French Officials May Have Second Thoughts Over "Anti-Sect" Policy

Warsaw, Poland. September 30, 2002. After the adoption of a much criticized law last year that many allege is a major erosion of religious freedom in France, an official response by the French delegation at a major meeting in Europe indicates some second thoughts as to the wisdom of proceeding to target religious minorities in this way.

The response by representatives of France to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe may be an indication that the “Anti-Sect” law and the government’s policy in this area could be reconsidered.

Admitting the existence of the law and its provisions that can lead to the dissolution of religious groups, the September 12 statement says this would only happen “under very restrictive conditions, and as a very last resort,” and that “to this date, the law has not been applied.”

One of the most criticized aspects in the fight against sects, the so-called ‘sect list’ developed in what appeared to be an arbitrary manner, “is a parliamentary working document [that] has no legal value.” The statement did however admit that some local authorities had been using this list to deny religious freedom to some groups on the list which included some well-recognized religious organizations. As a result, “The French government is taking steps to heighten the awareness of the administrative structures so that the list of sectarian movements can be recognized for what it is: a parliamentary working document which cannot serve as the basis for any measure to be taken,” says the statement.

On what is probably the most controversial area-the establishment of “MILS”-the government watchdog body of “the Inter-ministerial Mission for the Fight Against Sects” the statement concluded, “we are aware that the aforementioned mission has generated a lack of understanding and forwarded an image which does not correspond to French reality. The government has undertaken a fundamental review of the objectives, role, and structure of the inter-ministerial Mission, of which the President, since the month of June, has not been replaced.”

“Is the French government’s policy on such matters changing? Perhaps!”says John Graz, Secretary General for the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). “These may be indications that the French authorities are responding to criticisms of this law that reduces religious freedom and criminalizes certain groups and beliefs. We have been concerned that the provisions of this law could well be used to target religious minorities and cause great damage to their civil and religious rights as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We welcome the admission that the sect list is not to be used to discriminate against any religious group, and that the spirit of ‘MILS’ may be reviewed.” [Jonathan Gallagher]