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The Threat of France’s Anti-Sect Laws to Religious Liberty in Europe & Beyond
by Joseph K. Grieboski
The countries of Western Europe have committed to the highest standards of freedom of religion and belief. They have ratified the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil a nd Political Rights, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. They are all subject to the European Court of Human Rights and members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Unfortunately, some of these countries are nevertheless becoming new and subtle arenas for religious discrimination.
In 1996 the French National Assembly released a list of 172 “dangerous sects and cults.” Included among these “perilous” groups are Hassidic Jews, Buddhists, the YMCA, the Pentecostal Evangelical Church, and other mainstream religious organizations that flourish in the United States under the internationally recognized basic human right of freedom of religion. Many Evangelical churches have removed the term “evangelical” from their titles out of fear of being placed on such a list and being targeted for prosecution or violence.
There is no legal definition for the terms “sect” and “cult” in French law. As the list shows, the terms have been applied to any religious group whose designation as a sect or cult has suited the French government.
Following the passage of the list, the government established the Inter-Ministerial Mission Against Sects (MILS), headed by former French deputy foreign minister Alain Vivien. “We are protecting freedoms at least as well as the Americans,” Vivien told Reuters News Agency in 1999. “In the United States, freedoms are crazy. In the name of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids the enactment of laws dealing with religious affairs, one can say and do anything he wishes, including practicing polygamy like some Mormons do.”
Vivien became France’s ambassador for anti-religiosity, and MILS developed working relationships with some of the most egregious violators of religious freedom and human rights in the world. In November 2000, representatives of MILS attended an International Symposium on Destructive Cults held in, of all places, Beijing. The People’s Daily reported that “the meeting is to focus on promoting international cooperation . . . for the prevention and control of destructive cults . . . and call for more attention from various governments, the general public and civil organizations to the issue of destructive cults, and to promote international cooperation in combating such evil forces and safeguarding human rights.”
Vivien and his staff traveled throughout the world exporting their anti-religiosity, even coming to “anti-cult” conferences in the United States. They visited at least 88 countries in three years.
A Worse Example
A bill enacted by the French government is an even worse example of France’s official limitation of freedom of religion. Signed into law in June 2001, the bill “to reinforce the prevention and repression of groups of a sectarian nature” aims to restrict the free expression, growth, and development of sects and cults.
While the law, known as the About-Picard Law after its sponsors, is specifically aimed at “groups of a sectarian nature,” it contains repressive measures that will have a chilling effect on freedom of religion, including the dissolution of targeted religious associations, the imprisonment of members of such groups, and the denial of their freedom of speech, including speech intended to persuade another person to a particular point of view, whether philosophical or religious. It provides drastic penalties for a “crime” described in terms subjective, unscientific, arbitrary, and vague enough to encompass any religious activity, including teaching and evangelizing.
The law applies only to religious and philosophical groups, and not to political or business groups, although many of France’s political parties could be immediately dissolved if its sweeping, arbitrary power were applied to them. (In the last few years in France more than 200 court cases have involved political figures, resulting in at least 150 convictions, including multiple convictions of members of the same party.) The law, however, does not apply to political groups—even though, ironically, it was based on a 1936 law that was aimed exclusively at controlling political factions.
Indeed, a growing number of human rights activists believe the About-Picard Law was motivated by the appallingly high level of political corruption in France. Religions traditionally call their members to lead ethical lives and seek social reform, so attacks by politicians on religions serve the dual purpose of keeping the moral watchdogs on the defense and noisily diverting attention from political graft and malfeasance.
In essence, the About-Picard Law permits the government to prosecute or dissolve any organization that seems to establish a state of physical or psychological reliance that causes a follower to behave differently from the way he behaved in the past; it makes illegal any type of religious education or proselytizing that constitutes “abuse of a person’s state of weakness”; and it gives the government and the courts great powers, including the power of dissolution, over groups whose leaders have committed a crime, even if the crime is unrelated to the group or its activities.
States of Subjection
First, the law creates a new criminal offense: that of causing “a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from serious and repeated pressures or from techniques which can alter [a person’s] judgment,” originally called “mental manipulation.” Although the phrase “mental manipulation” has been replaced by the politer phrase “abuse of a person’s state of weakness,” the meaning of the law remains unchanged.
Second, the law allows the government to close or dissolve religious organizations for the ambiguous offense of harming a person or causing “a state of subjection,” even if the beliefs and practices are otherwise lawful and freely consented to by the individual. This is the provision that caused some of the sharpest censure. If the presumed “crime” of “causing a state of subjection” takes place on the premises of a religious organization, the premises may be closed for five years or more or even dissolved. Under the law’s broad definition, activities as commonplace as military indoctrination, most forms of education, pastoral counseling, and the strictures of Catholic monastic life have now been made illegal in France, if the government chooses to consider them such.
Third, the About-Picard Law empowers the French government to dissolve an entire religious denomination or spiritual movement should any leader accumulate more than one vaguely defined criminal offense. It does not matter if the offense was committed in the name of the association or not. Thus, if an executive or prominent member of a Pentecostal group listed on the government’s blacklist injures someone in a traffic accident for which he is found responsible, the government has the power to dissolve the group.
Further, the law allows the government to decide who is a leader of a religious group. “Leader” can include any director or officer, or even a member without any office whom the government deems a leader. It even provides for the dissolution of any related group if one of its leaders has at least one conviction against him. It provides for fines and jail sentences for anyone who attempts to reestablish the dissolved group under another name or corporation.
The list of potential criminal activities set forth in the law is extremely broad. Moreover, an individual convicted under the law may also be denied civil and family rights (such as child custody) and may be denied the right to participate in a professional or social activity if it is determined that the activity led to the action at issue in the penal proceedings.
Another provision allows associations fighting against religious faiths to initiate criminal actions as civil plaintiffs on behalf of affected persons, even if the “victims” have no complaint with the faith. In addition, “any association duly classified as being of public interest,” organized in its bylaws and articles of incorporation to “defend” and “assist” individuals or protect “collective freedoms,” may under the law initiate a civil action to dissolve a religious organization. This will allow anti-religious groups with ingrained prejudices against faiths to first initiate criminal actions against targeted individuals and organizations, and then initiate dissolution actions.
A Worldwide Threat
Not only is this legislation a threat to believers in France, it will also have a significant effect on believers worldwide. The Chinese government, for one, found the law helpful for dealing with groups outside its control. Even before it was passed, the South China Morning Post reported that the government of Hong Kong would refer to it if it chose to create criminal laws against the Falun Gong, a minority religion vigorously suppressed by the Chinese government: “[T]here were reports last month that the French anti-sect laws have already caught the eye of the Department of Justice and the Government may use French laws as a reference point in defining an ‘evil cult.’”
After the law was passed, Joseph A. Bosco reported in an article in the Washington Post that
China’s Communist leaders have finally found a Western human rights model they like: France’s new anti-cult law making “mental manipulation” a crime. Hong Kong’s Tung Chee-hwa indicated he is studying the French precedent for possible use against the Falun Gong movement because it has “more or less the characteristics of an evil cult”; he pledged to “keep a close eye on their every move.” Mainland authorities have already cracked down on the group and other spiritual and religious practitioners who resist government thought control.
This legislation violates several international principles and standards, all of which France has adopted. Among those violated are the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the Vienna Concluding Document.
Other governments and human rights activists recognize this. In a letter to this author in 2001, then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described the then-proposed legislation as
part of a disturbing trend in western Europe where some states have adopted, or are considering, discriminatory legislation or policies that tend to stigmatize legitimate expression of religious faith by wrongfully associating them with dangerous “sects” or “cults.” Such laws and policies pose a danger to freedom of religion.
In April 2001, fifty members of the parliament of the Council of Europe wrote to the French Senate urging it to stop the vote on the then draft law, commenting on its potential to create “religious discrimination in France.” The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights has insisted on the need for France “to show respect for international standards.” The law
contradicts France’s obligations undertaken in the Helsinki process. It contradicts the standards of the Council of Europe. . . . The law is a threat to religious tolerance and basic liberties that are central to French political values. The law reflects a demonizing attitude toward minority religions and will increase the sense of insecurity felt by members of minority religions.
In France itself representatives of the civil society and the major monotheistic faiths have voiced a serious and consistent resistance. Unfortunately, the passage of this legislation exhibited a great failure on the part of the French Catholic Bishops Conference. About 85 percent of the French population identifies itself as Catholic, though less than 4 percent actually attend Mass weekly. Despite the church’s demographic and political weight and the direct threat such legislation poses to it and its members, the bishops made little, if any, effort to oppose this law. One very high-ranking Catholic hierarch—who preferred to remain anonymous—said that the legislation “suits my purposes just fine, as it reduces the amount of competition I face in the pews every Sunday.”
The Catholic Church outside France took stronger pains to oppose the legislation. When formally accepting the credentials of the French ambassador to the Holy See, Pope John Paul II devoted an entire section of his speech to religious liberty, an unusual theme when receiving ambassadors of Western democratic countries. The pope reminded the ambassador that
religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right. This means a liberty which is not reduced to the private sphere only. . . . To discriminate [against] religious beliefs, or to discredit one or another form of religious practice, is a form of exclusion contrary to the respect of fundamental human values and will eventually destabilize society, where a certain pluralism of thought and action should exist, as well as a benevolent and brotherly attitude. This will necessarily create a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition, and suspicion not conductive to social peace.
Since 2002 there have been some improvements. In the wake of the criticism of the law and the actions of MILS, the French Foreign Ministry appointed René Roudaut, a very well-regarded diplomat and committed religious believer, Counselor for Religious Affairs to the Foreign Minister. In November 2002 a decree dissolved MILS and created the French Governmental Mission to Watch and Fight Cultic Deviances (Miviludes). The government has portrayed Miviludes as representing a new direction towards greater religious tolerance and willingness to dialogue with minority religious groups. Unlike Vivien, its president, Jean-Louis Langlais, has no history of anti-religious activism.
The situation appears to have improved, but looks can be deceiving. Several of Miviludes’s officials are former MILS officials. Its Orientation Council includes many of the most rabid of the “anti-sectarians,” including Senator Nicholas About, co-sponsor of the law; Georges Fenech, a Member of Parliament and former judge who was convicted in November 2000 of publishing anti-Semitic statements in the magazine of the Professional Association of Magistrates; and several political leaders involved in investigating sects, including some who served on the 1995 commission that drew up the blacklist of sects and cults.
Miviludes has initiated a series of biweekly seminars to run from October 2003 to June 2004 at the University of the Sorbonne on the topic of “sects and laïcité,” the latter a term for a specifically French concept of secularity. Miviludes presents them as providing an opportunity for an “open debate,” but not a single representative of a minority religion has been invited to speak. By contrast, although the list of 52 speakers includes a few reputable sociologists and scholars, the seminars are tilted heavily towards individuals whose hostility towards minority religions dates back many years.
Almost half the speakers have publicly taken a position against certain minority faiths and about one-quarter may be said to represent the type of extremist views that contributed to MILS’s demise. Speakers include the president and vice president of the parliamentary commission that drew up the list of sects, Alain Gest and Jean-Pierre Brard; Senator About; and Daniel Groscolas, president of the French anti-cult group CCMM, formerly headed by Vivien. It is likely that these individuals will continue their practice of spreading inaccurate, incomplete, and uniformly derogatory information about targeted minority faiths in France.
Under the rules of debate Miviludes announced at the first seminar, all questions must be e-mailed to the organizer days before the event. This means that representatives of minority religious organizations will not be afforded the right to correct the record if speakers provide false and derogatory information regarding targeted groups.
Furthermore, reports will be released on the Internet sites of Miviludes and the Ministry of Research, and the seminars will be broadcast by the channel of the University of All Knowledge. Many groups are understandably concerned that false information will be broadly disseminated to the public—both inside and outside France—under the umbrella of a prestigious university while being described as part of a “democratic and open” debate. Misinformation circulated about minority religions in France represents a primary cause of the discrimination members of those movements face. Thus, these seminars, as currently proposed, raise the prospect of aggravating, not easing, intolerance directed at members of minority religions.
The inherent bias and lack of balance in the seminar program is further illustrated by this quote from Miviludes: “These seminars will not seek to define the role of belief because all beliefs are legitimate in the country of absolute freedom of conscience. They will seek to discern what makes some recent groups so foreign to the natural functioning of our Republic and society, and to attempt, through reflections and information, to clarify the criteria regarding public policy regarding ‘sectarian abuses.’”
There are 80 seats available for each seminar and one has to apply to attend for the entire series. It is not known how the seats are allocated. When two members of a minority religion applied and one was rejected, the reason given was the limited seating, yet the first seminar, held on October 8, 2003, was attended by only 55 people, with the majority of those clearly connected to the anti-sect clique.
As France struggles (like most of Western Europe) with the integration of its rising Muslim population and a new wave of anti-Semitism, a long-awaited official report on church-state relations recommended sweeping changes in the way the country balances its fierce commitment to secularism with the demands of its religious minorities. From three to five million (estimates vary) of France’s almost 60 million people are Muslim, about one million Protestant, and about 600,000 Jewish.
The most dramatic recommendation of the report, titled “Respect du principe de laïcité dans la république” and delivered in mid-December to President Jacques Chirac, urges passage of a law banning “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. Such symbols would include headscarves worn by Muslim girls, skullcaps worn by Jewish boys, and large crosses worn by Christians. “Discreet” medallions and pendants that merely confirm a person’s religious faith would be allowed.
Although the report addressed the wider question of French secularism, debate has focused on the wearing of Islamic head-scarves in schools. Speaking to secondary school students a week before the report appeared, Chirac said that “Wearing a veil [headscarf], whether we want it or not, is a sort of aggression that is difficult for us to accept” and that the government could not allow “ostentatious signs of religious proselytism.” The day before, sixty prominent French women, including the actress Isabelle Adjani and the designer Sonia Rykiel, issued a petition calling on the government to ban “this visible symbol of the submission of women.”
“Muslims must understand that secularism is a chance for Islam,” the head of the commission that produced the report told a news conference. “Secularism is the separation of church and state, but it is also the respect of differences.” The commission’s proposed law was intended so people of all religions could “live together in public places,” he said. A group of Muslim women have written the prime minister, saying that they are both fully Islamic and fully French citizens, and that they will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if the government persists in forced secularization.
France is losing any sense that religion is a worthy and necessary part of civil society, and this is one underlying explanation of what is happening there (and elsewhere in Western Europe, where similar restrictions on religious freedom are being considered or approved). A government’s guarantee of the inalienable right of freedom of conscience indicates acceptance of the premise of democracy: that every individual has value and worth, and that the state is constituted to serve society, not vice versa. In this sense, freedom of conscience is the foundation of democracy.
Because religious freedom is grounded in the universal dignity of the human person, a government that denies the right to freedom of religion and conscience is far more likely to deny other rights central to human dignity, such as freedom from torture and murder. The reverse is also true. Religious individuals and groups need and deserve freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to be secure from unwarranted government intrusion.
Religious liberty is the first human right. This liberty cannot be reduced to the private sphere only. Without it there is no freedom of speech, as believers cannot communicate among themselves about their most fundamental beliefs; there is no freedom of assembly, as like-minded believers cannot meet to share their beliefs and worship their Creator; and there is no freedom of the press, as believers cannot print and share their beliefs with others. To discriminate against religious beliefs, or to discredit religious practice, will eventually destabilize society by “creating a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition, and suspicion not conducive to social peace.”
The About-Picard Law, Miviludes’s stacked seminars, and the newest attempt to limit religious symbols limit and restrict the rights of all French people to practice their beliefs according to the dictates of their consciences, and serve as a dangerous model for other states worldwide, not least those eager to find Western justification for their own oppression of religious groups. While these attacks on the rights of religious believers are cause for serious alarm in and of themselves, the model that they offer the rest of the world—particularly developing democracies—is an even greater threat. Some of the last bastions of freedom and liberty are becoming examples of the devolution of democracy and human rights.
Joseph K. Grieboski is founder and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. The Institute, which has offices in Brussels and at the United Nations, is a nonpartisan, inter-religious organization that seeks to shape the public participation in policy of the community of faith.