PARIS (BP)–An influential U.S. lawmaker and leading human rights advocate in Congress has harshly criticized a new French law aimed at controlling religious sects.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) called the new law “a harbinger of intolerance” that could spread an “anti-religious contagion” if allowed to stand.
French parliament members finalized the law May 30, paving the way for government prosecution of religious “proselytizers, sects and cults.”
The law’s sponsors say the legislation will allow the courts to restrict sects that use brainwashing or drugs to gain control over vulnerable people.
Critics warn, however, that the bill is so vague it could be applied to almost any religious group, even the Roman Catholic Church.
“The term ‘evangelical’ can be a problem,” said International Mission Board missionary Dennis Barton. “Many Baptist groups use the term ‘Protestant’ in their titles. It’s always good to emphasize that we come from the Protestant line.”
Some churches have gone so far as to remove the word ‘evangelical’ from their title, said Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation.
Barton said Southern Baptist missionaries in France most likely will not be affected by the new legislation. For years, International Mission Board workers have been members of the French Baptist Federation, which is part of the French Protestant Federation. The FPF is a legal entity within France and is highly respected by government leaders, Barton said.
“We do not see any major changes in the way we do work,” he said. “But even the FPF is saying no one knows how the law will be applied. It could be enforced subjectively on the local level.”
Barton said IMB missionaries are taking steps to ensure that communities know who the missionaries represent and what they teach. Each time missionaries enter a new town they meet with the mayor and city officials. Missionaries also try to establish relationships with leaders of other evangelical, Protestant and Catholic churches already in the area.
“We want to be a known entity and not work in isolation,” he said. “If you’re not Catholic and you call yourself a Christian, then that already arouses suspicion. Being isolated raises the level of suspicion.”
Find prayer needs, praises for France http://www.imb.org/CompassionNet/countries.asp
Learn about the Ile-de-France mission team in Paris http://www.peopleteams.org/paris