French anti-sect law spooks Hong Kong, Falun Gong

HONG KONG, June 1 (Reuters) - The passage of an anti-cult law in France has reignited fears of a similar move in Hong Kong to curb China's banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Religious groups rallied together in the territory on Friday, saying a similar law would spell the end to freedoms guaranteed under Hong Kong's constitution.

While the Falun Gong is still legal in Hong Kong, top officials, including leader Tung Chee-hwa, have recently indicated that the territory may enact laws to curb the group.

Nine Christian groups are seeking a meeting with Tung and have begun collecting signatures from the public to prepare a petition to be presented to legislators at end-June, said Rose Wu of the Hong Kong Christian Institute.

"We don't want to see Hong Kong enacting such a law here. It's too dangerous. It could be abused to curb religious freedom," Wu told Reuters.

"The government is only considering it because China has banned it and Hong Kong just wants to please Beijing."

Beijing banned the Falun Gong in 1999, branding it an "evil cult" and accusing it of trying to topple the Communist government.

Senior Chinese officials warned the group in Hong Kong earlier this year against using the territory as a base for its activities. The former British colony reverted to Chinese control in mid-1997.

The French National Assembly adopted a controversial bill on Wednesday that will allow courts to ban groups regarded as sects, although it dropped a plan to make "mental manipulation," or brainwashing, a criminal offence.

The French law also stipulates that banned groups which re-form under a different name can face prosecution.

Editorials in several Hong Kong newspapers on Friday also warned the government against imposing similar anti-cult laws.

Outlawing the Falun Gong would only hurt Hong Kong's image and reputation, the Ming Pao Daily newspaper said.

A recent survey by the pro-government Hong Kong Progressive Alliance party found some 33.8 percent of respondents regard the Falun Gong in Hong Kong as engaging in cult-like activities.

Some or 55.4 percent, were worried the group would abuse Hong Kong's freedoms and tolerance to create social disorder, versus 28.1 percent who thought it would not.

The survey polled 7,306 people between May 10-30.

04:49 06-01-01

Copyright 2001 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.