International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, some religious groups remained concerned about the possible impact of legislation passed in 2001 that tightens restrictions on religious organizations. A 1905 law on the separation of religion and State prohibits discrimination on the basis of faith.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion. The Government has a stated policy of monitoring potentially "dangerous" cult activity through the newly formed Inter-ministerial Monitoring Mission Against Sectarian Abuses.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to freedom of religion. After a dramatic increase in the previous reporting period, available evidence indicates that the number of anti-Semitic incidents was lower during the period covered in this report. Government leaders, religious representatives, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to criticize strongly anti-Semitic and racist violence, and the Government maintained increased security for Jewish institutions. The Government continued to take steps to formalize and improve its relations with the country's large Muslim community.

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, with 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. According to various estimates, approximately 6 percent of the country's citizens are unaffiliated with any religion.

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.

Other religions present in the country include evangelicals, Christian Scientists, 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. According to the press, there are approximately 31,000 declared members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Examples of other minority religious groups include the Church of Scientology with an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 members, the Raelians, 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. The 1905 law on the separation of religion and State, the foundation of existing legislation on religious freedom, prohibits discrimination on the basis of faith.

Religious organizations are not required to register but may do so if they wish to apply for tax-exempt status or to gain official recognition. The Government defines two categories under which religious groups may register: "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 may engage in profit-making activity. 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 register under 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 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 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 taxes at a rate of 60 percent on present and past donations.

The 2001 About-Picard Law tightens restrictions on associations and provides for the dissolution of groups, including religious groups, under certain conditions. These include: endangering the 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 falsification.

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 religious organization in a system administered by the central Government.

Central or local governments own and maintain religious buildings constructed before the 1905 law separating religion and State. In Alsace and Moselle, special laws allow the local governments 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 from countries not exempted from visa requirements to enter the country must obtain a 3-month tourist visa before leaving their own country. All missionaries who wish to remain in the country longer than 90 days must obtain visas before entering the 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 must provide the prefecture a letter from their sponsoring religious organization.

Public schools are secular. Religious instruction is not given in public schools, but religious facts are taught as part of the history curriculum. 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 religious organizations.

Of the country's 10 national holidays, 5 are Christian holidays.

The Government has made efforts to promote interfaith understanding. Strict anti-defamation laws prohibit racially or religiously motivated attacks. The Government has programs to combat racism and anti-Semitism through public awareness campaigns and through encouraging dialog between local officials, police, and citizen groups. Government leaders, along with representatives from the Jewish community, the Paris and Marseille Grand Mosques, the Protestant Federation, and the French Conference of Bishops have publicly condemned racist and anti-Semitic violence. In January a law was passed against crimes of a "racist, anti-Semitic, or xenophobic" nature; the law classifies racist motivations for violent acts as aggravating circumstances and mandates harsher punishment for these crimes.

The Government consults with the major religious communities through various formal mechanisms. The Catholic community is represented by the Council of Bishops. In February 2002, the Government and the Vatican initiated a series of meetings that are expected to focus on administrative and judicial matters. The Government announced plans to establish regular consultations with the Church to discuss judicial and administrative issues of concern.

The Protestant Federation of France, established in 1905, comprises 16 churches and 60 associations. Its primary purpose is to contribute to the cohesion of the Protestant community. It also acts as an interlocutor with the Government.

The Central Consistory of Jews of France, established in 1808, comprises the Jewish "cultuelle" worship associations from the entire country. It acts as a liaison with the Government, trains rabbis, and responds to other needs of the Jewish community. In 1943 Jewish members of the French Resistance formed the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF). The CRIF's stated purpose is to fight anti-Semitism, affirm its solidarity with Israel and commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict, and preserve the memory of the Holocaust.

In April, the Government assisted the Muslim community in forming the national French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) and 25 regional councils to serve as interlocutors with local and national French officials on such civil-religious issues as mosque construction and certification of "halal" butchers.

The Inter-ministerial Monitoring Mission Against Sectarian Abuses (MIVILUDES) is charged with observing and analyzing sect/cult movements that constitute a threat to public order or that violate French law, coordinating the appropriate responses to abuses by cults, informing the public about potential risks, and helping victims to receive aid.

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 considers "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.

In 1998 the Government created the "Inter-ministerial Mission in the Fight against Sects/Cults" (MILS) to analyze the "phenomenon of cults." The president of MILS resigned in June 2002 under criticism, and an inter-ministerial working group was formed to determine the future parameters of the Government's monitoring of sects/cults. In November the Government announced the formation of MIVILUDES, the successor to MILS. In announcing the formation of MIVILUDES, the Government acknowledged that its predecessor, MILS, had been criticized for certain actions abroad that could have been perceived as contrary to religious freedom. Anti-cult activists have criticized MIVILUDES for being less aggressive than MILS in its approach to sects/cults.

Some observers remained concerned about the 2001 About-Picard Law. By the end of the reporting period, no cases had been brought under the new law. In November 2002, the Council of Europe passed a resolution inviting the Government to reconsider the About-Picard Law and to clarify certain terms in the law, stating that only the European Court of Human Rights could make a determination as to the law's compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 1989 the Church of Scientology was charged with fraud and the illegal practice of medicine. In 1998 the investigating judge divulged that many of the Government's files on the case were lost. In August 2002, a Paris judge dismissed the case, citing lack of evidence and the expiration of the statute of limitations. Prosecutors later charged the Church of Scientology with the theft of the files; in May, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence by the Grand Tribunal of Paris. In a separate case in May, a Paris judge held a hearing on allegations that the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center had engaged in organized criminal fraud; no decision had been released at the end of the reporting period. Church of Scientology representatives report that a case filed by a parent whose child attended an "Applied Scholastics"-based school remained ongoing.

In 2001 local authorities in La Rochelle and Lorient refused to rent members of Jehovah's Witnesses public space for meetings, citing as a basis for their decision the inclusion of the group in the 1996 parliamentary report on cults. In February and May 2002, administrative tribunals overturned each city's decision, concluding that the parliamentary report had no legal basis and that the cities could not refuse the group access to public space.

Some observers voiced concerns about the tax authorities' scrutiny of the financial records of some religious groups. In February 2002, the Versailles Court of Appeals upheld a Nanterre court's 2000 decision that the French Association of Jehovah's Witnesses, a cultural association, must pay more than $47.5 million (45.7 million euros) in back taxes. The plaintiffs' appeal of the decision to the Court of Cassation was ongoing at the end of the reporting period.

The wearing of Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols has provoked public discussion. 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. Government employees are prohibited from wearing religious symbols at work. A civil servant disciplined in May 2002 for wearing a Muslim headscarf filed suit, and a court decision was pending at the end of the reporting period. Some Muslim groups have protested the government policy prohibiting the wearing of the headscarf in national identity photos. In June, the Paris Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision that a telemarketing firm must reinstate an employee who had been illegally fired for refusing to remove her headscarf at work. Government leaders have expressed their commitment to secularism and have indicated their intention to form a working group to study the headscarf issue as part of a larger inquiry into the place of religion in society.

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 Council of Christian Churches in France (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 annual National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (NCCHR) report on racism and xenophobia, released in March, noted a significant increase in the number of attacks and threats against Jews in 2002. Following a decrease in incidents from 2000 to 2001, anti-Semitic attacks and threats, ranging from graffiti and harassment to cemetery desecration and firebombing, increased dramatically in early 2002, then decreased sharply in May 2002. The NCCHR reported 924 anti-Semitic incidents of violence and threats in 2002, compared to 216 in 2001. The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF) hotline received 308 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2002, ranging from verbal insults and hate mail to physical attacks on people and property. The CRIF hotline received 215 reports of anti-Semitic incidents from January 1 through June 30, compared to 231 during the same period in 2002. Government leaders, members of the religious community, and NGOs strongly criticized the violence, which some linked to increasing tensions in the Middle East. It appeared that disaffected youths were responsible for many of the incidents, and some arrests were made.

The Government increased security for Jewish institutions. More than 13 mobile units, totaling more than 1,200 police 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 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.

Panda Software has 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 NGOs involved in the issue. U.S. Members of Congress and Congressional Commissions, as well as Congressional staff members, also have discussed religious freedom issues with senior government officials.

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