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French anti-sect proposal draws protests from Baptists, others

WASHINGTON (BP)–Baptists in France are keeping a close watch on an anti-sect law that was approved by the French National Assembly in June and which goes to Senate for approval in September.

While freedom to proclaim the gospel has not yet been affected, the bill has made the religious situation in France, a predominantly Roman Catholic country, more difficult for the minority Protestant groups and certainly for other groups, which have been labeled as sects.

The genesis of the bill is the fear in France of groups such as the Order of the Solar Temple, whose members committed suicide in Canada, Switzerland and France in 1994 and 1995. A key concern in the proposed law is “mental manipulation,” which would be severely punished.

A quasi-governmental list tallies more than 170 groups or organizations considered to be dangerous. The list was compiled without any input from the parties listed, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Scientologists and the Unification Church.

The concern of the Federation of Evangelical Baptist Churches is that the bill, titled “Human Rights and Public Liberties,” can be misused, said Etienne Lhermenault, FEBC general secretary.

The situation in France “has been made infinitely more complicated by the vast ignorance of the French as far as religion is concerned,” he said.

He also criticized the media for their “confusing generalizations and by the mediocre level of their information on Protestantism and the evangelical churches.” One of the groups targeted as sects are the French Pentecostals, for example.

The FEBC has reminded that France, which did not grant freedom of worship until 1905, is a secular state, and French law affirms that the state recognizes no church or religion but guarantees to all the right to worship freely in private.

The majority of Protestant churches, including French Baptists, have approached various governmental offices to intervene on behalf of Christian communities that had been unjustly accused during deliberations over the law.

There is also concern in the worldwide religious community that this move to identify religious groups and put them under the control of the state is a growing one not only in France but also in Germany, Austria, Belgium and other countries in Western Europe.

“It is a sad day that in the beginning of the 21st century universal religious freedom continues to be restricted, not only in Eastern Europe but in Western Europe,” said Denton Lotz, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. “For 500 years Baptists have died for and defended religious freedom for all peoples and all religions. Indeed, the concept of religious freedom for all is the historical contribution of Baptists to not only western civilization but to the world.

“We must be continually vigilant in protecting religious freedom, in majority and minority situations, Lotz continued. “Baptists generally agree that where religious freedom is denied, the denial of other freedoms soon follows. Of course, ultimately, as Baptists we believe that religious freedom comes from Christ who is the truth [that can] make you free.”

In early August, the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Religious Liberty E-mail Conference issued a statement to the United Nations jointly with Advocates International of Washington D.C. and Christian Solidarity Worldwide in the United Kingdom.

Under the proposed law’s prohibition against a religious group “creating a state of mental or physical dependence,” the statement noted, “Power is given to the State to dissolve religious groups and impose sentences of up to 5 years and fines of up to 500,000 French Francs. …

“The vagueness of the wording appears to seriously infringe upon the freedom of speech, including speech intended to persuade another person to a particular point of view, whether philosophical, political, or religious,” the three groups’ statement noted. “At various points in its consideration of religious freedom the international community has clearly recognized that the freedom to share one’s beliefs is integral to certain religions and is contained within the rights of both freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Without the freedom to speak and the related freedom to hear ideas there can be no true freedom of belief as protected under international law. The bill threatens to undermine these rights and to set an unsuitable precedent in the region.”

In 1996, the statement noted, “a list of 179 groups was published and became a de-facto black list of ‘dangerous cults.’ The list included groups that were regarded as mainstream Christian groups, such as the Baptists. The categorization as cults aroused immediate intolerance, with listed groups suffering stigmatisation and marginalisation.

“No mechanism for dialogue with the government seems to exist, nor does there appear to be a possibility of being removed from the lists,” the statement notes. “Furthermore, these lists have gained quasi-official status as government officials have begun to predicate their treatment of groups or individuals based on the listing.

“These measures are being pursued in spite of the many international guarantees binding France to respect non-discrimination and religious freedom, as well as the protection provided in Article 77 of the French Constitution that ‘all citizens shall be equal before the law, without distinction of origin, race, or religion.’

“We are not advocating protection for groups that cloak illegal activities under the guise of religious freedom,” the statement noted. “Criminal activity by an individual or an organization — religious, political, or otherwise — can and should be prosecuted under criminal law. Time-tested legal methods have protected society from criminal elements in the past and safeguarded minorities that may not be popular but are otherwise law-abiding. These are the tools that should be resorted to rather than blacklisting groups or conducting extra-judicial investigations. …

“The practice of establishing a two-tier system and of classifying groups as cults, especially without proper investigation or discussion, paves the way for serious abuses of religious freedom,” the statement concludes. “This is seen all too often in states where such systems are used to oppress, control and exploit legitimate religious activity. It is essential, if democracy and human rights are to be secured, that minority religious groups are given equal treatment and that discrimination against such groups is rigorously avoided.”

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