Religious Freedom and NRMs in Europe

Merudevi Dasi

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion are basic human rights and form one of the main pillars of a democratic society. But how free are Europe's citizens to choose and practice their own beliefs? In this article Merudevi Dasi examines the history and implications of policies towards new religious movements (NRMs) in Europe, specifically France. Currently the French government is considering controversial new legislation that many fear will severely curtail the rights of religious minorities. Does this law challenge the European Union's commitment to religious freedom? Will other European countries follow the French model or will France become isolated on this issue?




Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This is guaranteed in several legal documents, most importantly in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (UDHR) and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). These articles allow us to hold any beliefs we desire, whether they are theistic, non-theistic or atheistic. The right to manifest these freedoms is only restricted in order to protect the fundamental rights of others.


The emergence of 'new religious movements' (NRMs) in the West since the 1960s has put these articles to the test. Are all expressions of faith acceptable in our society, and how should we react to them? European countries have chosen to interpret freedom of religion and belief in diverse ways, and have adopted different strategies on how to deal with these NRMs. In this article we look at some of the developments in Europe in this regard, particularly in France. France is by no means unique in its approach towards NRMs, but it is well ahead in introducing restrictive legislation against them.


According to Abdelfattah Amor, the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance at the UN Commission on Human Rights, while Western Europe has previously been exemplary in the development of international and regional norms and mechanisms to protect religious freedom, its present practice is unsatisfactory. This was Amor's opening message at a UNESCO meeting in Paris earlier this year. He spoke at the conference 'Human Rights and Freedom of Religion: Practices in Western Europe', which was attended by many experts in the field. Amor commented that many religious and spiritual communities 'have been labelled as cults by parliamentary reports or inter-ministerial commissions', and that 'this generalisation and amalgamation' has led to a situation where 'movements that are perfectly respectable and sometimes very ancient' are finding themselves in the same category as 'cheaters and criminals'.[1] It is a common argument among those who oppose 'new religions' that these are not de facto religions but mundane movements hiding behind a religious label. That may be true about some groups, but it becomes problematic when a large number of religious and spiritual groups are put into that category without thorough research on the matter.


When looking at the right to religious freedom and who holds that right, it is useful to look at the UN Human Rights Committee's interpretation of Article 18 of the ICCPR.[2] Their explanation of Article 18.1 is as follows:

The terms 'belief' and 'religion' are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community.[3]


Article 18.1 is only subjected to limitations that are 'prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others' and 'must not be applied in a manner that would vitiate the rights guaranteed in Article 18'. This implies that the clause on religious freedom is very broad, and any restrictions or policies to restrict this freedom should be pursued very carefully.


In the 1970s, NRMs, often derogatively called 'cults' or 'sects', were met with much suspicion and fear. In the US and Europe, 'anti-cult' groups emerged as a reaction to the anger and concerns of some parents of new adherents. Early on, anti-cult groups adopted the theory of 'brainwashing' as an explanation for people joining these NRMs and soon took on 'de-programming' as a way to reverse the brainwashing. The anti-cult movements are now of a wide variety, and have since changed some of their methods. For instance, 'de-programming', and attendant behaviour such as kidnapping, have been replaced with 'exit-counselling'. (Langone pp. 175-9) The brainwashing or mental manipulation theory, although still prevalent, has become more sophisticated. (Langone pp. 85-122) Although anti-cultists have lost their influence in the US, they are still strong in some Western �European countries and have entered the political arena through successful lobbying and media attention. The perspective of anti-cultists appeals to some parts of the media due to their simplistic and sensationalist nature. If the media's portrayals of NRMs are sufficiently frequent and upsetting, the pressure mounts on legislators to respond. (Wilson p. 111) In Europe, several governments and pan-European parliaments have brought the issue of NRMs into their political agenda, and most countries have at least discussed it or have prepared written reports on this topic.


France 1994-6


Although the issue of NRMs has been the subject of political debates for many years in Europe, it was not until the suicide cases in the Solar Temple Order[4] - in Switzerland and Canada in 1994 and France in 1995 - that the wheels really started to turn. In June 1995 the National Assembly in France established a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission. It held secret hearings with the help of the anti-cult organisation the Association for the Defense of the Family and the Individual (ADFI),[5] and published its report 22 January 1995. The Gest-Guyard Report,[6] as it was called (Gest was the president of the committee, Guyard the rapporteur), was unable to give a definition for a sect but identified characteristics of groups that would suggest that they were sects. These characteristics included mental destabilisation, exorbitant financial demands, the splitting of families, anti-social behaviour, disturbing the public, and attempts to infiltrate organs of the State. They described sects as groups that, by definition, are not religious but hide themselves behind philosophical, religious or therapeutic terms to reach their goal of power and control over their followers. Applying these criteria, the report listed 173 'sects'. The commission recommended the creation of an organisation that would study the phenomenon of sects, inform the government, and present proposals on how to better fight sects. They did not, however, see the need for new legislation.


The report was criticised by scholars in the field of sociology, religious history, law, and other disciplines. They did not oppose the attempt at writing a report on the issue but questioned its accuracy and methodology. They found that the report failed to distinguish between the groups and that the information and definitions were vague and out of date. It was also felt that use was not made of readily available resource materials from scholars in the field and that a prejudicial definition of the word 'sect' was used. The list of sects was also considered inaccurate and misleading. (Boyle p. 302) It is worth noting that no scholar of religion was invited to contribute to this report, nor were any of the listed groups heard by the Commission. A book was also published shortly after the report was completed[7] containing comments from internationally renowned scholars in the field. The media storm that followed the report did not give the scholars much exposure. The sensational sect lists naturally had greater appeal.


Europe's response 1997-9


Shortly after France published its report 'Sects in France', Belgium produced its own.[8] It listed 189 groups as sects, and its report was seen as even more extreme than that produced by France. The list had to be withdrawn due to the unfavourable reaction it met when it was discovered that it labelled Opus Dei (a Catholic group aimed at re-establishing �Christian ideals in society), the YWCA and other well-established groups as sects.[9]In June 1998 �Germany also produced a report, the final version of which proved milder than expected. The German report did not call for new legislation and asked for the usage of the term 'sect' to be discontinued due to its stigmatising effect. However, it continued to label the Church of Scientology as a 'political-extremist' group. (Wilson p. 230)


The European Parliament was also approached during this period of parliamentary reports. It began discussing the idea of establishing a centre for information and cooperation between member states attempting to deal with sects. Maria Berger, MEP from Austria, did not think a European observatory necessary, and her report of December 1997[10] was quite mild, although ambiguous. Her report was accepted in the committee but sent back and so never came before the assembly.


The next parliamentary body to be approached was the Council of Europe. Adrian N�stase, a Romanian MP, prepared a report entitled 'Illegal Activities of Sects', which, after amendment, was adopted by the parliamentary assembly on 22 June 1999. It is seen as a compromised report but does recommend member states 'to encourage an approach to new religious groups which will bring about understanding, tolerance, dialogue and resolution of conflicts'.[11] The report recommends the formation of national and European observatories, but clearly states that they should be independent. (France, Belgium and Austria, all have observatories under the jurisdiction of their governments.)


The Swedish government also began to prepare a report during this period. It started with a draft called 'Destructive Sects'. After some parliamentary discussion, it was agreed that the role of a rapporteur was to ascertain any need for support by ex-members of NRMs. The rapporteur held separate hearings with anti-cult groups, scholars and members of NRMs. She also visited NRMs and travelled to other countries to meet scholars, anti-cult groups and parliamentary commissions. From this work came the report 'In Good Faith' in September 1998, which recommended open dialogue as an efficient approach towards NRMs. They believed this 'would be beneficial for religious liberty and religious diversity as well as improving vigilance against deviance'.[12] The Swedish report looked at the issue of NRMs from different angles, and contains separate chapters on religious psychology and research on NRMs, international experiences, effects on psychological health, children in NRMs, and independent religious schools. It also looked at the issue from a judicial perspective. On surveying the international scene, it was observed that this whole discussion was in general very polarised; one is either seen as for or against NRMs. Scholars are sometimes perceived as being bought by rich NRMs; anti-cult groups and NRMs are rife with suspicion against and between each other; and the whole issue is 'infested with slander, half-truths, and exaggerations'. They advised the Swedish government not to enter this 'infected' area and recommended dialogue as a positive solution. They noted the differences of approach between European countries - France, Belgium and the Canton of Geneva had chosen to 'go hard' against NRMs, whilst Italy, Denmark and, to some extent, England had chosen a more accommodating approach, and had not experienced any problems with NRMs.


France continues: 1996-9


Among the European countries, France is seen to be setting up the most repressive measures against NRMs. It is therefore interesting to study the developments in France over the past six years. Just after the Gest-Guyard report was completed in 1996, the French Prime �Minister created the 'Observatory on Sects' to collect information and advise the government on the subject of NRMs. This organisation was dissolved in 1998 and MILS (Mission interministrerielle de lutte contre les sectes, the Interministerial Mission in the Fight Against Sects) was created under the presidency of Alain Vivien,[13] the former Minister of Foreign Affairs. The duty of MILS was to analyse the sect phenomenon, to inform the public of the danger of sects, and to coordinate all government meetings regarding NRMs. The Mission keeps in close contact with the anti-cult groups CCMM (Centre Contre les Manipulations Mentales [Centre Against Mental Manipulation]) and UNADFI.


The Minister of Justice sent out a circular to the prosecutors in 1996, just after the Gest-Guyard report. It encouraged prosecutors to bring charges against NRMs and included a list of the 173 blacklisted NRMs from the report. A second circular[14] was sent out in December 1998, urging state prosecutors to do the following:

(1)��� establish a relationship with anti-cult groups, especially UNADFI and CCMM,

(2)��� designate a prosecutor in each region to handle any matters in relation to 'sects', and

(3)��� institute meetings between officials - including prosecutors, police, employment services, social services, customs, educational services, youth and sport services - to enhance cooperation between them and the mission against NRMs.


In 1999 the National Assembly initiated a new parliamentary inquiry commission to investigate the finances of NRMs. The commission, led by Jacques Guyard (president) and Jean-Pierre Brard (rapporteur), both members of MILS, produced 'Finances and Sects', a report on the economical state of affairs in 60 NRMs. When Guyard made this report public, a reporter asked him why Anthroposophy (founded by Rudolf Steiner) was added to the list of sects. Guyard's reply was: 'It's a typical one. All these movements are first of all alluring, and then their principal objective is revealed to be either the misuse of funds or the abuse of absolute power over people. [...] Here, indoctrination is a clear fact'. As a result of this report, Guyard was called to defend himself in court. He lost the case and had to pay a fine of FF20,000 plus FF90,000 in damages. The reason for the judgement was that Guyard could not give any substantial proof for his statements. None of the complainants or members of Anthroposophy were heard by the Commission, resulting in Guyard's evidence being rejected by the judge as unsubstantial. She also found the insult a significant offence, because it was made by a Deputy President of the Commission, 'whose authority and competence could not be in doubt by the public'.[15]


France works toward legislation


At the time of writing this article, the French Parliament is preparing a controversial piece of legislation.[16] The draft law, 'Law proposal aiming at reinforcing the prevention and the repression against groups with a sectarian character',[17] will be part of the French criminal code if the Senate and the National Assembly agree to a common proposal. It has aroused serious concern within government bodies, human rights organisations and religious groups.


The origin of this legislation is a proposal from Senator Nicolas About,[18] unanimously adopted by the Senate at its first reading on 16 December 1999. Senator About proposed that groups of a sectarian nature be included in a 1936 law that allows the dissolution of private militias and combat groups by presidential decree. Under this law, the president would have the power to dissolve groups he considers sectarian in the same way that he can dissolve private militias and combat groups if they or their leaders are convicted more than once for certain crimes; and if they create public disorder, or are considered a major threat to the public or the State.


When the draft law came before the National Assembly, Mrs Catherine Picard, a �Socialist MP, substantially modified it,[19] changing the procedure of dissolution by a presidential decree to a judicial procedure and making the law part of the criminal code, instead coming under the 1936 law. Prior to the voting in the National Assembly on 22 June 2000, Picard commented that the changes were to 'strengthen the responsibility of the corporate entity, make it more difficult to reconstitute organisations dissolved by the law, establish stricter rules to govern the location and publicity of organisations, and define, finally, the crime of mental manipulation'. The proposal was unanimously accepted, with amendments, by the eighteen members present at the plenary session.[20]


Elisabeth Guigou, the Minister of Justice, called the bill 'a significant advance, giving a democratic state a legal tool to efficiently fight groups abusing its core values'.[21] However, she also recommended a pause before the legislation went before the Senate for its second vote, so that human right organisations and church groups could submit their comments. She expressed her reservations about the article on mental manipulation and asked that the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights view this section. Article 9, Chapter V, defines mental manipulation as follows:


The act, inside a movement whose activities have for a purpose or effect to create or to exploit the psychological or physical dependency of those who participate in those activities; to exert on an individual heavy and repeated pressure or utilise techniques meant to alter his judgement thus driving him, against his will or not, to an act or to an abstention of an act which is heavily detrimental.


The resultant enquiry found no evidence that the article advocated punishing an individual simply for being a member of a movement that mentally manipulated people, and thus judged that the article respected the fundamental freedoms of thought, belief and religion. There was no mention in the report as to whether the committee examined the validity of the concept of mental manipulation.


Mental manipulation, commonly known as brainwashing, has been one of the most popular explanations as to why people join NRMs. The theory has been largely contested on the basis of a large amount of scientific research. One problem with this theory is that it absolves an individual from personal responsibility. Indeed, Hexham and Poewe claim the theory opposes 'the entire Western tradition of philosophical, political and social thought', which is based on the assumption that 'individuals are responsible for their actions' (Hexham and Poewe p. 10). Eileen Barker (of Information Network Focus on Religious Movements [INFORM]) also pointed out that although some groups may use deceptive means for recruiting members, this cannot be equated with 'mental manipulation', which implies that a person has been rendered incapable of deciding for himself or herself. (Barker p. 17)


The National Consultative Commission for Human Rights also offered some recommendations to the legislators. They advised the use of an existing law within the criminal code dealing with the 'abuse of weakness', and that it be classified as 'attack on individuals' rather than 'attack on possessions'. They also recommended an increased penalty for leaders of organisations who repress people in the above-mentioned ways, and advised caution in regards to the 'issue of legal responsibility of a organisation'. The Commission felt these measures would negate the need for a separate article on mental manipulation.


What does the French legislation entail?


What does the About-Picard legislation propose at this stage? From the latest report (Doc. 192) by About and the Law Commission, we can understand the following:


Chapter One, Article 1 proposes the dissolution of a corporation or association whose activities 'have for a purpose or effect to create or to exploit the psychological or physical subjugation of those who participates in those activities'. The dissolution can take place if the organisation and its leaders are convicted in a court more than once for offences such as violation of an individual's physical or psychological integrity; violation of a person's human rights and dignity; fraud; illegal practice of medicine; forgery; rape and other sexual abuses; and theft.


The second chapter proposes that any organisation, except the State, be responsible for offences committed in its name by its sub-groups or representatives. Chapter Two also strengthens the liability of organisations as legal entities and thus reinforces their responsibility for offences. This chapter proposes that an entire national organisation or church be dissolved if a leader, priest, school, charity or any kind of sub-organisation linked to the main body is convicted more than once of the offences mentioned in the first article.


Chapter Three, Article 4, punishes anyone who maintains or re-establishes an association that has been dissolved with up to three years' prison and a fine of FF300,000. This increases to five years' imprisonment and a fine of FF500,000 for repeat offences. There is no mention of a process of rectification for a dissolved organisation.


Picard had also proposed an article in Chapter Four that forbids any sect activity, including advertising, within one hundred metres of a hospital, retirement home, clinic, or school for children up to eighteen years old. This was to be punishable by two years' imprisonment and a fine of FF200,000. However, this article was subsequently removed by the Senate, as was an amendment that allowed a mayor to refuse building permission to organisations that had been convicted of any of the above-mentioned offences. The Law Commission in the Senate had approved of these two articles, but found they were too difficult to implement.


Article 8 forbids any organisation, defined in the first chapter, from directing its messages to minors or inviting minors to join. This is punishable with a fine of FF50,000 for an individual and FF250,000 for an organisation.


The article of mental manipulation was removed, allegedly because of the criticism it had received, notably from the main religious denominations. Instead, the article 'abuse of weakness' was inserted, together with a new definition:


Fraudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or the situation of weakness of a minor or a person particularly vulnerable due to old age, disease, invalidity or a physiological or psychological deficiency, pregnancy, or psychological or physical subjugation resulting from heavy and repeated pressure or techniques meant to alter the persons judgement, and when this state is known to the perpetrator of the offence, to force the minor or this person to an act or an abstention of an act which is heavily detrimental


One could say that the offence of mental manipulation still exists within the law, but in a new context. The same words are used, although the title 'mental manipulation' has been abandoned. The Committee of Law also advised the senators to increase the punishment for the offence of abuse of weakness 'when the offence is committed by leaders or representatives of a legal entity who has for a purpose or effect to create or to exploit the psychological or physical subjugation of their members'.


Article 11 is designed to give the anti-cult organisations legal standing to initiate criminal proceedings against NRMs, something that was explicitly stated as desirable by About in his report.


Reactions to the French approach


There has been some strong criticism of this proposed law. Although French officials have certainly taken note of this criticism, there seems to be a reluctance to change course. One deputy defended their policies at a parliamentary discussion on 22 June 2000 by saying that 'the attacks it [the legislation] has aroused from the sectarian organisations and their friends, under the pretext of defending human rights, shows very well we have pushed the right spot!'


Not everyone involved in the legislation may embrace this view, but it is not uncommon for those objecting to the law to be labelled as sympathisers or members of NRMs. For example, the president of MILS accused the International Helsinki Federation (IHF) of being infiltrated by Scientologists.[22] He also cancelled a meeting with a delegation from the US Department of State's Office for Religious Freedom, because he (incorrectly) thought one of the delegates was a Scientologist. He later relented but did not speak to or answer the queries of the delegate in question.[23] French officials in general have not appreciated the involvement of US representation in this affair.


Reverend Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation, has compared the national policies against NRMs to a witch-hunt.[24] He met with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in October 2000, accompanied by Mr Bernard Lagoutte (Secretary-General of the Episcopate), Rabbi Alain Goldman, and Dalil Boubakeur (Vice-chancellor of a Paris Mosque) to express concern about the proposed law. They particularly opposed the article on mental manipulation, believing it to be 'a vague concept which can apply to anything, and why not with political parties?'[25]


It is also significant that Pope John Paul II, when accepting the credentials of the new French ambassador to the Vatican, spoke at length, publicly, on the issue of religious liberty. He stated that '... religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right. This means a liberty which is not reduced to the private sphere only.' He urged society - especially schools and media, who have an important role in forming public opinion - to respect the beliefs of others and not to discriminate on that basis. He continued by saying that 'to discriminate against 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 destabilise society, where a certain pluralism of thought should exist, as well as a benevolent and brotherly attitude. This will necessarily create a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition and suspicion, not conducive to social peace.'[26]


Members of the Council of Europe have made a motion that a resolution be written on the situation in France. Their concern is that the new law would restrict religious freedom. They write: 'creating new penal offences which are not based on any accepted legal or scientific evidence and which focus only on targeted minorities, especially when this concerns a fundamental right, opens the door to discriminatory and intolerant practice that could undermine the very basics of democratic society'. They also opposed the use of language when religious minorities were 'derogatively referred to as "sects" ... '.


The word 'sect' has taken on an extremely pejorative connotation. In the eyes of the public, it stigmatises movements whose activities are dangerous either for their members or for society. Today, this world contains dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of larger or smaller groups, with various beliefs and observances, which are not necessarily dangerous or prejudicial to freedom. It is true that among these groups are some which have committed criminal acts. Nevertheless, the existence of a few dangerous movements is not enough to condemn all the rest.


It was further pointed out that laws in a democratic society cannot be written against a section of society simply because it is unpopular or at odds with the current political climate.[27]


On the ground: Effects on religious minorities on France


The effect of this 'sect hysteria' on individuals and the organisations labelled as sects should not be underestimated. The Helsinki Federation has reported that 'increasing intolerance and discrimination against NRMs has been observed in France' since 1996. This has 'resulted in media reports libelling minority religions, the circulation of rumours and false information, and incitement of religious intolerance.' The report continues: 'Minority religions have been publicly marginalised and stigmatised, and there have been attempts to hinder their activities - for example, through denying them access to public halls for their meetings or requiring them to pay higher rent. Authorities have scrutinised their management, and children of minority religious groups have been stigmatised as "cult members" in their schools and neighbourhoods.'[28] It has also been claimed that people have lost their jobs, businesses, spouse, and custody of children in divorce cases, and that job-seekers are suffering since being blacklisted as sect members. Some citizens have been falsely accused of belonging to NRMs and have suffered similar difficulties.[29]


One association of physicians and researchers, whose stated goal is to research solutions to world pollution and hunger, reported being raided by approximately two hundred heavily armed police officers. Their children were taken into custody, where they were 'thoroughly examined from head to foot, [and] the girls were subject to anal and vaginal examinations'.[30]


The government is also targeting finances of blacklisted groups. For example, some Jehovah's Witness branches have not been recognised as religious organisations and were therefore subjected to 60% tax (amounting to FF300 million) on all donations from 1992-6.[31]


It is worth remembering that this rather gloomy picture exists even before the new law has been implemented. What will happen if the law is passed? Will unpopular groups be banned from French society? Even if the new law is interpreted in a narrow way and the French Catholic Church is not dissolved because one of its bishops or priests is convicted of paedophilia or fraud, the law could still be used to dissolve any other group the state wants to be rid of. If this does happen, French people would no longer be equal before the law, but subjected to the likes and dislikes of those in power. This would create a very fragile situation that is incompatible with the basic foundations of a democratic society.


INFORM and scholars' view


Scholars of religion and sociology generally agree there are organisations that are harmful and should be closely watched, but generally they do not agree with the methodology and perspectives of anti-cultists. It is simplistic and inaccurate to generalise too much when discussing NRMs. These groups vary widely in their roles, practices and beliefs.


The Swedish report recognised the lack of objective information in this field and recommended the institution of a centre where dialogue and research could take place. In Britain, Professor Eileen Barker started the Information Network Focus on Religious �Movements (INFORM) in 1988, with the purpose of providing objective information on NRMs. INFORM is funded by London's Metropolitan Police, the main Churches and the Home Office, and staff members have post-graduate degrees in the Sociology of Religion. They alert people of potential dangers or specific aspects of organisations, but are also careful not to lump all NRMs together or neglect positive changes within them. The British Home Office finds INFORM both reliable and objective. There are currently no plans by French scholars to start a similar project,[32] but there are many who would like to see more unbiased information circulated in France.


France: Culture and allies


Europe's response to NRMs varies from country to country. There is a general division between those who see NRMs as a danger and have adopted a confrontational approach to them, and those who do not perceive a problem with NRMs and are more or less neutral. There are certain cultural factors that are seen as fostering adverse government policies against NRMs.[33] In the case of France, there are two aspects that I find particularly important. One is France's general attitude towards ethnic minorities; the second is the French government's alliance with anti-cult organisations and the adoption of their perspectives.


French culture has strong historical roots in secular humanism.[34] French law protects the individual, but not ethnic or religious minorities. France has adopted a policy of assimilation of citizens from former colonies. They are welcome as long as they 'submerge their cultural identities within the dominant French secular culture and ideology', while the opposite would result in 'ghettoisation'. (Boyle p. 296) In order to ensure the individual's right to opinions free from cultural or religious boundaries, integration is given more importance than preservation of cultural differences, especially where these are linked to religion. For example, there has been an ongoing debate about the right of Muslim girls to wear headscarves (hijab) in schools. The perspective of the majority of the French intellectual elite is that schools should be an 'emancipatory space' where 'ethnic, religious or political allegiance should be left at the door' and where children from different origins become French. (Boyle p. 299) It is felt that wearing religious symbols would impede this process and encourage discrimination. Minorities indigenous to France (Alsatians, Basques, Bretons and Catalans) and the growing Muslim community are calling for a more pluralistic definition of French nationhood.


Another important factor is the adoption by the French government of perspectives favoured by its anti-cult movement. The controversial nature of the anti-cult movement is highlighted by China's recent measures against Falun Gong, a health and meditation movement that claims to have no political agenda. The Chinese authorities banned Falun Gong in 1999 and have since issued repressive measures and jailed many members of the group. China's crackdown on Falun Gong has led to strong reactions from world leaders - the administration of US President George W. Bush has publicly condemned it; the European Union has called it an 'unacceptable' violation of human rights; the European parliament has issued a resolution that calls for China to respect religious freedom and the Dutch Foreign Minister cancelled his trip to China when the Chinese government publicly opposed a meeting between Falun Gong members and Dutch officials in Hong Kong.


The French anti-cult group CCMM found the Chinese measures laudable, and commented that 'the fact that a country as vast and as populated as China is preoccupied with this movement [Falun Gong] should have evoked some attention.'[35] This statement leads one to wonder whether the CCMM is unaware of China's precarious position in the world with regard to human rights. The Chinese government invited representatives from CCMM and FECRIS[36] to an international symposium on 'destructive sects' in November 2000 to learn how to deal with groups like Falun Gong. The president of MILS attended the conference as an observer. The CCMM reported that they were warmly received and that France is cited as an example in these issues because of 'the degree and coherence of the measures taken to respond to the sectarian threat'. The French government has been closely cooperating with CCMM, together with UNADFI, in developing their strategy against NRMs, both having received substantial funding from the government for their activities.


China, which does not have a good international record in religious freedom, is finding an ally in France, a well-established democratic country. One might ask whether France might similarly become a model for the new and fragile democracies in Eastern Europe. Many of these countries, such as Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and different regions within the CIS, are in the process of changing their religious laws and policies, and they are looking for models in recognised democratic countries. European anti-cult groups have also found an arena in these countries and have succeeded in influencing governments in adopting policies against 'new' religions.[37]


The role of governments in protecting religious freedoms


In regard to religious freedom there are two areas that need to be looked at by Western democracies: The bias of some governments towards anti-cult groups and the position of these governments in the context of the international community's stance on religious freedom.


Religious intolerance is no longer just part of an individual country's internal affairs, especially not in an increasingly integrated Western Europe. No country's approach should be seen in isolation. As some Western European countries continue to create policies against NRMs, others will follow suit, perhaps spawning measures that we may not foresee. One consequence of globalisation, whether we like it or not, is a pluralistic society where many different beliefs co-exist. How should society respond to this challenge? Should it ban beliefs that are not considered acceptable by some? If so, who will define what is an acceptable belief and what is not? Should the issue be looked at from a global or a national perspective? What is the role of dialogue between different cultures, minorities and belief systems?


The United Nations has expressed a global vision to diminish, end and prevent conflicts by declaring 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilisations. In the preface to Freedom of Religion and Belief - A World Report Abdelfattah Amor writes:


Any examination of freedom of religion or belief today needs to address the massive religious revival which is characterising the end of the century. Should we anticipate in the wake of this revival an increase in tolerance, enlightenment and freedom, or are we to be faced with greater intolerance and discrimination, condemned to a further period of extremism, darkness and inquisition?


Western Europe could go either way. A sensible approach might be for governments to set up a system of dialogue with all religious groups, both minority and majority religions. That could assist in diminishing prejudice and set an example for the newer democracies in Eastern Europe. The French government has so far refused to engage in dialogue with most NRMs. This may be a factor in the French Parliament's perceived need to legislate against them.


It will be interesting to see how other European countries respond to France's policies against NRMs and how they interpret human rights in this context. Will other countries follow the same path or will France find itself isolated? If France's present measures against religious movements are based on a cultural philosophy - that to be French means to be a secular humanist - the question arises as to how France views the future of the �European Union, where it is promoting the idea of a federation of states. On one hand France is trying to protect French culture and its identity, but on the other hand, France wants a unified Europe. If France does not accept diversity in its own country, will it be able to accept diversity within the European Union? This is an important question. It will therefore be interesting to follow the development of France's present policies against NRMs, the international reaction, and how France in turn will respond. Perhaps the real question is: 'Is France capable of dialogue?'




Barker, E. New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. London: HMSO, 1992.


Boyle, Sheen (ed.). Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report. London: Routledge, 1997.


Hexham, I., Poewe, K. New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.


Introvigne, Melton (ed.). Pour en finir avec les sectes: Le d�bat sur le rapport de la Commission Parlementaire. Paris: Dervy 1996.


Langone, M. D. (ed.). Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and �Spiritual abuse. New York: Norton, 1995.


Wilson, Cresswell (ed.) New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response. London: Routledge, 1999.




1 Abdelfattah Amor, 'Human Rights and Freedom of Religion: practices in Western Europe', 27-30 January 2001. Association Internationale pour la d�fense de la libert� religieuse (AIDLR).


2 The ICCPR is the only judicially binding document expressly dealing with freedom of religion and belief.


3 'The Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion', (Art 18) 30/07/93 ICCPR General comment 22. Available at


4 According to police reports, there seems a strong likelihood that most who died were murdered (Alberta report, 24 October 1994). The police have also found links to money laundering and drug trade, a possible motive for murder (Stern, 13 October 1994).


5 ADFI comprises regional anti-cult organisations belonging to UNADFI, the National Unions of Associations for the Defense of the Family and the Individual (Union nationale des associations pour la d�fense de la famille et de l'individu)


6 Report no 2468. Available at (in French).


7 Introvigne, Melton (ed.), Pour en finir avec les sectes: le d�bat sur le rapport de la Commission Parlementaire. Milan: CESNUR, 1996.


8 28 April 1997


9 For a discussion on the Belgian report, see Introvigne, M., 'Le retour des Jacobins' (in French), 1997. Available at


10 See Doc. A4-0408/97, Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs, Berger, M., 'Report on Cults in the European Union'. The European parliament had adopted a text in 1984 on the subject of NRMs, popularly called the Cottrell report, but it was withdrawn 13 July 1998.


11 See Doc. 8373, Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, N�stase, A. For a discussion on this text, see the report of the International Helsinki Foundation, 1999, 'Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion of Belief'. Available at


12 In Good Faith, the Swedish governmental report on NRMs. Sweden. Department for Social affairs, Sou 1998:13. I God Tro: Samh�llet och nyandligheten, p. 70 (in Swedish). Stockholm:Fritzes.


13 Alain Vivien has lobbied parliament since the late 1970s to adopt more restrictive measures against NRMs and wrote a report in 1985 known as the Vivien report. From 1981 until recently he was the president of the anti-cult group CCMM (Centre contre les manipulations mentales).


14 Available at (in French)


15 Dumay, J.-M., 23 March 2000, Jacques Guyard condamn� pour avoir qualifi� le mouvement anthroposophe de sectes, Le Monde, p. 12. Also see U.S. State Department Office. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, February 2001, Country reports on human rights practices - 2000. Available at


16 The Senate will discuss and vote on this legislation on 3 May 2001. The document will then go to the National Assembly.


17 Doc. 192. In this document the legislators explain the sequences in which the legislation has progressed and what they would like to achieve with it. Available at All the versions of the law project, from About's first draft to the present one can be found there (in French).


18 Ibid.


19 Ibid. An English translation of her initial draft is available at


20 The National Assembly has 577 members. There is no restriction on how many parliamentary members need to be present during voting.


21 Newsroom, 5 July 2000. Available at


22 As a result, the president of IHF wrote an open letter to Alain Vivien (15 June 2000). He strongly objected to Vivien's methods, which reminded him of 'totalitarian and retrograde regimes', and also condemned the proposed law project, which he said, goes against the commitments France has made to protect human rights. The letter is available at The IHF is an independent organisation of human rights associations that are committed to protecting human rights throughout Europe, North America and the former USSR. They monitor compliance of the member states of the OSCE with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act.


23 'Discrimination on the Basis of Religion and Belief in Western Europe, Testimony of Dr. T. Jeremy Gunn before the House International Relations Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, June 14, 2000'. Available at


24 La Croix, 9 June 2000.


25 AFP, 17 October 2000


26 Papal speech, 10 June 2000. Available at (in French).


27 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Doc. 8860. 'Religious Freedom and Religious Minorities in France', 6 October 2000.


28 The IHF report on Human Rights 1999, France.


29 Coordination des association et particulier pour la libert� de concience, 'Report on Discrimination Against Spiritual and Therepeutical Minorities in France', October 2000.


30 Ibid. Testimony #14, p. 24.


31 Hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 8 June 1999, 'Religious Freedom in Western Europe: Religious Intolerance and Growing Government Intolerance', Alain Garay.


32 According to Fran�oise Champion, Sociologist, EPHE-CNRS, Paris.


33 See e.g. note 65, Hannah Clayson Smith, 'Comment: Libert�, Egalit�, Fraternit� at Risk for New Religious Movements in France', 2000 BYU L. Rev. 1099.


34 France was the centre for the 19th century Europe's anticlerical movement, which opposed the powers of the Catholic Church.


35 The article is available at (in French).


36 European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Sectarianism (F�d�ration Europ�enne des Centres de Recherche et d'Information sur le sectarism), a federation of European anti-cult groups.


37See Shterin, M. S., 2000. 'Effects of the Western Anti-cult Movement on Development of Laws Concerning Religion in Post-communist Russia' in Journal of Church and State, 42(2).