Member of Parliament examines religious freedom issues in France
n a post-September 11 society, while most of us strive for greater understanding of different cultures and creeds in the interest of increased tolerance and respect, some nations have prominent, intolerant elements diametrically opposed to such concepts.
Now that intolerance in any form is seen as a threat to world peace and security, the international human rights community closely monitors rogue elements emerging in the West.
So it may come as a surprise to many Canadians that France has become just such a subject for scrutiny for human rights leaders in Canada, the United States and Europe.
Over the past six years, this erstwhile bastion of freedom has allowed extremist politicians and radicals to create a virtually uncontrolled climate of intolerance for minority religious, spiritual and ethnic groups. Incidents of discrimination have escalated dramatically within its borders.
The crux of the French religious intolerance problem lies in the efforts of this fanatical political faction to outlaw and dissolve minority spiritual/religious movements. Their long term disinformation campaign allowed them a firm foothold when a 1995 France parliamentary commission published a report in January 1996 blacklisting 172 groups ranging from Eastern to Christian in orientation, including Baptistthe religion of then U.S. President Clinton.
France politicians Nicolas About, senator, and Catherine Picard, a member of the French National Assembly, took matters further and slid through their now infamous About-Picard law, which has since raised international storms of condemnation.
A veritable law of exception, the About-Picard bill empowers the French government to dissolve an entire religious denomination or spiritual movement should any leader, director, officer or even a member deemed a de facto leader of any one of their churches or groups accumulate more than one penal offense. It does not matter if the offense was caused in the name of the association or not.
Thus, if an executive or prominent member of a Pentecostal bible group listed on the governments blacklist had, for example, a traffic accident involving bodily injury to another person for which he was found responsible, the government would have the power to dissolve his religious association.
Heavy fines and prison sentences would potentially be the fate of anyone who attempted to reestablish the association, even as a different corporation with new officials.
Further, a distinctly separate association, with similar goals and a common interest to one under dissolution procedures could also be dissolved under the law if its leader could be pinned with only one penal offense. In other words, following the example above, if a teacher in a Pentecostal school in France were to also be convicted of some misdemeanor, he could see his school dissolvedsimply because it has a similar goal and a common interest with the Pentecostal bible group.
However, the provision in the law that has caused some of the sharpest censure is the condition for dissolution based on the ambiguous offense of state of subjection. By its definition, activities as commonplace as military indoctrination, most forms of education, pastoral counseling and the strictures of Catholic monasterial life have now been made illegal in France.
A growing number of human rights activists believe the About-Picard bill is motivated by the appallingly high level of political corruption in France. Religions traditionally call for its members to lead ethical lives and seek social reform, so attacks by politicians on religions serves the dual purpose of keeping the moral watchdogs on the defense, while noisily diverting attention from political graft and malfeasance.
Ironically, many of Frances political parties could be immediately dissolved if the sweeping, arbitrary power of the About-Picard law were applied to them. The last few years in France have seen more than 200 court cases involving political figures, resulting in at least 150 convictions, including multiple convictions within the same party. The law, however, does not apply to political groupseven though, ironically, it is based on a 1936 law that was aimed exclusively at political factions.
Further, anti-religious hate groups with a documented history of stirring up intolerance and violence in France can join in prosecutions against targeted groups as civil parties, and be granted the rights of plaintiffs.
Condemned by religious and human rights leaders in Europe and North America, the law has been embraced in China as a model and justification for their infamous persecution of not just Falun Gong members but also Christians.
In early September 2001, concerned by the implications of the France law for human rights, John McKay, Member of Parliament - Scarborough East, met with church leaders, Canadas Embassy staff and law co-author Senator Nicolas About in Paris. Mr. McKay has been a Member of Parliament since 1997 and is a lawyer by profession. He has served as a member of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and has chaired the Liberal party National Social Caucus Sub-Committee on Homelessness and Affordable Housing. Mr. McKay is also the past moderator of Spring Garden Church, Vice-President of CIDO (an organization devoted to community banking in developing nations), and a past member of the Advisory Council of Durham College.
Mr. KcKay shared his thoughts on the French legislation with Freedom. His observations are of interest to all who recognize the value of maintaining our international human rights accords whichbased as they are on universal tolerance and religious pluralismremain vital to world peace in times such as these.