France to crack down on sects

The Guardian, June 14, 2000
By Paul Webster

PARIS - France will defy President Clinton's appeal to be more tolerant of religious sects and introduce draconian laws, including an offense of "mental manipulation" - brainwashing - which will carry a two-year prison sentence.

President Jacques Chirac has told Clinton that religious freedom will no longer be a subject for bilateral presidential talks in the light of what has been officially described as "shocking" White House support for Scientologists and Moonies.

The French government has also complained that Congress's introduction of laws protecting religious freedom internationally is "an unacceptable intrusion into internal affairs."

Alain Vivien, chairman of a French ministerial mission to combat the influence of cults, said many observers believe Clinton was making his peace with big religious movements "because they offer an indispensable source of political financing."

The French senate has approved legislation reinforcing the right of victims to take action against marginal religious groups. The national assembly plans to toughen the measure even further when it debates the measure on June 22.

Legislators on both the left and the right are expected to vote in favor of authorizing the courts to forcibly dissolve sects after two complaints, and to forbid them operating in the neighborhood of schools, hospitals and nursing homes. They also intend to make sects responsible for acts considered to be a provocation to suicide or incitement to abandon families.

France has waged war against mainly American-sponsored movements, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, has been running for at least 20 years, prompting the accusation, particularly by Scientologists, that it is indulging in "collective hysteria" and preparing to ban religious freedoms.

Vivien denied that France was acting alone, claiming that Germany was leading the battle, with strong support from Belgium, the first country to produce a legal definition of a sect.

"The United States position is less and less understood in Europe," he said. "No one can forbid us to take action against sects in the interests of human rights. This point of view is particularly absurd when these movements flout the most elementary rights."

He claimed that religious sects, led by Scientologists, were infiltrating U.N. and European human rights associations, financing some of their work and collaborating on reports that condemned France "with virulence."

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