French sect lists criticized in House hearing

A French statute that outlaws religious "sects" charged with a crime is giving non-democratic regimes an excuse to crack down on religious dissenters, lawmakers said in House hearings yesterday.

Such a law passed in a major democracy gives cover for China to jail the Falun Gong spiritual group and for other regimes to suppress minorities, according to testimony before the International Relations Committee's operations and human rights subcommittee.

"It has been widely reported that China's Communist leaders are studying the French precedent for possible use against the Falun Gong," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and subcommittee chairman.

"State Department officials have confirmed that many [European] countries are considering similar legislation," she said.

The French law, passed May 30, came in a response to a trend in Europe to create "sect lists" of religious groups deemed undesirable. In France, a criminal infraction by any group member can close the entire organization. The religious group may also be prosecuted for "mental manipulation."

While international human rights groups have decried the law for its potential abuses, the reaction has risen especially in the United States, where many of the groups on the sect lists — Baptists, Hasidic Jews, Scientologists, charismatic Christians, the YMCA and Jehovah's Witnesses — have roots.

A French official said yesterday that since France helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II, it is wrong to see the nation as abandoning freedom of religion and conscience.

"The French law has been misinterpreted here," the official said. "The purpose of the law is not to ban sects, but to have legal tools for dealing with illegal conduct by individuals and organizations."

The French law has been justified mainly by the 1994 and 1995 suicides and murders by Solar Temple members in France, Switzerland and Canada.

But in hearings yesterday, the law also was tied to a socialist and anti-religious outlook among some French lawmakers and European officials who resent intrusion by American religious groups.

"France is leading by bad example," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, who was in Paris on Monday and spoke with key authors of the French statute. He said "hopefully a backlash" by the French media and public will force a review and repeal of the law.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who also visited Paris, said writers and advocates of the French law are visiting other nations promoting a similar crackdown on sects. "We have seen evidence that some French officials are actively promoting the model" of legislation, he said.

In testimony, Loren W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for human rights, said it is ironic that the United States was ousted from the United Nation's Human Rights Commission as France and Austria — both of which have sect lists — were voted in.

"My guess is that this law is not broadly supported" by other Europeans, Mr. Craner said.

He said economic sanctions in U.S. human rights laws could be applied to France, but recommended that several countries ally against the law "so it is not viewed in France as an American issue."

Also testifying yesterday were musician Isaac Hayes and actress Catherine Bell — both members of the Church of Scientology who have protested the law in France — and Sameera Fazili, a Muslim lawyer.