BOB ABERNETHY: In France, religious groups are anxiously watching the progress of a proposed law that would limit the activities of cult religions and could even ban some of them. France has had some serious problems with fringe organizations recently, but that may have contributed to what a U.S. government agency last week called a frightening trend against minority religions in France. Jim Bitterman reports from Paris.
JIM BITTERMAN: In many French churches this summer, at least some of the prayers being offered up are that legislators will do the right thing when they return to work in the fall, because they'll be asked to vote on a proposed law that, in varying degrees, raises fear among 'most all religions here. The law is meant to fight what the French call religious sects, dangerous or dishonest cult religions. And the country has had some bad experiences with the worst of them, including this, the most tragic, a series of murders and suicides in 1994 and '95 among members of a French, Swiss, and Canadian religious group known as the Order of the Solar Temple, which left 69 people dead.
Yet even years before, the growth of less violent and no less threatening religious cults concerned many. Janine Tavernier became an activist in a family help organization after her husband, a navy officer, joined a cult centered around a charismatic leader and changed into a completely different person.
Ms. JANINE TAVERNIER (Union for the Defense of the Family) (Through Translator): For 26 years now, we've tried to understand what happens that brilliant, intelligent people can become totally depersonalized and destabilized, and we've discovered that in these sects, there's a manipulation to destroy the personality of the person, to take away his liberty.
BITTERMAN: At the French Parliament this spring, groups such as Madame Tavernier's helped push forward a law which bans what is called "mental manipulation." On a day when barely two dozen of the parliamentarians were present, it passed without opposition.
One of the problems with the proposed law is coming up with a valid definition for "mental manipulation." Churches of every faith are fearful it could be misused to discriminate against any denomination.
Jehovah's Witnesses in France, who spent years fighting and sometimes winning battles with French tax authorities over their status as a religious organization, now worry that the new antisect law will be directed at them.
Mr. JEAN MARIE BOCKAERT (Jehovah's Witnesses): ... appearance, the very fact of being Christian makes you practice mental manipulation, if they call it so, because Jesus said in Matthew 28, I think, "Make disciples and teach them in Jesus' teachings." Well, if you preach, if you make disciples, you manipulate them.
BITTERMAN: Bockaert and other Jehovah's Witnesses point to another provision of the proposed law which their opponents could use to devastating effect: the dissolution of any organization convicted of two or more crimes.