International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, religious groups continued to be concerned about the possible impact of legislation passed in 2001. The 1905 law on the separation of church and state prohibits discrimination on the basis of faith.

There was no overall change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, during the period covered by this report, numerous anti-Semitic incidents occurred, mainly as a result of increased tensions in the Middle East. Government leaders and representatives from the country's four main religious groups strongly criticized the violence, and the Government continued to increase police security for Jewish institutions.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 211,210 square miles, and its population is approximately 60 million.

The Government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation. The vast majority of the population is nominally Roman Catholic. According to one member of the Catholic hierarchy, only 8 percent of the population are practicing Catholics. Muslims constitute the second largest religious group in number; Islam has approximately 4 to 5 million adherents, or approximately 7 to 8 percent of the population. Protestants make up 2 percent of the population, and the Jewish and Buddhist faiths each represent 1 percent.

The Jewish community numbers between 600,000 and 700,000 persons and is divided among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox groups. According to press reports, up to 60 percent of the Jewish community celebrates at most only the high holy days such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. One Jewish community leader has reported that the largest number of practicing Jews in the country is Orthodox. Jehovah's Witnesses claim that 250,000 persons attend their services either regularly or periodically. Orthodox Christians number between 80,000 and 100,000; the vast majority are associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches. According to various estimates, approximately 6 percent of the country's citizens are unaffiliated with any religion.

Other religions present in the country include evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Membership in evangelical churches is growing due to increased participation by African and Antillian immigrants. Examples of minority religious groups include the Scientologists (membership estimates range from 5,000 to 20,000), the Raelians with approximately 20,000 members, the Association of the Triumphant Vajra, and the Order of the Solar Temple.

Foreign missionaries are present in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, religious groups continued to be concerned about the possible impact of legislation passed in 2001. The 1905 law on the separation of church and state--the foundation of existing legislation on religious freedom--makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of faith.

Organizations are required to register, and the Government uses many categories to describe associations. Two of these categories apply to religious groups: "Associations cultuelles" (associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes) and "associations culturelles" (cultural associations, which are not exempt from taxes). Associations in these two categories are subject to certain management and financial-disclosure requirements. An association of worship may organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices. A cultural association is a type of association whose goal is to promote the culture of a certain group, including a religious group. Although a cultural association is not exempt from taxes, it may receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations (such as schools). Religious groups normally use both of these categories; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, runs strictly religious activities through its association of worship and operates a school under its cultural association.

Religious groups must apply with the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and, therefore, receive tax-exempt status for their religious activities under the 1905 statute. The prefecture reviews the submitted documentation regarding the association's purpose for existence. To qualify the group's purpose must be solely the practice of some form of religious ritual. Printing publications, employing a board president, or running a school may disqualify a group from receiving tax-exempt status.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, 109 of 1,138 Protestant associations, 15 of 147 Jewish associations, and 2 of 1,050 Muslim associations have tax-free status. Roughly 100 Catholic associations are tax exempt; a representative of the Ministry of Interior reports that the total number of non-tax-exempt Catholic associations is too numerous to estimate accurately. More than 50 associations of the Jehovah's Witnesses have tax-free status.

According to the 1905 law, associations of worship are not taxed on the donations that they receive. However, the prefecture may decide to review a group's status if the association receives a large donation or legacy that comes to the attention of the tax authorities. If the prefecture determines that the association is not in fact in conformity with the 1905 law, its status may be changed and it may be required to pay a 60 percent tax rate on present and past donations.

For historical reasons, the Jewish, Lutheran, Reformed (Protestant), and Roman Catholic groups in three departments of Alsace Lorraine enjoy special legal status in terms of taxation of individuals donating to these religious groups. Adherents of these four religious groups may choose to have a portion of their income tax allocated to their church in a system administered by the central Government.

Central or local governments own and maintain religious buildings constructed before the 1905 law separating church and state. In Alsace and Moselle, special laws allow the local government to provide support for the building of religious edifices. The Government partially funded the establishment of the country's oldest Islamic house of worship, the Paris mosque, in 1926.

Foreign missionaries must obtain a 3-month tourist visa before leaving their own country. Upon arrival, missionaries must apply with the local prefecture for a carte de sejour (a document that allows a foreigner to remain in the country for a given period of time), and then must provide the prefecture a letter from their sponsoring religious organization.

Religion is not taught in public schools. Parents may home-school children for religious reasons, but all schooling must conform to the standards established for public schools. Public schools make an effort to supply special meals for students with religious dietary restrictions. The State subsidizes private schools, including those that are affiliated with churches.

Five of the country's 10 national holidays are Catholic holidays.

In February 2002, the Government and the Vatican initiated church-state meetings that are expected to focus on administrative and judicial matters.

The Government has made efforts to promote interfaith understanding. Strict antidefamation laws prohibit racially or religiously motivated attacks. The Government has programs to combat racism and anti-Semitism through public awareness campaigns, and by encouraging dialog between local officials, police, and citizen groups. Following the numerous anti-Semitic incidents that occurred during the period covered by this report, government leaders, along with representatives from the Jewish community, the Paris and Marseille Grand Mosques, the Protestant Federation, and the French Conference on Bishops, came together to criticize the violence.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Following mass suicides in 1994 by members of the Order of the Solar Temple, successive governments have encouraged public caution towards some minority religious groups that it may consider to be "cults." In 1996 a parliamentary commission studying so-called cults issued a report that identified 173 groups as cults, including Jehovah's Witnesses, the Theological Institute of Nimes (an evangelical Christian Bible College), and the Church of Scientology. The Government has not banned any of the groups on the list; however, members of some of the groups listed have alleged instances of intolerance due to the ensuing publicity.

The Government's "Interministerial Mission in the Fight against Sects/Cults" (MILS), which was created in 1998, is responsible for coordinating periodic interministerial meetings at which government officials can exchange information on cults and coordinate their actions. Although the Government instructed the MILS to analyze the "phenomenon of cults," its decree did not define the term cult or distinguish cults from religions. On February 19, 2002, the MILS released its third annual report. The report noted a stagnation in cult activities in the country but stated that disasters may provide enhanced opportunity for cult recruitment of potentially vulnerable victims. A separate case study focused on potential cult activities in the health care field. On June 17, 2002, the President of MILS resigned; no replacement had been named as of the end of the period covered by this report.

The June 2001 About-Picard law, which tightens restrictions on organizations, does not define cults; however, its articles list criminal activities for which a religious association (or other legal entity) could be subject to dissolution. These include: endangering life or the physical or psychological well-being of a person; placing minors at mortal risk; violation of another person's freedom, dignity, or identity; the illegal practice of medicine or pharmacology; false advertising; and fraud or falsifications. Certain registered private associations, including anti-cult associations, are given standing as third parties to initiate criminal action on behalf of alleged victims against a "person or organization that has the goal or effect of creating or exploiting a psychological or physical dependence." The law also reinforces existing provisions of the Penal Code by adding language covering the exploitation of the "psychological or physical subjection" of "fraudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or weakness." Leaders of the four major religions, such as the president of the French Protestant Federation and the president of the Conference of Bishops in France, raised concerns about the legislation. By the end of the period covered by this report, no cases had been brought under the new law.

In April 2001, the Paris branch of the Church of Scientology was taken to court for attempted fraud, false advertising, and violation of the Data Privacy Act. The case was brought by three persons, including a former member of the group, who alleged that they continued to receive mass mailings despite requests to be taken off lists. According to press reports, the prosecutor requested that the court consider dissolving the church in Paris; however, there was no legal request for dissolution. On May 17, 2002, the court found the Paris branch guilty of violating the privacy of former members and fined them approximately $8,000 (8,000 Euros); however, the branch was cleared of attempted fraud and false advertising. The court fined the president of the Ile-de-France section of the organization approximately $2,000 (2,000 Euros). Church of Scientology representatives report that a case filed by a parent whose child attended an "Applied Scholastics"-based school remained ongoing.

Local authorities often determine the treatment of religious minorities. The Association of the Triumphant Vajra was involved in a dispute with local officials over a statue of the Association's guru that allegedly was erected without a permit. After a final court ruling, the statue was demolished on September 6, 2001.

Some observers are concerned about the scrutiny with which tax authorities have examined the financial records of some religious groups. The Government does not recognize all branches of Jehovah's Witnesses or the Church of Scientology as qualifying religious associations for tax purposes, and therefore subjects them to a 60 percent tax on all funds they receive. The tax authorities began an audit in 1996 of the French Association of Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1998 the tax authorities formally assessed the 60 percent tax on donations received between September 1992 and August 1996. Tax authorities then began proceedings to collect the assessed tax, including steps to place a lien on the property of the National Consistory of Jehovah's Witnesses. On February 28, 2002, the Versailles Court of Appeals upheld a Nanterre court's 2000 decision against the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Jehovah's Witnesses were appealing the decision to the Court of Cassation (the country's highest appeal body) at the end of the period covered by this report.

Debate continues over whether denying some Muslim girls the right to wear headscarves in public schools constitutes a violation of the right to religious freedom. Various courts and government bodies have considered the question on a case-by-case basis; however, there has been no definitive national decision on this issue.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were a number of anti-Semitic incidents during the period covered by this report.

The Conseil des Eglises Chretiens en France is composed of three Protestant, three Catholic, and three Orthodox Christian representatives. It serves as a forum for dialog among the major Christian churches. There is also an organized interfaith dialog among the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish communities, which discuss and issue statements on various national and international themes. The Ministry of Interior is consulting with Muslim organizations regarding the creation of a Muslim council and is working to schedule a vote on an accord.

The annual National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (NCCHR) report on racism and xenophobia, released in March 2002, noted a decrease in the number of attacks against Jews in 2001, following the sharp increase in incidents in 2000. The NCCHR reported 200 anti-Semitic incidents of violence and threats in 2001, compared with 743 in 2000. However, during the first 6 months of 2002, there was another increase in attacks, ranging from graffiti and harassment to cemetery desecration and firebombing, mainly as a result of increasing tensions in the Middle East. According to the press, the police reported close to 400 incidents during the 2-week period of March 29 through April 17, 2002. The most serious incidents occurred over the Easter-Passover weekend: On March 30, a synagogue was damaged by fire in a suburb of Strasbourg; on March 31, a synagogue and adjoining library in Marseille were burned to the ground and a second was attacked 2 days later; in March in Toulouse, there was a drive-by shooting of a Kosher butcher shop; on April 7, assailants threw gasoline bombs at a synagogue north of Paris; and in April in Lyon, 15 masked assailants smashed 2 cars into a synagogue and set it on fire. On April 10, a group of youths armed with baseball bats attacked and robbed young Jewish soccer players. It appeared that disaffected youths were responsible for many of the incidents and arrests have been made. Government leaders, members of the Jewish community, the Paris and Marseille Grand Mosques, the Protestant Federation, and the French Conference of Bishops strongly criticized the violence.

The Government increased security for Jewish institutions. More than 13 mobile units, totaling more than 1,200 officers, have been assigned to those locales having the largest Jewish communities. Fixed or mobile police are present in the schools, particularly during the hours when children are entering or leaving school buildings. All of these measures were coordinated closely with leaders of the Jewish communities in the country, notably the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions (CRIF). In April 2002, the Marseille prefecture instituted 24-hour patrols at all of the city's Jewish sites.

In addition, several incidents occurred against members of the large Arab/Muslim community, including incidents of harassment and vandalism.

In April 2001, the press reported that software produced by Panda International was created by a Scientologist. According to representatives of Panda Software, the Interior Ministry and others subsequently indicated they would not renew their contracts with the company. Panda claimed that critical statements by government officials in press articles linking the product to Scientology have caused a significant loss of business.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Representatives from the Embassy have met several times with government officials and members of Parliament. Embassy officers also meet regularly with a variety of private citizens, religious organizations, and nongovernmental organizations involved in the issue. U.S. Members of Congress and Congressional Commissions also have discussed religious freedom issues with senior government officials. In April 2002, the National Trade Estimate on Foreign Trade Barriers cited France on the grounds that "a U.S. software company alleges that French government agencies have refused to renew contracts with the firm because of the management's relationship to Scientology."