French lawmakers OK sect regulation

PARIS, MAY 30 (UPI) -- The French parliament on Wednesday approved legislation regulating religious sects, despite strong criticism by< religious groups and human rights organizations.

France's National Assembly approved the final version of the "religious cults" bill, following initial passage of the legislation by both the Assembly and the French Senate. Among other measures, the legislation would give judges greater authority to crack down on errant behavior by more than 170 religious groups designated as sects in France.

The legislation was spearheaded after a series of bizarre and spectacular deaths staged by members of the Order of the Solar Temple in the 1990s. Members of the apocalyptic religious group were found dead in what police suspect were murder-suicides in France, Switzerland and Canada.

But the legislation's many critics say the French parliament has gone too far. The opponents include the so-called sects themselves-- which include groups like Quakers and Southern Baptists as well as Jehovah's Witnesses.

But Protestant, Catholic and other religious leaders have also expressed concern that the legislation may be twisted to curb freedom of religious expression.

A joint letter by Catholic and Protestant leaders to French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin expressed reservations about the legislation. In particular, the leaders expressed concern the legislation may curb "fundamental liberties" of religious observance, according to Le Monde newspaper, which obtained a copy of the letter.

At the same time, the Conference of Bishops of France has recently announced the creation of a service to fight against sectarian "excesses."

For their part, supporters of the sect legislation argue it will not infringe on religious freedoms. Rather, they say, it is merely aimed to protect the rights of worshipers from groups who may prey on them.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

All rights reserved.