France may limit religious practices

PARIS, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- Since late March, France has been mesmerized by a heart-wrenching struggle between medical science and religious faith.

For French doctors treating a 21-year-old Leukemia victim, the choice is clear: Begin emergency blood transfusions, or watch the youth die within weeks. But "Remi," a devout member of Jehovah's Witnesses, recently refused the blood transfusions, citing church belief in the sacredness of unadulterated blood.

Now, the university student's decision to seek non-transfusion treatment in Germany has added new fire to a government drive to crack down on France's flourishing new faiths. Legislation passed by the French parliament aims to establish new restrictions on proselytizing and to punish groups that violate vaguely defined personal "liberties," and French law.

The draft measures have sparked uproar by religious rights groups and expressions of concern by the U.S. government and Pope John Paul II. But French lawmakers have deftly countered the censure by soliciting feedback from local critics and citing cultural differences when it comes to the United States.

"In Europe, we're more likely to consider that fundamental liberties should have fixed, legal limits," said Denis Barthelemy, secretary-general of the Interministerial Mission on Combating Sects, a government task force. "We support the right to enter a religion, but also the right to leave it, and the right for individuals who are swindled to claim reparations. And in many cases, those rights are contested by a number of sects."

Indeed, a recently opened trial may help speed the anti-cult proposals into law -- a prospect the government believes will happen this year. The single defendant, Franco-Swiss conductor Michel Tabachnik, is accused of being a top leader in the Order of the Solar Temple, whose members staged a series of spectacular suicide-murders in the 1990s.

While Tabachnik denies the charges, the bizarre story of the apocalyptic cult -- the booby-trapped houses in Canada and Switzerland that exploded into flames in 1994; the 16 charred corpses found in the French Alps a year later -- is being painfully replayed in a courtroom in southeastern France.

Following the cult member's fiery deaths and reports the cult leaders had amassed a multi-million dollar fortune, the government issued a 1996 study on religious groups in France. Listed among some 173 suspect religions are Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists and several Catholic orders. Another study, released by the Interministerial Mission last year, suggested banning the Solar Temple from France, along with the Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology.

Controversy has also dogged France's century-old community of Jehovah's Witnesses, a fundamentalist sect that claims some 6 million adherents worldwide. For years, the Finance Ministry refused to grant the church tax-exempt status, arguing it was not a religious establishment, but a for-profit group. Each time, judges ruled in the Witnesses' favor, including the highest administrative court, last June.

Beyond the group's medical beliefs, the Witnesses' street-side solicitations and conservative views on women have not sat well with France's Socialist government. "The practice and comportment of Jehovah's Witnesses are frankly sectarian, and can lead to problems that public powers can't allow," Barthelemy said.

But Guy Canonici, president of the Jehovah's Witnesses Federation of France, argues the church's doctrine is more flexible than critics claim. "Jehovah's Witnesses are willing to follow the laws," Canonici said. "Our activities are legal activities."

Of the proposed anti-sect legislation, he added: "I can't comment on laws that don't yet exist. But France is a secular state, and until now, the separation of church and state has been generally a good thing."

At a Wednesday night service in northern Paris, some members offered blunter criticism of the cult measures. "It's worrying," admitted 42-year-old housewife Nicole Platon. "But as a Witness, I believe God will manage things."

A former Catholic, Platon turned to Jehovah's Witnesses 20 years ago. "I was asking a lot of questions at the time, but I received no answers," she said, describing her spiritual journey. "Only the Witnesses gave me the answers."

There are no accurate statistics on religious affiliation in France, a nominally Catholic country. Muslims are considered France's second largest religion. Protestants, Jews and Buddhists together make up about 4 percent of the population, according to a U.S. State Department report. But increasingly, experts say, French are dabbling into alternative religions, even as they maintain their original faith.

"There's a phenomenon of multi-belief that is developing, rather than a formal change of religions," said sociologist Jean Beauberot. "People still perform the big ceremonies -- the marriages, baptisms, funerals and festivals -- in the Catholic church. But they may seek medical treatment or psychotherapy from a sect. They consider themselves clients -- with a client's right to play off rival establishments."

Claiming an estimated 250,000 members in France, Jehovah's Witnesses is arguably the largest of the country's minority religions. The church originally attracted working-class Protestants to its ranks, Canonici said. But increasingly, it is drawing in Catholics and agnostics as well.

"Jehovah's witnesses are also recruiting more from the middle class than they have in the past," Beauberot added.

"They have probably worried a lot of people because of that growth." The growth of the Witnesses, and other alternative movements, is hardly unique to France. Nor is the government's response. Britain, Germany and Austria have also drafted lists of suspect religions, and Germany launched an investigation into the Scientologists. But so far, no Western European country has passed legislation regulating sects.

The French bills, particularly a National Assembly proposal to make "mental manipulation" a criminal offense, have worried the country's religious establishment as well. But the controversial clause has since been scrapped -- even if, several analysts say, its spirit remains. And some former critics, like the Paris-based Human Rights League, have dropped their opposition.

"In its current form, we consider religious liberty in France will not be endangered under this proposed legislation," said the League's president, Michel Tubiana. "In some cases, it might be useful in synthesizing different government measures. But I believe it is only useful as a last resort."

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

All rights reserved.