After several delays, France's Parliament has passed a weakened but still controversial piece of legislation that could be used against legitimate religious minorities, including evangelical Christians.

The proposed law originally listed "mental manipulation" as a punishable offense. Lawmakers dropped this wording amid protests from the religious community. The law retains a number of vague terms, however, such as "the abuse of weakness or dependence," which prosecutors and French courts could interpret expansively. Even the word sect is left undefined.

Both French Protestant and Catholic leaders have informed Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and other government officials of their strong misgivings. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation (FPF), says the debate has been clouded by the "profound ignorance of politicians, and of society in general, concerning issues of religion in the Western world."

Less than 1 percent of France's population can be classified as evangelical, while about 70 percent of French citizens are at least nominally Roman Catholic.

Passage of the legislation is the latest chapter in a religious-liberty saga that began in 1995, when, in the wake of the heavily publicized 1994 Solar Temple massacres of 53 people, a French government report included four avowedly evangelical groups in a list of potentially dangerous sects. Among them was the Nimes Theological Institute (ITN), an independent Baptist school in southern France founded by missionaries Louis and Janey DeMeo.

Two years ago, the cars of four seminary students and ITN staff members were burned. Those responsible have not been apprehended. DeMeo says that some church members have been denied bank accounts or removed from ...

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