PARIS (Reuters) - A member of Congress branded a new French law aimed at controlling the activities of sects profoundly intolerant Monday and said it could spread an "anti-religious contagion" if allowed to stand.
New Jersey Republican Chris Smith said the bill, adopted by the French National Assembly in May, was so vague in its provisions that it could in theory be applied to almost any cult or religion, including the Roman Catholic Church.
Smith, chairman of the House sub-committee on international operations and human rights, spoke to reporters after what he called contentious, argumentative talks with the bill's co-author Catherine Picard.
The new law makes it an offense to abuse a vulnerable person through "the exertion of heavy or repeated pressure or techniques" liable to alter his or her judgment.
It also allows courts to ban groups if individual members are convicted of such existing offenses as fraud, illegal practice of medicine, wrongful advertising or sexual abuse.
Smith said he was concerned the law could give repressive states an excuse to suppress religious freedoms and said he would push for congressional hearings leading "minimally" to a resolution condemning the bill.
"This (law) is sowing the seeds for profound religious intolerance in France. If and when it is exported, it will spread an anti-religious contagion," Smith said.
"When I read the plain body of the language, you can take virtually any denomination and in a variety of situations you can dissolve it. You name it, the Catholic Church, you can dissolve it," he added.
Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu said when the bill was passed that its intention was to protect the weak and that the law would not limit freedom of conscience or worship.
170 GROUPS UNDER SCRUTINY
The French anti-cult law has already ignited fears among religious and rights groups of a similar move in Hong Kong to curb China's banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Provisions in the draft that would have made brainwashing, or "mental manipulation," a criminal offense were dropped from the final version after an outcry from several groups.
Roman Catholic and Protestant Church leaders in France have also expressed their disquiet.
More than 170 groups are officially designed as sects in France and remain under government surveillance.
They include the Church of Scientology, founded by the late American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, which has said the bill sounds a "death knell" for French democracy.
Smith was in Paris on a congressional delegation to a meeting of the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
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