May 18th 2021 | Massimo Introvigne | BitterWinter
Juliette (not her real name) was very excited to start working as a maternal assistant. Caring for children had always been her passion, and she had the proper credentials to be approved by the regional education board. When she finally received an envelope from the board, she trusted she has been approved. But when she read the letter, she learned she had been in fact rejected. Yes, she had the proper qualifications, but unfortunately she was a Jehovah’s Witnesses and, the board said, “Jehovah’s Witnesses are on the list of movements recognized as sectes (cults.)”
What happened to Juliette was not unique. After the airing of TV programs denouncing the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “cult,” Marc (not his real name either) was attacked by five pupils in his school, and came out of the brawl with a double fracture on his lower jaw. The young Witness reported that he “had to undergo surgery, and they had to immobilize my jaw with iron wire.”
It may seem unbelievable that these incidents, detailed in a report submitted by the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the UN Human Rights Committee in view of its 132nd session (June 28–July 23, 2021), happened in France, a country that prides itself of its international advocacy for human rights. In fact, the organization that later took the name of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to France at the end of the 19th century. It was legally incorporated as a religious association in 1906, and—with the exception of the persecutions by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II—some 300,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses lived there peacefully and generally in good relations with their neighbors for decades. Catholic and Protestant brochures denouncing the Witnesses as “heretics” were mostly read by devout Protestants and Catholics, and did not change this peaceful situation.
However, things changed in 1995. The suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple, a new religious movement based on esoteric ideas as remote from the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as Christianity may be from militant atheism, energized an already existing anti-cult movement, which persuaded the Parliament to establish a parliamentary commission to investigate “sectes,” a French word that scholars translate as “cults” rather than with the milder English term “sect.” The commission came out with a list of 173 “cults.” The largest of them were the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Other commissions followed, and first an “Interministerial Observatory” in 1996, then a State agency to combat “cults” were established. The agency was created as MILS (Interministerial Mission of Fight Against Cults) in 1998, and renamed MIVILUDES (Interministerial Mission of Vigilance and Fight Against Cultic Deviances) in 2002. Last month, it was reinforced by the French Minister Delegate for Citizenship at the Ministry of Interior, Marlène Schiappa, with more money and more power.
In general, the vague French definitions of “sectes” put very different eggs in the same basket, from criminal groups guilty of terrorism and violence to organizations whose only sin is to promote a lifestyle and beliefs different from those of the majority. As American scholar Stuart Wright wrote in a book that has been just published, the French “war on sects [cults]” is unique among democratic countries “To say this approach [is] unique in international policy, Wright states, would be an understatement.” Groups labeled as sectes are “disenfranchised and barred from participation in customary public activities.” France, Wright notes, even introduced a law criminalizing “mental manipulation (manipulation mentale), a French rendition of the pseudo-scientific, discredited notion of ‘brainwashing,’” and more generally promoted an “extraordinary government policy of religious intolerance.”
The case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, is an anomaly within an anomaly. Unlike most groups listed as “cults,” the Jehovah’s Witnesses are large and well-known, have been a peaceful feature of French society for more than a century, and have been recognized as a religion by countless decisions of national courts and the European Court of Human Rights. Indeed, when France tried to get rid of the Jehovah’s Witnesses by claiming that as a “cult” hand-to-hand donations to them were not tax-exempt, and undertook to bankrupt them by asking for the extravagant sum of Euro 57.5 million after a tax audit, the European Court of Human Rights identified this as a plot to deny the Witnesses’ freedom of religion, and ruled in 2011 against France.
The opposition to the list of “sectes” published in 1995 was nearly unanimous among scholars. Finally, even the MIVILUDES itself has recognized in its most recent report that groups were included in the list “not on the basis of objective criteria, but on the level of social acceptance at that particular time.” In fact, MIVILUDES now recognizes that the scholars who criticized the list—dismissed as “cult apologists” at the time—were right, and authorities were wrong. Movements were “stigmatized” and harassed just because they were unpopular, and who was “unpopular” was decided by the anti-cult movements and the politicians that supported them. In fact, already in 2005, the Prime Minister had acknowledged that the 1995 list was “less and less relevant.”
Notwithstanding these admissions, in France a “list effect” continues, and the fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were included in the list continues to generate discrimination in various fields. For instance, municipalities and mayors have repeatedly refused the authorizations to build Jehovah’s Witnesses’ places of worship, or to rent municipal halls to them, arguing that they are listed as a “secte.” Tax offices at the national and local levels have also used the “secte” status of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to try to deny tax exemptions to them. Ministers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been denied registration with the Social Security Scheme for Religious Personnel (CAVIMAC). Jehovah’s Witnesses inmates in jails have been prevented from being visited by their religious ministers. Parents in divorce cases were denied custody of their children just because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. School authorities have discriminated Jehovah’s Witnesses parents and children in various ways. Some governmental agencies even tried to copy the German “sect filter” and asked those applying for a job to declare that they were “not members of an organization included in the list of sectes published in the 1995 French parliamentary report (n. 2468) and its updates, whether directly or indirectly.”
France is a democratic country with an independent judiciary, and in most of these cases the Jehovah’s Witnesses won in court, and the discriminatory practices had to stop. But this meant that they had to spend years in litigations, and devote to legal efforts resources they would have normally allocated to evangelization and other religious activities.
It is also the case that, when the government designates a group as “bad,” some take the law in their own hands. Places of worships of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been systematically vandalized in France, and some have been destroyed. After the third parliamentary report criticized again the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “secte,” 200 such attacks occurred in the years 2006 and 2007. Individual Witnesses have also been physically assaulted. Sometimes, police officers have been less than cooperative. According to the document submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee, one told a victim, “It is normal that you’ve been attacked, you are one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses… You are a ‘secte.’”
As late as this year, a note published by the MIVILUDES, the National Police, and the Gendarmerie continued to single out the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their “cultic deviances” and for their “abusive proselytization” during the COVID-19 crisis “by mail and e-mail.” The note was prepared following a request by Minister Schiappa who, as the report notes, on April 5, 2021 was interviewed by Le Monde and attacked the “grosses sectes” (large cults) mentioning the Order of the Solar Temple (which, by the way, was never large) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Clearly, putting the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the same category with the Order of the Solar Temple, a group notorious for its homicides and suicides, was an attempt to paint them in the darkest possible color.
French defamation also expands internationally, both through the MIVILUDES and the anti-cult organizations supported by the MIVILUDES. For instance, renewed attacks against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium and Kazakhstan followed meetings of the MIVILUDES with local authorities.
All this is clearly incompatible with France’s international commitments to protect human rights and religious liberty. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in their report ask France to cease the discrimination and defamation, seriously investigate and punish the hate crimes, and “stop the State financing of anti-sectes associations.” Until these requests are heard, there will be no real and inclusive religious liberty in France.