Let them preach cake

Persecution of Christians, so common in parts of the Third World, may be heading west-to one of the oldest democracies in Europe. Many church leaders in France are concerned that under a new law, by nature of its vague text, they could face fines or jail time simply for evangelizing and ministering to people under their care.

The law swiftly passed the French Senate and the National Assembly last May. It authorizes the government to fine or imprison members, and to dissolve any group whose aim or effect is "to create, maintain, or exploit the psychological or physical integrity of persons." Since this comes from a founding member of the European Union, other countries may take the initiative as a model.

"This law would make France the country with the strongest anti-religious laws in the Western world," said Robert Baxter, an American pastor at Christian Assembly of the Good Shepherd outside Paris. "This is an empowerment law. Despite the gray matter, it gives the state much greater power of intervention."

>The law creates a new class of victims, those who fall prey to the mental manipulation of "a group" that ultimately "prevents someone from living their life, from having freedom of judgment." Under those broad conditions, "the victim can file a complaint with the court and then it will be verified," said Catherine Picard, the French National Assembly deputy who wrote many of the provisions in the law.

One of her earlier versions contained the controversial phrase "mental manipulation," which proved problematic for many legislators. Backers replaced that term with "fraudulent abuse of the state of ignorance or of weakness" in the version now on the law books. The law further defines this kind of abuse as "the exercise of serious and reiterated pressure or of their own techniques to alter one's judgment, to drive this minor or this person to an act or an abstention which is gravely harmful." The abuse is punishable by three years in prison and a fine ranging from $350,000 to $715,000.

Lobbying for the bill began in 1984 when Alain Vivien, then a deputy in the National Assembly, began an investigation into cults. Mr. Vivien now heads a government office dedicated to fighting cults, and was a powerful force behind the writing of the new law.

Critics worry about the precedent the law sets in Europe and beyond.

Already, communist officials in China have contacted Mr. Vivien's office, just after passage of the law, to ask assistance from the French government for writing similar legislation.

"I am absolutely ashamed of the fact that Mr. Vivien is a kind of apostle in China, Poland, and Romania, to explain how clever the French government is [to write this law] against cults," said Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the Protestant Federation of France. "We are a free country, where the judges still have a say. When you use this French law in a country where there is no freedom, there is no defense for the people." Even members of the parliament who passed the law admit they cannot define a cult. A Parliamentary Commission formed in 1995 to look into cults listed 176 groups as cults in its final report. The list lumped a Baptist Bible school, three evangelical churches, and the Word of Faith church together with Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, and several New Age movements.

>Mr. de Clermont said the list of declared cults was based solely on police reports and was never further verified. The commission did not meet with any church or other group leaders to independently verify their cult status. Yet Parliament accepted and adopted the report.

>Opponents believe the impetus for passing a new law is deep-rooted. "For the people who pride themselves on reason and logic, the fear of cults in France is purely and completely illogical, irrational, and disproportionate to the actual threat that cults pose in France right now," said Mr. Baxter. He believes the fear goes back hundreds of years to when Calvinistic churches presented a political threat to the royal family.

Kings interpreted the friction that arose as a threat to their rule, Mr.

Baxter said, "and that is why they persecuted the Huguenots. That's the spirit that we see at work today in the ruling class."

He also sees the law as a triumph of secularism in France: "They rejected the Catholic Church, they killed all the Protestants and sent them to other nations. A younger generation is rising up that is extremely hungry for spirituality and we've destroyed in France all of the points of reference."

-Michele White is a writer from Boston, Mass.