Jehovah's Witnesses hit back at French authorities

Reuters/January 29, 1999

PARIS (Reuters) -- The Jehovah's Witnesses launched a public relations campaign against French tax authorities on Friday, accusing them of harassing the Christian sect's 250,000 members in France.

Church members took to the streets in cities and towns across the country to distribute 12 million pamphlets to passers-by, accusing the state of trying to dupe the French people by grouping the church with dangerous cults.

"An investigation that has lasted since 1995, with a goal of imposing a 60 percent tax on donations by church members: an unprecedented action for a Christian sect more than 100 years old," the pamphlet says.

"What will happen tomorrow to other religions?" it asks.

The church disclosed in June that French authorities had refused to grant it tax-exempt status, arguing the group was a cult rather than a religion. It said the authorities were seeking 300 million francs ($52 million) in back taxes.

A spokesman told Reuters the church was still in talks with tax officials and would take its case to the courts if negotiations failed to resolve the dispute.

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.

The church has operated in France since 1900. But its problems date back to January 1996 when a special parliamentary commission included it in a list of religious cults active in France.

The government has since set up a body to monitor the activities of religious 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.

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