WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptist missionaries and laypersons who share their faith in Jesus could be imprisoned for up to two years under a proposed French law that accuses religious “proselytizers” of “mental manipulation” of the public.
Southern Baptists are just one of 173 religious groups labeled “dangerous sects” by members of France’s Socialist party. The proposed bill aims to limit the spread of what French officials have called the mental manipulation of the public by evangelical and other religious groups.
Morris H. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the SBC’s Executive Committee, said he was concerned about the proposed legislation.
“It is particularly disheartening that the selfless act of sharing the good News of Jesus Christ could be equated to the ‘mental manipulation’ of the public,” Chapman said. “God does not desire to control the minds of men but to change their hearts.”
The proposed crime, which critics say could cover many religious, advertising and interest groups, is to “exercise serious and repeated pressure on a person in order to create or exploit a state of dependence.”
The bill would allow the French government to shut down a religious group when two representatives are found guilty of at least one legal infraction.
Currently, the International Mission Board has 40 workers in France and has had an established missionary presence in the country since 1960.
Dwayne Hastings, a spokesman for the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the French proposal is not surprising.
“It isn’t surprising given the climate of increased repression and persecution of Christians in many countries around the world,” Hastings said. “It would behoove Southern Baptists to be aware of this proposed legislation and make their concerns known to the U.S. State Department.”
“It is inappropriate for any government agency or faith community to attempt to intimidate or silence any other entity in the public or private expression of their faith,” Hastings noted.
A senior State Department official told the Washington Times the proposed law has raised concern in Washington.
“In a worst case scenario, it could turn out to be a nasty piece of legislation,” the official said.
French Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou last week called the bill “a significant advance giving a democratic state the legal tool to efficiently fight groups abusing its core values.”
N.J. L’Heureux, moderate of the religious liberty panel of the National Council of Churches, testified before the House Committee on International Relations June 14 about the targeting of evangelical and other religious groups.
“Overly aggressive evangelical preaching could be interpreted by some as mental manipulation,” said L’Heureux, a Methodist.
Hastings, however, said the Bible commands believers to share their faith. “The Bible is explicit in its command that we should seek to share the Gospel with everyone,” he said. “Evangelism and witnessing are actions generated out of love and concern, not hostility or hatred. It is clearly not an exercise that should be regulated by the state.”
Michel Bertrand, president of the Council of Protestant Churches, spoke out against the proposed law. “We will not move forward … by casting suspicion on all forms of religious faith,” Bertrand told the Washington Times.
Hastings said the French proposal should be a sign for Americans. “The mere fact that such a proposal is being seriously considered in France should call us to reflect upon the preciousness of the liberties guaranteed to us under the U.S. Constitution,” Hastings said. “The cost of maintaining these freedoms remains unfailing vigilance to threats at home and overseas.”