VIENNA (AFP) - The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights hit back Thursday at accusations by a French anti-cult official that it had been infiltrated by the Church of Scientology.
The IHFHR denounced the charge, and repeated criticism of moves in France to introduce a law against cults.
Wednesday's edition of France's Le Figaro newspaper carried an interview with the government's leading anti-cult official Alain Vivien, in which he suggested the IHFHR had been compromised.
The IHFHR "seems today to have passed into the hands of Scientologists and perhaps other transnational organisations," said Vivien, who heads up France's Interministerial Committee for the Struggle against Cults (MILS).
"That explains the virulent criticism of France, (which is) accused of religious discrimination," he added.
In a letter to Vivien on Thursday, IHFHR executive director Aaron Rhodes declared his "astonishment" at the charge.
He was, he wrote, "embarrassed for you and your fellow French citizens by your recourse to methods of denunciations and insinuations that remind us of those sometimes used by totalitarain and backward regimes."
In his letter, Rhodes acknowledged that its Moscow office had received funding from Scientology to print a leaflet on religious freedom, but said the group had never sought to hide the source of the funding.
The Moscow office would have been better advised to have refused the funding, "to avoid abusive and insinuating responses such as your own," he added.
"Against non-traditional religions, Russia and France have an approach that contravenes their international obligations," the letter continued.
"We fear that the legislation that you are proposing could not easily be judged compatible with the notion of religious pluralism in a democratic society," Rhodes added.
That was why the IHFHR condemned the proposed law.
The text of the proposed law, which was passed by a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, will go before the full National Assembly next week.
The proposed law would give the courts -- and not just the government -- the power to break up cults that have been convicted at least twice in the courts.
Scientologists have been convicted in two separate trials in France in recent years: at a trial in 1996 in Lyon and another in Marseille in 1999.
In the letter, Rhodes described the proposals as repressive. "It goes to the heart of the right of freedom of association, expression, of religion and of was conscience."
It also endangered the right of minorities and embodied prejudices that were not compatible with respect for rights, he added.
The IHFHR is a non-governmental organisation uniting 39 Helsinki Committees. Its mandate is to monitor compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Final Act on human rights, out which was formed the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In the United States Wednesday, members of the Church of Scientology called on the US Congress to denounce what they claimed was religious discrimination targeting their church in several European countries.
Earlier this month, the president of the Church of Scientology International Heber Jetzsch condemned a raid by french police on the group's Paris headquarters as "flagrant retaliation" against its "pro-religious" activities.
Scientology has been listed as a cult in a number of French government reports.