For more than two decades, the French governmental “anti-cult” agency Miviludes (acronym for French Inter-ministerial mission for monitoring and combating cultic deviances) has been making money hand over fist by calling some religious minorities “cults”, “cultic movements”, “sectarian aberrations’ type movements” and other sorts of names.
We already covered the fact that Miviludes had some troubles due to its long-term association with anti-Ukrainian Russian extremists, and more recently Miviludes has seen its operational chief (Hanene Romdhane) resigning, amid internal disagreements quite not precisely identified.
But besides all scandals that may touch the anti-cult French institution, largely criticized internally and externally, the fatal blow may come from the European Court of Human Rights. Indeed, in a decision rendered on December 12, 2022, the ECHR convicted Bulgaria for violation of article 9 (freedom of religion or belief), after 3 evangelical Churches had been stigmatized by a circular letter as “cults” (“Tonchev and Others v. Bulgaria.”)
The circular letter had been sent to all public schools by the City of Burgas. It asked the schools to explain to all pupils that the groups mentioned in the text were “cults, should not be confused with the legitimate Bulgarian Orthodox Church, were “dangerous,” and exposed their members to “mental health problems.” And mentioned, inter alia, the three Evangelical Churches who complained to the ECHR.
While the Bulgarian State tried to defend itself by saying that this was an isolated act, that it was justified because they received “reports” that some evangelical Churches were acting wrongly, that no negative consequences had affected the three Evangelical churches because of the letter, and that “sekti” (cults) in Bulgarian had no negative connotations, the Court considered, in alignment with its precedent decision “Centre of Societies for Krishna Consciousness In Russia and Frolov v. Russia” (2021), that the use of such derogatory and hostile terms by governments “can be analysed as an infringement of the rights guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention”.
The ECHR decision
The decision adds: “the Court considers that the terms used in the circular letter and the information note of 9 April 2008, which described certain religious currents, including Evangelicalism to which the applicant associations belonged, as ‘dangerous religious cults’ that ‘contravene Bulgarian legislation, citizens’ rights and public order’ and whose meetings expose their participants to ‘psychological disorders,’ may indeed be perceived as pejorative and hostile. It notes that the documents in question were distributed by the town hall of Burgas, the town in which the applicant associations and pastors were operating, to all the schools in the town, which were invited to bring them to the attention of the pupils and to report on the way in which the information was presented and the way in which the children reacted. In these circumstances, and even if the measures complained of did not directly restrict the right of the applicant pastors or their co-religionists to manifest their religion through worship and practice, the Court considers, in the light of its case law, that these measures may have had negative repercussions on the exercise of religious freedom by the members of the churches in question.”
It’s interesting nevertheless to make a comparison between the attitude of the Bulgarian authorities and France. While the circular letter in question was, per the Bulgarian state, an isolated and local incident, and that the Parliament and the Ministry of Interior had expressed their disagreement with the letter, in France the stigmatisation and discrimination against minority religions is utterly endorsed by the State. Miviludes is a government agency belonging to the Ministry of Interior, and its mandate is national, not local.
Maybe it’s time for France to reconsider its anti-minority religions policy and to align with ECHR standards, once for all.