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FRANCE MOVES TO TAX RELIGION, SAYS HEADQUARTERS OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES

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Louviers, France - The headline in the June 30 issue in Le Monde, France's most influential newspaper, read, "Tax Assessment of 303 Million Francs for Jehovah's Witnesses." The article by Henri Tincq reported a "dispute pitting them against the tax department for two years...Jehovah's Witnesses point out that France is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Edict of Nantes, called an 'edict of tolerance' this year. They consider that they are victims of a persecution worth of the Wars of Religion."

The tax, which is calculated over four years, totals some US$50 million dollars. The measure arose from what Jehovah's Witnesses believe to be an erroneous interpretation of law texts governing the exercise of worship in France.

The sum demanded represent five years of donations (60 million francs per year) contributed by some 220,000 members.

Le Monde explained that tax does not apply to religious groups whose objective is exclusively religious. "Despite exerting pressure, Jehovah's Witnesses have never succeeded in gaining recognition as a religious association by the Ministry of the Interior and of Religion."

The religious contributions of the Witnesses in France represent an average of $4 per Witness each month. These average monthly contributions are used to spread the gospel, to support missionary activities and to cover other aspects of worship. As with other religions, the contributions assist the functioning of the Church.

"It's shocking that money I gave to my church is now being taxed," said Simone Liebster, a former deportee under the Nazi regime who has been a member of Jehovah's Witnesses for 60 years. "I gave that money for God's work, not for the government."

The European Court of Human Rights and French administrative courts have repeatedly recognised Jehovah's Witnesses as a religion. Jehovah's Witnesses have practiced their worship in all the European Union countries without hindrance. Yet, the Ministry of Finance seeks to deprive this Christian group of the means to practice their religion in France.

Le Monde explained that this controversy was precipitated by such tragedies as the Order of the Solar Temple. The Witnesses were included in the Gest-Guyard Report of January 1996 that grouped them with the most "dangerous" sects. "But the conditions under which the report was written (based on police investigations) have been questioned," according to Le Monde. There is no agreement on the definitions of "cult" and "dangerous."

Le Monde concluded that "The firmness of the administration would therefore be more convincing if it was more coherent."

Jehovah's Witnesses have practiced their Christian faith in the French Republic for 100 years.

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