Belgian Parliament Considers Criminalizing Proselytizing
July 7, 2006
Volume 9, Number 26
By Mark Adams
(NEW YORK — C-FAM) Some members of small religious groups in Belgium are worried that a controversial legislative proposal could threaten religious freedom. The law in question would punish persons found guilty of “abusing the ignorance or weakness” of minors and other vulnerable people, but the wording is so vague that some international observers fear that the law would be used to repress and discriminate against minority faiths.
The bill passed Belgium’s Council of Ministers and is awaiting constitutional approval before being debated by the full Parliament. It would impose a three month to five year jail sentence on “anyone abusing the ignorance or weakness of a minor or a very vulnerable individual, either due to his/her age, sickness, disability, physical or mental deficiency, illegal resident status or precarious living condition or pregnancy, so as to get that person to do an act or refrain from doing an act that would seriously endanger his/her physical or mental integrity or assets.”
The Institute on Religion and Public Policy has taken a special interest in the legislation and has authored a letter to two key Belgium officials condemning it. The letter, which has been signed onto by other organizations, states that the law “allows for too broad of an interpretation that will inevitably result in arbitrary and discriminatory application of the law by permitting almost unfettered discretion by government officials to use the criminal laws as a weapon to repress minority faiths. Passage of such legislation — based on the widely discredited notion of ‘mental manipulation’ — would represent a serious setback for religious freedom in Belgium.”
According to the letter the law is based on recommendations made in a 1997 report from the Belgian Parliamentary Commission that called for a law punishing those who abuse a person’s weakness as a result of an “indoctrination by sects.” The letter says the same commission drafted a list that labeled 189 religious groups as “sects” including, Hasidic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zen Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Pentecostals, Amish, Quakers, five Catholic groups and others.
The Dutch Catholic news site, RKNieuws.net reported that although the list was rejected by Parliament “Belgian media consider the ‘sect list’ still as authoritative.” The letter claims that organizations on the list still face repercussions today. “[I]t received widespread publicity when it was made public by the Commission . . . stigmatizing all the religions included in the list and effectively operating as a blacklist for these religions and their adherents to this very day.”