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BBC Religious Affairs correspondent Jane Little
"A vehement response to the so-called sects which the government believes threaten French society"
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Thursday, 22 June, 2000, 20:01 GMT 21:01 UK
France moves to outlaw cults
Solar Temple
A mass suicide by Solar Temple members in Switzerland claimed 48 lives in 1994
The French National Assembly has unanimously passed a bill banning cults, in the face of international criticism.

The legislation, which still has to be approved by the Senate, makes "mental manipulation" or brainwashing a criminal offence.

A fascist exercise worthy of a totalitarian state

The Church of Scientology
Religious minorities have condemned the proposed law as anti-democratic, while academics have branded it draconian.

However, the Justice Minister, Elisabeth Guigou, hailed it as "a significant advance giving a democratic state the legal tools efficiently to fight groups abusing its core values".

Legal history

For the first time in France, the bill aims to define a cult in legal terms.

It sets up procedures for courts to ban groups regarded as sects and allows for criminal sanctions on banned groups which re-form under other names.

The bill also provides for sects and individual members to be punished for fraud, illegal practice of medicine, wrongful advertising or sexual abuse.

The BBC Religious Affairs correspondent, Jane Little, says that France, which has blacklisted nearly 200 organisations as dangerous sects, has been at the forefront of a debate in Europe about how to deal with cults.

Analysts say that pressure for the government to ban cults has grown since the mass suicide-murders of members of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland and elsewhere in the mid-1990s.

US criticism

However, a US Government report last year raised questions about freedom of expression for new religious groups in France and several other European countries, including Germany.

And last week, representatives of mainly American religious groups took out a full-page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune newspaper urging the government to withdraw the bill, or see France "compared to China" in its disrespect for human rights.

cruise kidman
Celebrity Scientologists: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman
The Church of Scientology, which believes it is one of the bill's targets, described the bill as a "fascist exercise worthy of a totalitarian state".

Set up in the United States in 1954, the church claims 8 million members worldwide, including celebrities such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman.

In February, a government committee recommended dissolving the church in France, on the grounds that its activities threatened public order.

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