STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) -- About 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses marched in the northern French city of Strasbourg on Friday to protest the French government's attitude toward the Christian sect and its 250,000 members in France.
Church representatives delivered letters to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe urging respect for freedom of religion in Europe and denouncing France's "campaign of denigration and fiscal discrimination" aimed at the sect.
French authorities have refused to grant the church tax-exempt status, arguing it is a cult rather than a religion. Church officials say the authorities are seeking $48 million in back taxes.
In January 1996, a special commission of the French parliament included the church in a list of religious cults in the country.
The government has since set up a panel to monitor the cults, which became a hot issue following the grisly deaths of 16 members of the secretive Order of the Solar Temple in southeastern France in December 1995.
Jehovah's Witnesses, who are barred by church rules from political activities, military conscription and accepting blood transfusions, insist they want only to be treated by the authorities in the same way as other Christian religions.
Church members took to the streets in cities and towns across the country in January to distribute 12 million pamphlets accusing the state of trying to dupe the French people by grouping the church with dangerous cults.
The church has operated in France since 1900.
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