Relations between civil society and religious minorities are dealt with in different ways throughout the countries of Europe. The significant increase of religious minorities, whether they are relatively new religious movements or traditional ones but new to European countries, can create tensions that the European States have to find ways of dealing with. Some approaches have been successful and others have proven to be unsuccessful, creating greater tensions rather than constructive dialogue. Even the more traditional religions have minority groups within them that can also be the target of stigmatization and discrimination. In the field of family matters, tensions can be particularly harmful as this touches the very core of society - the family unit.
Here is an example of an unsuccessful approach to these matters and a source of tremendous tension between religious minorities and the State.
The French example
In a 22 March 2012 circular from the French Ministry of Education, professors and civil servants in the education field are asked to report on any child or family suspected of “sectarian abuses”. A “situation of sectarian risk, for a child” being defined as “one in which views and practices are imposed on him to the exception of any other views or practice”.
Of course, this definition could apply to parents raising their children in any religion or even atheistic views.
What the French authorities conceive as a problem is that followers of minority belief movements educate their children according to their own faith. However, parents clearly have a right to educate their children according to their own convictions in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Contrary to preceding Ministry of Education circulars from 14 May 1999 and 26 December 2011, which simply provided for legitimate control over the acquisition of knowledge and the level of education of children receiving education at home, this latest circular provides for the identification of “sectarian risks” by national education personnel. This has led to visits by national education agents to parents belonging to minorities of religion or belief whose children were doing “at-home” correspondence courses delivered by State recognized bodies. The national education agents were checking for any ideological or religious motivation behind the choice of the parents to take their children out of the regular school system.
Unfortunately, this kind discriminatory paranoia has been going on in France for dozens of years. It is certainly contrary to various recommendations made by various authorities in charge of human rights at European and international level. For example, in her report, following an official visit to France on 18-29 September 2005, Asma Jahangir, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, noted with regards to “new religious movements or communities of belief”:
108. However, she is of the opinion that the policy and measures that have been adopted by the French authorities have provoked situations where the right to freedom of religion or belief of members of these groups has been unduly limited. Moreover, the public condemnation of some of these groups, as well as the stigmatization of their members, has led to certain forms of discrimination, in particular vis-à-vis their children.
The UN Rapporteur made the following recommendations:
112. The Special Rapporteur urges the Government to ensure that its mechanisms for dealing with these religious groups or communities of belief deliver a message based on tolerance, freedom of religion or belief and on the principle that no one can be judged for his actions other than through the appropriate judicial channels.
113. Moreover, she recommends that the Government monitor more closely preventive actions and campaigns that are conducted throughout the country by private initiatives or Government-sponsored organizations, in particular within the school system in order to avoid children of members of these groups being negatively affected.
Clearly, this advice was not taken on board by the French government. As recently as 9 January 2013, the Director of Criminal Affairs of the French Minister of Justice, Ms. Marie-Suzanne le Queau, when officially interrogated by the French Senate, declared:
“We sometimes had to institutionalize children because they had no other parents than their father or mother and they belonged to a sect.”
This statement demonstrates that in France, you can lose the custody of your own children just because you belong to a religious minority targeted as a “sect”.
EIFRF has been made aware of various cases of stigmatization and discrimination in family matters based on parents belonging to religious minorities. Each of them have been verified and authenticated. Here are four examples covering a number of years:
• On the 15th April 2013, the newspaper “La Dépêche” tells the story of a father who was forbidden to see his son solely because of his religious beliefs. The father, Richard Dray is 45 years old and an Orthodox Jew. After divorcing, Richard Dray had custody of his 12 year old son at weekends. The son started to have behavioral problems and was sent to psychologists for further evaluation. They in turn decided to place him in an institution. Richard asked for his son to be placed in a private institution and went before a judge to request this, who, seeing him with his kippah and his long beard, decided to remove his parental authority altogether, stating: “If you want to live like that, go live in Jerusalem.”
Richard still retained a right of access to his son. However, the social services placed the child in a home without telling the father where he was located. Eventually the father found out where he had been placed and called the institution to talk to his son. The son told his father over phone that he misses him and is sad. The father answers “do not worry, everything that happens to us on earth is a test sent by God that must be overcome”. The social services, who were listening to the conversation, then forbade the father to approach his son because of these so called “fundamentalists words”, adding that he should not talk about God in 2013 to a 12 years old child and that it was contrary to their educational principles. It is now three weeks later and Richard still has no news of his son.
• We also had a report of a complaint concerning a family belonging to a religious minority. In November 2011, their son, Tom, had to attend a course in his school about “sects”. In that course, which lasted one hour, the religious minority to which his parents belonged was named and depicted as dangerous and practicing mental manipulation. Tom did not say anything during the course but afterwards went to see the teacher and politely told him that what he said was not true about the religion of his parents and that it should be respected as any other religion. The teacher became angry and told Tom that he should not follow his parents in their “sect”. Tom did not answer and left. On the 23 February 2012, the senior education advisor and the Director of the school called Tom to a hearing. They asked him why he went to see his professor at the end of the course on “sects”. Tom told them what happened. They then got angry with him and forbade him to repeat that the religious minority of his parents was a religion, “as it is a sect”. They kept him for a further 30 minutes, telling him that he would not be allowed to leave until he said that the religion of his parents was a “sect”. The child did not bow under pressure. The parents filed a complaint which is still ongoing, but the first defense of the school was to say that they were following the instructions of the Ministry of National Education.
• Another example is the case of a French Medical doctor who had a center for drug addicts, which accepted teenagers. His center had great results, but a defamation campaign was launched by a French “anti-sect” association (an association funded by the French government), that spread the word that the doctor belonged to a Hindu ‘sect’. This rumor was disseminated throughout the entire region in which he lived and it finally came to the attention of the Departmental Directorate of Health and Social Affairs. This Directorate then decided to close the center for this reason alone. The violence of this defamation campaign and the actions of the Department of Health and Social Affairs generated such suffering for the doctor that he committed suicide.
• One more history is that of a family of Christian believers, a Christian movement which had been reported as a ‘sect’ in a list created by some French parliamentary members in 1996. In 2002, the son, a nine year old boy, was diagnosed with leukemia. The mother was a medical doctor herself. She and her husband decided to explore all possible solutions that could heal their son with the best results. They made contact with several specialists in France and Germany in order to see what treatment they were going to choose to save him. After six days, they decided to take him to hospital and spent the night in hospital near their son and then went back home in the early morning, leaving their son with the hospital doctors. When they arrived home they found the police waiting for them saying that they had been “alerted” that there was a child that needed to be taken to hospital.
The parents did not really understand why the police were there and answered that their son was already at the hospital. The police then left their home.
One month later, they were questioned by police. They had been “denounced” by a “friend” for having kept their son at home for six days before taking him to hospital, “because they were member of a sect”. When arriving at the police station, they were immediately separated and taken into custody. For the previous month they had spent day and night with their son in the hospital. His health was deteriorating, yet they were held in custody by the police for three days and nobody told the son why his parents were suddenly not visiting him. The parents, in custody, asked for news of their son but were not given any.
They also had two small girls who were at home without any news from their parents.
The police interrogated the parents about belonging to a “sect” and why they waited for six days after the diagnosis of leukemia before taking their child to hospital. When they went to the toilet, they were told door had to stay open, in full view of the policemen. The policemen also made derogatory remarks about their religious beliefs.
After being held in custody for three days, the parents were indicted by a Judge of Instruction and released by the police. The health of their son had deteriorated drastically. The parents were then put under the stress of investigation whilst also having to take care of their two small daughters and taking turns to watch over their son at the hospital. All their friends were interrogated by the police, as were they themselves, many times. The Judge of Instruction then decided that she should take the two daughters away from their parents because they belonged to “a sect”. A “Child Judge” was alerted by the Judge of Instruction who then summoned the daughters to a hearing as well as the dying son who was in the hospital. Fortunately, the Child Judge understood this situation and immediately took measures to release the family and end that aspect of the case. She apologized to them for the horrible treatment they have had to suffer.
Unfortunately, the Judge of Instruction decided to continue the criminal investigation into the parents. In February 2003, their son died at the hospital whilst the criminal investigation was still ongoing. The case finally went to court and the parents were finally found to have committed no error with regards to their son and it was stated that the whole case had been the most “suffering” case the judge had ever seen in her life, apologizing again for the treatment suffered by this family.