Christian Groups Listed as "Dangerous Sects"

Country: France

Date of incident: January 1, 2004

(1996 - 2005) Legal developments put religious freedom at risk. Christian groups listed as dangerous sects. State power to interfere with religious exercise established by law.

In 1996 the French National Assembly released a list of 172 “dangerous sects and cults.” Included among these “perilous” groups are the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Pentecostal Evangelical Church, and other mainstream religious organizations. Many Evangelical churches have removed the term “evangelical” from their titles out of fear of being placed on such a list and being targeted for prosecution or violence. There is no legal definition for the terms “sect” and “cult” in French law. As the list shows, the terms have been applied to any religious group whose designation as a sect or cult has suited the French government. A bill enacted by the French government and signed into law in June 2001 (known as the About-Picard Law after its sponsors) contains repressive measures that have a chilling effect on freedom of religion, including the dissolution of targeted religious associations, the imprisonment of members of such groups, and the denial of their freedom of speech, including speech intended to persuade another person to a particular point of view, whether philosophical or religious. In essence, the About-Picard Law permits the government to prosecute or dissolve any organization that seems to establish a state of physical or psychological reliance that causes a follower to behave differently from the way he behaved in the past; it makes illegal any type of religious education or proselytizing that constitutes “abuse of a person’s state of weakness”; and it gives the government and the courts great powers, including the power of dissolution, over groups whose leaders have committed a crime, even if the crime is unrelated to the group or its activities. First, the law creates a new criminal offense: that of causing “a state of psychological or physical subjection”. Second, the law allows the government to close or dissolve religious organizations for the ambiguous offense of harming a person or causing “a state of subjection,”. Under the law’s broad definition, activities as pastoral counseling, and the strictures of Catholic monastic life have now been made illegal in France, if the government chooses to consider them such. Third, the About-Picard Law empowers the French government to dissolve an entire religious denomination or spiritual movement should any leader accumulate more than one criminal offense. It does not matter if the offense was committed in the name of the association or not. Further, the law allows the government to decide who is a leader of a religious group. The list of potential criminal activities set forth in the law is extremely broad. This legislation violates several international principles and standards, all of which France has adopted. Among those violated are the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the Vienna Concluding Document. In 2003, President Jaques Chirac commissioned a report, by Bernard Stasi, into the wearing of overtly religious symbols by school children. These symbols include the Jewish skullcap (yarmulke), large Christian crucifixes, the Sikh turban and Muslim headscarves (hijaab). Many saw the commissioning of the report as an attack on religious freedom. The report suggested a total ban of religious symbolism in schools. Another issue picked up on by the report was that French children should not be able to reject a teacher of the opposite sex or refuse to read certain texts because of religious beliefs. In 2004, French Ministers voted 494-36 in favour of banning overtly religious symbols in schools. One French poll said that 70% of French people were in favour of the Bill. The new law came into effect at the beginning of the 2004/05 academic year. Opposition to continued secular education in French schools comes from the political left and ethnic minority groups. Many claim that the French government does not allow for a dual identity. Others label it as blatant racism. At the time the law was passed, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) said: "The law risks limiting the freedom of all religions."