardly alone in France's bad books.
The French Interministerial Mission to Battle Against Sects has drawn up a list of 172 officially designated sects with 400,000 adherents.
These groups are having difficulties elsewhere, too. In fact, the word evangelical -- a Christian term for preaching the Gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ -- has come to be nearly synonymous with religious proselytizing.
In Germany, the Scientologists have been called a totalitarian group.
Scientologists, seeking to counter this label and the baggage it carries in Germany, have likened themselves to the persecuted Jews of the Second World War.
In Belgium, a list of designated cults includes groups that most North Americans consider to be relatively benign, such as the Amish, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Assemblies of God and the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"There is a very strong anti-religious bias that has emerged in Europe. "If you are an evangelical, you're a nut," Christopher Smith, a U.S. congressman who chairs the human-rights-monitoring Helsinki Commission, told the Washington Times recently.
Religious scholars and representatives of international religious bodies say Europeans have reacted with horror to cult-related tragedies around the world, such the recent sect suicide in Uganda, which claimed more than 900 lives. CORRECTION France's anticult legislation has been approved by both houses of parliament and requires only the signature of the President to become law. Incorrect information was published yesterday. (Wednesday, June 13, 2001, Page A2)