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 their jobs for their links with his church and the institute.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other international human-rights organizations took up the cause, and the members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly have expressed deep concern about the state of religious liberties in France.

'Stick to the Law'

Not all Christian leaders in France share this fear. While they deplore any harassment based on people's religious convictions and express opposition to potentially discriminatory legislation, many leaders believe that French laws in fact protect freedom of religion.

"I have no time for the idea that we live in a country that represses religious liberties," says the FPF's de Clermont. "We continue to enjoy total freedom in setting up religious organizations as long as the existing legislation is known and applied."

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Christian groups encounter problems mostly when they misunderstand or ignore "the complex technicalities of French law," says Stephane Lauzet, the Nimes-based general secretary of the French Evangelical Alliance (part of the World Evangelical Fellowship). "Even aggressive evangelists can work without any real problems as long as they stick to the law."

Lauzet believes that cultural sensitivity and careful relationships with local authorities and other Christians can prevent most difficulties. He says that the initially American leadership of the Nimes Theological Institute could have avoided making several mistakes "if they had come in a spirit of respect for the considerable Christian wITNess already established in the city."

Counters the school's founder, Louis DeMeo, "We did have great contacts with many churches when we started our school." He accuses some other churches in Nimes of pettiness.

Nimes has a vibrant Protestant heritage and many Christian congregations. When ITN first encountered opposition, leaders inquired about membership in the French Evangelical Federation (FEF). Its chairman, Jack Mouyon, suggested several changes to the ITN constitution so that the school would not run afoul of French law and FEF statutes. ITN never joined FEF, but ITN's current director, Philippe Serradji, says the school has applied for recognition from the European Evangelical Association for Accreditation.


In France, the right to free association is based on a 1901 law defining the privileges and obligations of all groups wishing to carry out cultural, humanitarian, and sports activities. A 1905 amendment to this law specified the conditions for religious freedom; for example, a religious group must have a certain number of members and limit its activities to religious services.

In practice this means that anyone seeking to set up a Bible school or soup kitchen must comply with the 1901 law, thus becoming subject to the same strictures as secular organizations.

Most Christian leaders agree that harassment usually occurs when local officials sanction individuals, groups, and institutions that fail to comply with tax, employment, safety, and zoning rules. But such sanctions seem unfair when other groups frequently ignore these rules without penalty.

Sebastien Fath, a social scientist with a government research institute, points out that the French media react negatively.

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"The law provides complete freedom," Fath says, "but in daily life, French public opinion is quite opposed to evangelism, and that's where things get difficult."

Related Elsewhere: examines religious intolerance in France, a country pledged to "respect all beliefs."

The Apologetics Index's section on France includes information and links on the new law.

The Center for Studies on New Religions has posted the full text of the French "Anti-Cult" law in English, an editorial on seven things you can do and a collection of various articles.

A 1995 French National Assembly report on cults, reprinted on an ex-Jehovah's Witness site, includes the list of sects many are angry about.

The U.S. State Department's most recent report on religious freedom in France was released September 5, 2000.

Because of extreme national sensitivity following the Solar Temple suicides, public opinion is generally supportive of the French legislation designed to combat "movements of a quasi-religious nature."

In April, Michel Tabachnik went on trial for his involvement in Solar Temple and the 74 suicides between 1994 and 1997.

Religious and public action groups have spoken out against the law, including The Baptist World Alliance and Concerned Women for America.

Conservative Web site WorldNetDaily examinesthe law's possible effects on Southern Baptists.

In the way of precedents, the adoption of the law paves the way for Hong Kong to outlaw the Falun Gong.

The French Protestant Federation Web site can be read in a rough English translation.

The Nimes Theological Institute Web site has an English version.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide called for action against the "anti-sect" law.

Previous Christianity Today articles on French religious freedom include:

Christian Groups Labeled 'Cultic' | Christians in France put on same list as apocalyptic and satanic groups. (Sept. 6, 1999)

How Free Are We? | One year later, Christian leaders examine the International Religious Freedom Act. (March 6, 2000)

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