France, Ireland Shine Spotlight
on Religious Liberty Issues
French ‘sect’ report mentions Adventists, draws U.S. Congressional ire
eparate actions in France and Ireland are shining a spotlight on religious liberty issues. A French commission report on “sects,” which mentions the Seventh-day Adventist Church among other groups, drew criticism from six members of the U.S. House of Representatives; while in Ireland, a proposed blasphemy law might restrict free speech about religions, critics claim.
SPEAKING FOR FREEDOM: Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., was one of six U.S. Congressional signers opposing proposed moves in France to restrict religious freedom for minority religions. He is shown speaking to the North American Religious Liberty Association’s 2008 dinner in Washington, D.C. [Mark A. Kellner/Adventist Review]
A 2008 report by the French “Inter-Ministerial Mission to Fight Against Sectarian Deviations,” abbreviated as MIVILUDES in French, calls for changes to French law that would combat alleged abuses by “sects.” The Seventh-day Adventist Church is cited as one of several movements providing information on the Internet that can be accessed in France. Other groups repeatedly cited in the report, “Justice Facing Sectarian Abuses,” include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Unification Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On May 20, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Az.), co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Caucus, along with five other Members of Congress, sent a letter to Ambassador Pierre Vimont at the Embassy of France in Washington, D.C., in response to concerns that the MIVILUDES report may be used to restrict the religious freedom rights of adherents in France.
Citing the report and its author, MIVILUDES president Georges Fenech, the Congressional letter says the “report to the Prime Minister, coupled with news reports of pending government policies to designate certain religious communities as ‘sects’ or ‘cults,’ raises serious concerns regarding protection for an individual's right to freedom of religion in France.”
According to the letter, “earlier this year, Le Parisien [newspaper] reported that Mr. Fenech is openly promoting the idea of putting in place an official list of sects in order to create a ‘system of reference of the movements and practices showing cultish behaviors.’ In Mr. Fenech's report to the Prime Minister, he recommends specific policies targeting these sects, including protecting children from their parents' beliefs and protecting individuals MIVILUDES deems vulnerable from ‘psychological subjection.’”
The letter states: “Designating specific religious beliefs and communities as sects and restricting an individual's freedom to choose and change his or her belief is inconsistent with international standards on religious freedom. Such recommendations appear to evidence a clear bias against a large number of religious communities and their adherents and impose arbitrary restrictions on an individual's human rights.”
According to John Graz, director of the department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty at the General Conference, there’s little chance that the MIVILUDES suggestions will be put into law, however, “trends can change and they can come back stronger,” he said.
OPPOSING ‘BLASPHEMY’ LAW: Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, said Ireland should not criminalize “blasphemous libel,” as this would restrict free speech about religion. He is shown at a special debate on freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs that took place at the winter session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, in Vienna, Austria, in 2006. [OSCE/Mikhail Evstafiev]

Moreover, the MIVILUDES report could generate trouble for members of religious minorities in France, Graz said. Educators in schools, colleges and universities may be less tolerant of such minorities, and local authorities could hold up or deny building permits for minority religious groups. There were approximately 12,000 Seventh-day Adventist Christians in France in 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available. France has a population of over 62 million.
In addition to Franks, Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va.; Dan Burton, R-In.; Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.; Diane Watson, D-Calif.; and Bob Inglis, R-S.C., also signed the Congressional letter to Ambassador Vimont.
While France’s government is weighing a report calling for action against so-called “sects,” the Irish parliament is considering legislation to oppose “blasphemy” against religion. On April 29, Dermot Ahern, the Irish Justice Minister announced a new crime of blasphemy. The announcement states “a person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000,” or approximately $140,000.
According to the Web site, which opposes the move, “’Blasphemous matter’ is defined as matter ‘that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.’”
Ironically, the Irish opposed resolutions against “defamation of religion” at the 2008 Durban Review Conference of the United Nations. However, Ahern reportedly reintroduced the blasphemy proposition in Ireland to close what he claimed was loophole in Ireland’s defamation law, according to media reports.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 56-member group, opposes the Irish move. Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE’s media freedom watchdog, welcomed Irish preparations to decriminalize defamation, but warned the proposal to introduce a new article on 'blasphemous libel' risked jeopardizing OSCE media freedom commitments.
"Ireland is in the vanguard of 21st century media freedoms as it prepares to officially make defamation a mere civil offence. It would therefore be unfortunate to introduce at the same time a new crime of 'blasphemous libel'," Haraszti said.


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