France has become the first country in the world to introduce specific legislation aimed at controlling the activities of cults. The objective is to combat the 175-odd movements of a quasi-religious nature considered a danger to society.
The Scientology movement and the Unification Church of the Rev Sun Myung Moon immediately denounced the bill - endorsed almost unanimously on Wednesday by national assembly deputies - as anti-democratic and in breach of human rights laws. Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders have expressed disquiet.
But the justice minister, Marylise Lebranchu, described it as "an important, even a vital law to protect human liberties".
Once approved by the senate, the law will allow courts to order the immediate dissolution of any movement regarded as a cult whose members are found guilty of such existing offences as fraud, abuse of confidence, the illegal practice of medicine, wrongful advertising and sexual abuse.
Sects will also be prohibited from opening missions or touting for new members near schools, hospitals or retirement homes, and from reforming under a different name once they have been legally banned. A convicted guru would risk five years in jail and a fine of £500,000 for reoffending.
The key weapon - and the chief source of religious concern - is the creation of a new offence, "the fraudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or weakness", carrying with it a prison sentence of up to three years and a maximum fine of £250,000.
This clause will make it a crime to "exercise heavy or repeated pressure on a vulnerable person, or use techniques likely to alter his judgment, to induce in him behaviour prejudicial to his interests."
The law defines "vulnerable people" as minors, the elderly, or anyone suffering from a long-term or debilitating illness or considered after medical examination to be "in a state of physical or psychological subjection".
The Scientology movement is almost certainly one of the main targets of the new law. Addressing supporters in a Paris hotel, Marc Bromberg, one of its leaders in France, denounced the bill as "the work of a handful of extremists wanting to impose state atheism".
The French authorities, who refuse to recognised the Los Angeles-based organisation as a religion, seeing it as a purely commercial operation out to make as much money as it can as fast as it can, have fought a running battle with it for the past 10 years.
In a trial in Marseille two years ago, seven Scientology officials were accused by former members of selling bogus "purification" treatments costing between £1,200 and £15,000 but consisting mainly of sessions in the sauna, jogging and vitamin pills. Several leading French Scientologists have been sentenced to jail terms - often suspended - for fraud and other financial offences, leading the US state department to accuse the French authorities of harassment and persecution.
Founded in 1954 by the American science fiction writer the late L Ron Hubbard, the organisation claims more than 8m members worldwide, including 40,000 in France. they include the Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
In France, Scientology was first described as a sect in a 1996 parliamentary report. It still features on a list of 173 groups under government surveillance.
Among them is the Order of the Solar Temple, which orchestrated the suicide of 74 of its followers in the 1990s. Cults and sects are believed to hold 300,000 people in thrall in France.
Some countries ban one or more sects; others use existing laws against them. Catherine Picard, a leading sponsor of the French bill, described it yesterday as an important first for the world, because it attacked sects directly, defining them as groups "pursuing activities aimed at, or with the effect of, exploiting the dependency of followers".
Cardinal Louis-Marie Billé, of the Conference of French Bishops, and Jean-Arnold de Clermont, of the Protestant Federation, argued in a recent letter to the prime minister that the word sect should have been left out of the bill "because it is indefinable in law".
The bill's defenders point out that the same could be said of the word religion. "We all know what sects are," said one MP, Jean-Pierre Brard. "They cultivate secrecy and dissimulation, they prosper in obscurity. We needed a weapon to fight them, and now we have it."
New religions or dangerous cults?
Sixteen years after investigation of their activities began, 11 Scientology leaders are on trial in a Madrid court. The charges - which once included kidnapping, tax fraud, damage to public health and threatening behaviour - have now been reduced to holding "illicit gatherings".
Last month the constitutional tribunal overturned a government decision not to recognise the Unification Church, or Moonies, as a church. Parliament laid down relatively relaxed guidelines for recognition of churches in 1989.
Not having a modern tradition of cults, Italy guarantees freedom of religion and has no law specifically aimed at regulating marginal religions. There is a law banning secret societies, however, which could be used against cults. It was introduced after magistrates uncovered a subversive Freemasons lodge, called P2, in 1981.
Under Christian Democrat governments for the 16 years to 1998, many official contracts had "sect filter" clauses so jobs and even orders for goods did not go to the likes of Scientologists.
Numerous sects and other organisations were put under surveillance, but three years ago a parliamentary group called for the watch-list to be reduced.
Parliament has demanded a government campaign in schools and hospitals warning of the dangers of joining a cult. But there is no specific law regulating cult activities. Scientology got religious status last year, so it pays no tax.