Congress Focuses On Religious Persecution In France

( - After France's National Assembly on June 22 unanimously passed a bill restricting the activities of "religious sects," some members of the U.S. Congress are accusing the French government, as well as other western European countries, of engaging in religious persecution.

"Under the law's vague provision concerning the dissolution of religious and spiritual groups, a new criminal offense of psychological or physical subjection is created which could be applied to virtually any organization involved in matters of belief," warned Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.

The subcommittee held a hearing on Wednesday to explore alleged widespread religious discrimination in Western Europe.

Ros-Lehtinen and other witnesses cited cases of hate crimes against Muslims in Germany, government surveillance and harassment of Scientologists in Germany and France, and widespread classification of Southern Baptists, Quakers and Hasidic Jews as "sects."

Witnesses warned that the French About-Picard bill is dangerous, not only to French citizens, but also internationally because communist China could use it to suppress the Falun Gong movement.

Ros-Lehtinen pointed to a recent article by Joseph Bosco, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service that described Chinese officials as "triumphantly canvass[ing] American academics [and] touting the French law as partial vindication for China's much-criticized human rights posture."

"Unfortunately, we are sadly observing many former havens of freedom and religious expression becoming new and subtle arenas for religious discrimination," said Joseph K. Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, testifying before the subcommittee.

The French law empowers judges to dissolve a religious institution if its representatives are convicted of various legal transgressions. It also outlaws "mental manipulation" and makes the crime punishable by a large fine and a five years prison term.

Other witnesses described oppression and harassment of religious groups that pre-date the recent law.

Panda Software in France, a worldwide producer of anti-virus software based in the U.S., "has had government and private contracts cancelled, been permanently precluded from future procurements and has been the subject of damning and false public accusations by French officials," said Panda president Patrick Hinojosa.

"The French government does not like the religious choice of Panda's founder and so placed his religious denomination on a list of 172 'disfavored' religions, along with Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus and others," said Hinojasa.

Because the company's founder was a member of the Church of Scientology, Hinojasa alleges, the company was accused of creating software to compromise government databases and directly funding the church.

"This allegation is patently absurd," said Hinojasa. In any case, "Panda and the Church of Scientology have no connection whatsoever."

A delegation from the subcommittee led by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) visited France this week to meet with the bill's sponsor in order to voice American objections. Smith noted that other countries must bring pressure on France to repeal the law, given the animosity between the two nations.