The U.S. chairman of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights in Europe, yesterday said France´s anti-sect legislation will have a negative influence on the continent and Asia and should be investigated.
"I hope the commission will look more into this law," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican. "France is leading by a bad example."
The measure, which is designed to rid France of 173 listed "dangerous sects," is expected to be passed this month with provisions that make "mental manipulation" illegal and disbands groups and affiliate organizations if any members garner two convictions of any kind.
The legislation, designed "to reinforce the prevention and repression of groups of a sectarian nature," was introduced in 1996. It has been wrapped up in what critics call a new anti-American paranoia promoted by anti-religious Socialists.
Before the French Senate passed its version of the legislation on May 3, one popular journal called the growing presence of groups such as Baptists, Adventists and Jehovah´s Witnesses an American "Trojan horse" invading France.
The day of the Senate vote, a government television station aired "Evidence to Convict," a film that linked the 1978 Jim Jones suicide sect, Microsoft exports, espionage, Pentecostals, mind control and Scientology.
Officials with the State Department and Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) who have protested the law have been called secret agents of Scientology by some French media and officials.
Overtures to French diplomats about the anti-sect law provoke "resentment," said Mr. Smith. French delegates at the Helsinki hearings last year in Bucharest hissed at Mr. Smith, who had told them that the law would encourage former communist countries that continue to repress religion.
"There is a very strong anti-religious bias that has emerged in Europe. If you´re an evangelical, you are a nut," said Mr. Smith, a Roman Catholic. "I think there has to be a hard-nosed dialogue among allies."
Critics of the French legislation say religious liberty is a universal human right and part of international agreements in the 20th century.
Mr. Smith suggested that the United States take the issue to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. "If the French say, 'It´s none of your business,´ that will just bring more scrutiny," he said in an interview.
As former chairman of a House human rights subcommittee, Mr. Smith has fielded protests about the French situation, including reports by the Rev. Louis DeMeo, an American-born Baptist pastor in Nimes who has lived in France for 20 years.
"Right off the bat, I think they´ll nail Scientology," Mr. DeMeo said of the law, likely to pass by May 31.
He said he knows of about 15 native evangelical clergy across France who have been intimidated by the media or quiet government actions. The clergy "are afraid to speak up," he said, noting that the typical charge is being under mind control or being an agent of Scientology.
The push in Western Europe to form "sect commissions" and restrictive laws began after the 1994 and 1995 suicides and murders by Solar Temple members in Canada, Switzerland and France.
The French sect list, published in 1996, was followed in 1998 with the creation of a government agency, the Interministerial Mission to Battle Against Sects.
The sect lists, which also had arisen in Belgium and Germany, included Catholic charismatics, Hasidic Jews, Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah´s Witnesses, Quakers, Buddhists and the YWCA.
While the European Parliament and other countries rejected sect legislation, the French measure endured protests from human rights groups.