France in controversial cult crackdown

The French parliament has approved a controversial new law to control the activities of religious cults.

It is aimed at preventing the use of psychological and physical pressure to recruit and retain members.

Public opinion in France is generally supportive of the law

But human rights groups as well as the United States administration have warned it could seriously limit religious freedom in France.

The sponsors of this law are proud to announce that it will give the courts new powers to clamp down on sects that resort to dangerous methods, such as brain washing or drugs, to lure young people into the fold.

One clause will permit judges to shut down a sect once it has been convicted of a range of offences, such as the illegal use of medicines or misleading publicity.

Another makes it a crime to abuse a person in a state of dependence, caused by techniques liable to alter his judgement.

Dire warnings

Public opinion in France, highly sensitive to the issue since the mass suicides of members of the Order of the Solar Temple six years ago, is generally supportive of the law.

But it has prompted dire warnings from groups such as the Church of Scientology who believe they are unfairly in the line of fire.

They have been joined by human rights organisations, leaders of the mainstream churches and the US Government in arguing that the legislation is dangerously ambiguous, leaving the door open to all kinds of abuses in the future.

Judges, they say, are given far too much latitude to decide what constitutes harmful activity.

And on the basis of limited evidence they could be able simply to shut down a new religion.