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Commentary

Scientology:France targets religions thought to be 'sects.'

April 21, 2000|HEBER C. JENTZSCH | The Rev. Heber C. Jentzsch is president of the Church of Scientology International, based in Los Angeles

For a major American human rights body to compare contemporary France with the totalitarian Romania of the late dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Yet such a comparison was made at a recent hearing by the chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, U.S. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), after a French government official refused to meet with a member of a U.S. delegation to discuss American concerns about France's treatment of scores of religious minorities.

The comparison--that France and Romania both shut people out of society based on their religion--is apt. Earlier this month, the Church of Scientology helped organize a public forum in Paris at which human rights and religion experts heard moving testimonies from French citizens whose lives have been ruined solely because of their religious convictions. A famous singer told how she was treated as "a second-class citizen, a criminal" when her minority religious affiliation became known. A grief-stricken mother told how her daughter was taken from her because of her adherence to a minority faith. A representative from a Christian evangelical movement described how 200 police officers brandishing axes and automatic weapons, acting on false charges of child abuse, burst into members' homes, handcuffed parents and dragged them down staircases in front of their children. The children were taken from the parents, and only after seven years did the courts finally rule that there was no substance to the charges.

France is unique among European countries in establishing a government panel specifically to foster intolerance of religious groups, unabashedly calling it the Interministerial Mission to Combat Sects. Of the 38 religious movements that sent representatives to the Paris hearing, nearly all blamed the government panel for their sufferings. Alain Vivien, the head of the panel, last June told the French news agency Agence France Presse: "In the United States, freedoms are crazy. In the name of the 1st Amendment of the American Constitution, which forbids legislation on religious matters, one can say and do anything." In Vivien's view, religion must be controlled, if necessary by legislation. He and like-minded French senators are seeking a "two-strikes" law to empower the government to shut down any religious organization if two of its members are convicted of any "crime" as defined in that bill--including "unintentional injuries." One of its proponents, Sen. Dinah Derycke, said the intent was to deprive the religious movements from seeking redress in the courts, where "sects are so skillful in maneuvering."

On the international stage, the French government is certainly paying the price of setting up a "new inquisition" in a government office that turns the Constitution on its head. The International Helsinki Federation, based in Vienna, has bluntly criticized the "manifold pattern of virtual persecution" of religions in France. The IHF particularly condemned a parliamentary report that effectively blacklisted more than 170 religious movements, including the Baptists--the religion of the U.S. president and vice president. Expert scholars, organized by the Catholic Church, also denounced the parliamentary report as unscientific and discriminatory.

Thus, those familiar with the worsening human rights situation in France understand exactly why Vivien's ire is directed at the Church of Scientology. It is not simply because of Scientology's rapid growth. Scientologists are active in defending religious liberty and in exposing the human rights abuses committed in the name of the French government. Indeed, Derek Davis of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University recently made this observation: "There is no group in the world today that is doing more to celebrate and promote the principle of religious freedom than the Church of Scientology."

Scientology's religious bona fides have been established through scores of judicial and government rulings, and its future in Europe is assured. But what of the current French government's increasingly negative attitude toward democratic values and human rights? We believe the U.S. State Department is taking the right approach. U.S. diplomats have continued to document the abuses in their annual human rights reports while they are seeking to persuade French officials to open a dialogue with the targeted faiths.

It is time for France, which gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States, to return the ideal and reality of religious freedom to its native soil.

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