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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletOverview of the Counter-cult movement
bullet1981: Cult hysteria begins in France
bulletTaxing the Jehovah's Witnesses
bulletOther cases
bulletGovernment anti-sect mission
bulletRecent developments

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Overview of the Counter-Cult Movement:

In the 1960's, a Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) was founded in the United States. It was created in response to the many small new religious movements (NRM) -  often headed by a single charismatic leader. Young adults flocked to these groups, seeking an intense spiritual experience and inter-personal intimacy. Some of these movements encouraged their followers to sever relationships with their friends and families of origin. Many followers abandoned their academic pursuits in order to devote more time to the movement. Some parents became alarmed, fearing that their children had become the mindless victims of mind control techniques and brainwashing. A movie The Manchurian Candidate (1962), dealt with mind control. Although it was a work of fiction, and based on non-existent science, it convinced much of the public that such control was possible.  

A series of incidents involving loss of life in small destructive, religious groups (including those at Jonestown and Waco) raised public concern about "cults" in general. However, by the late 1990's, the ACM had largely run out of steam in the United States. Some within the movement had committed very serious criminal acts, assaulting and brutally kidnapping members of NRMs and forcibly confining them. A series of legal cases put the largest of these groups out of business.

But even as fear of "cults" started to diminish in North America, it was on the ascendancy in some European countries - particularly in Russia, Germany and France. Public fears were greatly increased by a religiously motivated mass suicide-murder of members of the Solar Temple group in southeast France on 1995-NOV-16. 13 adults and 3 children died.   The government of France responded with oppressive measures directed against various benign religious groups.

In the French language, the English phrase "destructive cult" can be translated as "sectes". The French word "cultes" refers to religious rituals of faith groups, and does not carry a negative meaning. This is the original meaning of "cult" in English, before it developed it present pejorative meanings.

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1981: Cult Hysteria Begins in France:

In 1981, an Information Mission on Cults was formed within the French Law Commission . This was followed by  a report written by Alain Vivien at the request of the Prime Minister during 1982 and 1983. It was published in 1985 as: "Cults in France: Expression of Moral Freedom or Factors of Manipulation." It is commonly referred to as the Vivien Report.

There was little official interest within the government of France concerning new religious groups until the mass murder-suicide by the Order of the Solar Temple in 1994, and the gas attack in Tokyo by the Aum Shinri Kyo in 1995. On 1995-JUN-29, the National Assembly established a parliamentary inquiry commission into new religious groups. The commission started its activities on JUL-18. It had no "ethnologists, sociologists and historians of religions." on staff 6 They held 20 hearings during a secret session lasting 21 hours. Such secrecy is normally applied only in matters of national security. They presented a report on 1995-DEC-22 to the National Assembly. 11

Jacques Guyard, of the Socialist Party, was the vice-chairman of the commission on cults during the interval 1995-1996. Jean-Pierre Brard, of the Communist Party, was Rapporteur. They prepared what has been called the "Guyard Report," which includes a listing of 173 new religious groups. Included were Baptist denominations, the Charismatic Catholic Renewal Movement, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Jesuits, Opus Dei, the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church. Many people consider this a "black list" of harmful or dangerous sects; it appears to be a simple list of NRMs. The report was leaked to the press in 1996, who have been using it to circulate "rumors and false information, inciting religious intolerance with impunity." 6 Much of the data that went into the report came from the "Renseignements Generaux," the French intelligence service. These data remain classified to the present time; faith groups on the list have been unable to challenge their inclusion. The committee also based its findings on French anti-cult groups such as the National Union of Associations for Defense of the Families and the Individual (UNADFI, The Associations of Defense of the Families and the Individual (ADFI) and the Center Against Mental Manipulation (CCMM). Input from academics who have specialized in the study of new religious movements was not included; the commission refused to hear them.

The International Department of the Rutherford Institute, tracks anti-Christian discrimination in countries outside the United States. In 1997-MAY, they expressed concern about the Guyard Report. 1 At least one Evangelical pastor complained that his church has lost both staff and members as a result of the inclusion of his church on the list.

The Rutherford Institute asked French President Jacques Chiraq to have the list reviewed and revised, in order to "remove organizations that prove to be reputable." John Whitehead, president of the Institute, said that "France's 'list' is the first step towards tyranny. Its government must ensure that religious freedom is reaffirmed and no further steps taken."

Human Rights Without Frontiers, (HRWF) a European group dedicated to civil rights, believes that persecution of religious minorities is increasing in France. They believe that:

bulletMinority religions have been marginalized. They find difficult, or more expensive, to rent halls for public meetings. School children from small religious groups have been stigmatized.
bulletJehovah's Witnesses have been targeted by the government. HRWF feels that they will be a test case. If there is little reaction from the public, then the persecution will expand to other religious groups.
bulletThe government plans to eliminate minority religions one at a time.

In early 1998-JUL, the French Observatory on Cults released its annual report. They conclude that "Cults represent a real threat for the State, the society and individuals; it is therefore the task of the Observatory to fight against this threat." 9 In common with anti-cult groups worldwide, the Observatory has tended to consider all "cults" to be dangerous. They reported that 50 organizations in France are indoctrinating children. This they believe is an increase from 28 in 1996.

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Taxing the Jehovah's Witnesses:

Jehovah's Witnesses are well established as a large Christian religion in France. They have been active there as the "Association Les Témoins de Jehovah " since 1900. There are approximately 220,000 Witnesses in that country, and almost 15 million worldwide. Many French families have belonged to this group for over five generations.2 They have a separate company that prints and distributes magazines and books. The latter pays taxes to the state as a commercial organization. But until now, the main religious organization has been free of taxes.

Incredible as it may sound, the French Tax Administration has ruled that the Witnesses are not a "worship association." Rather, they are considered to be a potentially dangerous sect. Fiscal services determined that "the association of Jehovah's Witnesses forbids its members to defend the nation, to take part in public life, to give blood transfusions to their minor children and that the parliamentary commission on cults has listed them as a cult which can disturb public order."

In 1998, the government of France imposed a 60% tax on religious offerings given by Jehovah's Witnesses to their organization, the local branch of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (WTS). A lien has also been established against their headquarters and printing plant.  The intent appears to be to bankrupt the group.  The Interior Ministry has refused to register the Temoins de Jehovah as an "association cultuelle" or "association culte." Thus they assert that member's contributions are taxable at the normal 60% rate for gifts in that country, under a 1992 law. The government has calculated that 303 million in French Francs ($50 million in US funds) is owed to the government. This represents 150 million in tax plus 60% in penalty charges and interest). This represents taxes not collected for the past 5 years. The Minister of Finance has refused to confirm this assessment, citing the confidential nature of the information. They do acknowledge that negotiations continue with the WTS.

On 1998-JUL-1, a demonstration was organized at the Esplanade of Human Rights near the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. Jehovah's witnesses from 15 EU member countries protested the tax. They also visited embassies, foreign ministries and selected members of the French parliament.

Spokesperson Lyman A. Swingle, a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses said: "If taxes are owed, the religious organization should pay. However, if our religion is targeted unfairly and illegally for exorbitant taxes, then it has a right to protest...When the law grants exemption from taxes to religious organizations and that exemption is allowed to the two largest Christian religions in the country but withheld from the third largest Christian religion, then we feel that something is seriously wrong." Swingle also wrote an open letter to Jacques Chirac, the President of France. He  said, in part: "The ability to practice religion freely is a basic human right, supported by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Constitution of the French Republic.  Yet the tax authority believes it has the right to use its power of taxation arbitrarily to restrict some religions but not others." He asked for the President's "support in removing this unjust and discriminatory tax...avoiding a dangerous threat to religious freedom and human rights in France".

The WTS took out full-page advertisements in the New York Times 7 for 1998-JUL-5 and in the International Herald Tribune for 1998-JUL-8. They accused the French government of a "shocking display of religious discrimination."

Washington Times columnist, Mark Kellner, commented: "I do not agree, doctrinally, with the Jehovah's Witnesses. But having been born in a land founded for religious freedom -- and having seen in my lifetime the effects of a lack of such freedom -- I am very concerned that we as Christians speak up, online and in person, against unfounded persecution."3

The Jehovah's Witnesses won their case before the High Administrative Court. The ruling in 2000-JUN stated that listing Witnesses as a "sect" is insufficient grounds for denying it tax exemptions which have traditionally been given to religious bodies.

The WTS has a long, historical record of successful court battles in the U.S. and Canada which have gone a long way to define religious freedom in these two countries. The next few years may see them forced to accomplish the same task in France.

The government also took action against a small church, the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besancon. The government does not class it as a worship association either. The church has been assessed a tax of about $80,000 USF. (Another source 9 says $500,000 USF) Like the Witnesses, this church is included in the Guyard Report list.

According to data published in 1993 by the Interior Ministry, only 149 out of a total of 1,053 Protestant associations and only 2 out of thousands of Muslim associations in France are currently entitled to tax exempt status. All of the groups which are not recognized are presumably now at risk of losing their freedom of religion and of assembly.

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Other Cases:

bulletThe French government claims to have about 150 investigations of new religious groups underway. However, no charges have been made because there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
bulletCases were brought against individual members of the Church of Scientology. The court decision found some individuals guilty. However, it acknowledged that they were not following church policy at the time. The court ruling also found that the Church of Scientology had every right to exist as a religion according to the European Convention on Human Rights. The French government has appealed this decision to the French Supreme Court
bulletThe Family (a.k.a. Children of God, Family of Love) were raided in the mid-1990's and charged with child abuse. Child welfare officials in other countries did as well. All charges have been dropped; there was no evidence of child abuse; the charges were unfounded.

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French government anti-sect mission:

On 1998-OCT-7, in response to the report of the French Observatory on Cults, the President of France issued DECREE No. 98.890: "Establishing an Inter-ministerial Mission to Fight Against Sects." 8 The document revoked an earlier decree (#96.387, 1996-MAY-9) which created an Inter-ministerial Observatory on Sects. The new mission will:

bulletconsolidate information that various Government department collect about sects
bulletbe authorized to require other departments to conduct surveys or research into cults.
bulletinform other departments of instances of "sects that violate human dignity or threaten public order."
bulletinform the Public Prosecutor of any acts by sects that should be prosecuted.
bulleteducate public representatives on "methods to fight against sects"
bulleteducate the public on the "danger that the sect phenomenon represents"
bulletattend international meetings on sects

The Mission will be led by Alain Vivien, the author of one of the original anti-sect reports published in 1985. He is currently the president of an anti-cult group "Center Against Mental Manipulation" (CCMM)

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Recent developments:

For centuries, France has had an excellent reputation in the preservation of human rights. Freedom of speech, religion, and assembly now appear to be vaporizing in that country.

bullet1998-NOV-17: The Inter-ministerial Mission to Fight Against Sects appears to be a major first step towards a significant loss of freedoms of thought, religion, and assembly in France. The European Human Rights Office of the Church of Scientology commented: "...it is clear that there is a campaign ongoing to sensitize public opinion against minority religions by labeling them indiscriminately as 'dangerous sects' thus marginalizing and attempting to criminalize them. This manipulation of public opinion is done almost daily at the moment with press, radio and television articles centering on the supposed dubious activities of sects whilst interviewing the main opponents of minority (and majority) religious movements." 9 "...the Minister of Justice announced in the National Assembly that...a 'Mr. Sect' (as it was dubbed in the media) - a magistrate - was to be placed in every Court of Appeal to co-ordinate the fight against sects."
bullet1998-OCT-28: A Human Rights Without Frontiers speech to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Implementation Meeting in Warsaw stated that a Parliamentary Inquiry into the "assets, financial and fiscal aspects of sects; their economic activities and their relations within economic and social fields" is expected to be set up in 1998-DEC or 1999-JAN. "Two laws are now to be voted by the National Assembly. The first one is meant to control the finances of 'cults' more strictly. The second one is dealing with the control of home schooling practiced by the children of members of so-called 'cults'." 10
bullet1999-DEC-17: A news release by the Foundation for Religious Freedom states that "On December 16, the French Senate, the upper house of the French legislative system, voted on a law proposal from Senator Nicolas About which provides a means to dissolve groups which 'cause trouble to public order." The bill is not yet law but has passed its first major legislative hurdle...It is entitled 'Law proposal to reinforce the penal measures against associations or groups which, through their illegal acts, constitute a trouble to public order or a major threat to the human being or the security of the State.' The bill originally stated 'groups with a sectarian character' but the words 'with a sectarian character' were removed.  In theory, therefore, the bill could apply to any group, though its real intent to target 'sects' was clear during the debate in the Senate." ("Sects" in French is equivalent to "cults" in English.) "It gives power to the President of the Republic to issue, after discussion with his Cabinet, a decree of dissolution against any group which:
A) has been condemned, as a group, by a court of law twice;
B) whose leaders have been condemned by a court of law twice for certain types of offenses and constitute a threat to public order or a major threat to human beings."
bullet2000-JUN-15: According to ReligionToday: The federal government has approved a law which allows individuals to sue "marginal religious groups" who practice "mental manipulation." The law, entitled Human Rights and Public Liberties, is considerably more draconian than the law passed in 1999-DEC in the Senate. It has the potential to impoverish religious groups by endlessly tying them up in litigation -- at least until a court decides that the law is unconstitutional. 14
bullet2000-JUN-22: The bill approved by the federal government on JUN-15 passed the National Assembly unanimously on JUN-22. It will be voted upon by the Senate in the Fall of 2000. The Explanatory Memorandum to the bill, states that the purpose of the bill "is to paralyze" the activities of new organizations with a "sect-like character". The legislation is based on the belief that new religious groups create a state of mental dependence in their members, and infringe on "human rights and fundamental liberties." The law is very vaguely worded and uses many ambiguous terms that it does not define. Any local mayor or chief of police can deny a group a permit to open a religious house of worship. Any literature that is regarded as "propaganda" can bring criminal penalties. It introduces a new term: mental manipulation which includes any activity "with the goal or the effect to create or to exploit the state of mental or physical dependence of people who are participating in the group's activities and to infringe human rights and fundamental liberties; to exert repeated pressure in order to create or exploit this state of dependence and to drive the person, against his will or not, to an act or an abstention with is heavily prejudicial." This provision of the law could be used to charge the Roman Catholic church for its teachings on abortion, birth control or co-habiting. This need for this law seems to be built upon hype and public fears; it is unsupported by any valid scientific studies.

"The law would create the offense of 'mental manipulation,' and give the state power to dissolve religious groups and imprison and fine members found to be 'creating a state of mental or physical dependence' among participants." 15

A group found guilty of "mental manipulation" would be prohibited from setting up churches or offices within 200 meters of a school, hospital, nursing home or retirement home. This would effectively ban any such group from the inner cities.

Under the law, the state could disband a religious organization if two representatives of the group were found guilty of one or more legal infractions. "The law would also make the group liable for civil penalties, restrict its right to advertise or proselytize, curtail the travel freedom of group leaders, and prohibit the groups from owning property, holding services or reincorporating themselves under another name." 16
bullet2000-JUL: A number of religious denominations and civil rights associations expressed concern about the new anti-sect law. 
bulletBruce Casino, president of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, notes that the legislation might be applied to religious groups of any size, whether new or established. "It would, by its terms, give enormous discretion to French prosecutors and civil litigants to go after religious organizations, political parties, trade unions and other groups that call for contributions or volunteer efforts from members."
bulletJohn Graz, the Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association and a Seventh Day Adventist, said "The real target of this law is religion in general. It's naive to think that only the listed groups are in danger."
bulletPope John Paul II alluded to the proposed law when meeting with the French ambassador to the Vatican. He said that: "religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right ... To discriminate religious beliefs, or to discredit one or another form of religious practice, is a form of exclusion contrary to the respect of fundamental human values and will eventually destabilize society, where a certain pluralism of thought and action should exist."
bulletHeber Jentzsch, president of the International Church of Scientology, noted that individual Scientologists have been arrested and interrogated throughout France. Businesses operated by Scientologists have been forced into bankruptcy after being "outed" in the local press. 16
bulletRev N J L'Heureux, religious liberty moderator of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. said that "Overly aggressive evangelical preaching could be interpreted by some as mental manipulation."
bulletEtienne Lhermenault, general secretary of the Federation of Evangelical Baptist Churches (FEBC) said that the situation in France "has been made infinitely more complicated by the vast ignorance of the French as far as religion is concerned and the resulting fear of all that is not firmly rooted in society." He also blames the media for their "confusing generalizations and by the mediocre level of their information on Protestantism and the evangelical churches." 17 
bullet2001-JUN-12: Anti-cult bill awaits president's signature: Although the anti-cult movement has been largely discredited in North America, it is quite powerful in France. According to the Globe and Mail: "France is moving forward with Europe's severest legislation against minority religious groups, igniting fears among civil-liberties organizations that it could invite similar measures by other governments. Ignoring criticism from mainstream church leaders and foreign governments, especially Washington, France's National Assembly has passed a law 'to reinforce the prevention and repression of groups of a sect-like character.' " Joseph Grieboski, president of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said: "This law makes the practice of one's religion into a criminal offence." The daily French newspaper, Le Figaro, mentioned that the lifestyle of a Carmelite nun could fall afoul of the legislation.

The bill will create a new type crime covering the abuse of a person "in a state of psychological or physical dependence caused by the exertion of heavy or repeated pressure or techniques liable to alter his judgment."  The bill also empowers courts to dissolve religious groups if two leading members are convicted of crimes such as fraud and child abuse.

Depending on how this clause is interpreted, it could criminalize catechism classes run by established religions. It could also threaten the existence of faith groups -- large and small.
bullet2001-JUL-9:  Republican congressman condemns new law against sects: Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), chairman of the House sub-committee on international operations and human rights, engaged in what he called contentious, argumentative talks with the bill's co-author Catherine Picard. He believes that its wording is so vague that it could in theory be applied to almost any cult or religion, including the Roman Catholic Church.  He said: "This (law) is sowing the seeds for profound religious intolerance in France. If and when it is exported, it will spread an anti-religious contagion." He added: "When I read the plain body of the language, you can take virtually any denomination and in a variety of situations you can dissolve it. You name it, the Catholic Church, you can dissolve it.'' Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu said that the lawmakers' intention was to protect the weak and that the law would not limit freedom of conscience or worship. 18
bullet 2002-NOV-29 Government anti-cult group reorganized: The Governmental Mission to Fight Cults has been renamed the Governmental Mission to Watch and Fight Cultic Deviances. Mr. Jean-Louis Langlais, a French civil servant with experience in youth and anti drug work, has been appointed as its president. A "consultative committee" is to be selected to evaluate the Mission's work and consider its orientation. It will probably be composed primarily of persons committed to the anti-cult movement, but may include other experts as well. The anti-cult movement called for former MP and anti-cultist Catherine Picard to head the Mission. The appointment of a civil servant, and the change of name, may indicate that the government is lowering the profile of the Mission. 19
bullet2002: Council of Europe criticizes About-Picard law: The Council of Europe passed a resolution critical of this law and invited the Government of France to reconsider it. As of the end of 2003, the authority under the law for the government to disband religious groups had never been applied. 20

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  1. Anonymous article, "Religious Groups Face French 'Blacklist'", Action Magazine, The Rutherford Institute, Charlottesville VA, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1997-MAY
  2. Judah B. Schroeder, "Representatives from 15 European Union countries decry discrimination against Jehovah's Witnesses in France: Canada, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States join efforts to visit embassies," Watch Tower Public Affairs Office, 1998-JUN-30.
  3. Mark Kellner, "Then They Came for Me," Column in The Washington Times; exact date unknown
  4. Associated Press, "Jehovah’s Witnesses would be the object of a tax assessment," 1988-JUN-29
  5. "Jehovah's witnesses pay a price for lack of cult status," The Independent (London UK), 1998-JUL-9. News section, Page 13.
  6. News Release, "France: New Dramatic Developments in the Sect Issue," Human Rights Without Frontiers, Brussels, Belgium, 1998-JUL-7
  7. Free Minds, "France Moves to Tax Religion!" advertisement in the New York Times, 1998-JUL-5. See: http://www.freeminds.org/news/nytimes.htm
  8. "Establishing an Inter-ministerial Mission to Fight Against Sects," (English translation) at: http://www.cesnur.org/decree98.htm
  9. Quoted in Martin Weightman, "Religious Hysteria in France," European Human Rights Office, Church of Scientology, 1998-NOV-17.
  10. "Religious Intolerance and Discrimination," speech delivered by Human Rights Without Frontiers to the OSCE Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, 1998-OCT-28. See: http://www.greekhelsinki.gr/english/pressrelease/hrwf28-10-98.html
  11. "Report of the Inquiry Commission into New Religious Groups," 1995-DEC-22 at:  http://www.assemblee-nat.fr/2/cenq/rap-enq/2cca.htm This is the original document; in French. An English translation is available at: http://cftf.com/french/Les_Sectes_en_France/cults.html
  12. "1997 Annual Report of the Inter-ministery Observatory on Cults" is at: http://www.multimania.com/tussier/ois2.htm (original document; in French)
  13. "France: New discriminatory law proposal," Foundation for Religious Freedom news release, 1999-DEC-17. 
  14. ReligionToday news summary for 2000-JUN-15
  15. "Rights groups fear French cult bill would curb religious liberty," Newsroom, 2000-JUL-5. Online at: http://www.cesnur.org/testi/fr2K_july1.htm 
  16. "French 'Cults law' draws fire from religious groups," CNSNews.com, 2000-JUL-14, at: http://www.cesnur.org/testi/fr2K_july2.htm 
  17. "French Baptists concerned about religious freedom," Evangelical Press News Service. Online at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00b/20000817e.htm 
  18. Paul Holmes, "Congressman assails French law on sects," Reuters, 2001-JUL-9.
  19. "Jean-Louis Langlais is the new President of the French Mission," Center for Studies of New Religions (CESNUR) at: http://www.cesnur.org/2002/fr_MIVLDS_mi.htm
  20. "France: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," U.S. State Department (2003) at: http://www.state.gov/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay created: 1996-SEP-27
Latest update: 2004-OCT-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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