Human Rights Without Frontiers recommends to the French authorities to put an end to religious discrimination in prison and to allow detainees to have access to JW chaplains

HRWF (17.09.2012) – For many years, the French authorities have denied the Jehovah’s Witnesses the right to have prison chaplains, even those who are volunteers.

To prevent the authorization of officially appointed chaplains who would work with detainees in the prisons, the president of Miviludes emphatically asserts that such appointments might lead to dangerous problems, as well as proselyting inside the walls of the detention centers. (1)

Over 20 years ago, Jehovah’s Witnesses who were conscientious objectors could freely practice their religion in prison

Nevertheless, as Jean-Claude Pons, the spokesperson for the national consistory of Jehovah’s’s Witnesses, has pointed out on France Culture:  “Over twenty years ago, Jehovah’s Witnesses who were conscientious objectors were in prison. At that time, ministers of our religion could visit them and rooms were provided in which religious ceremonies could be held.” (2)

None of that posed any problem in the past. On the contrary, the Directorate of Prison Services respected and trusted them because they made great contributions to the well-being of the prisons in which they were held.

As soon as the Defense Ministry found a solution by which the conscientious objectors could replace military service with different types of civil service, their absence in the prisons produced a real sense of loss.

“Those who were immediately the worst off were the prison directors. In effect, they lost their most zealous supporters. Model prisoners, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were given trusted assignments which greatly contributed to the success of the holding prisons.” (3)

Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses want prison chaplains?

In recent years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have diligently searched for a solution that would end the perpetual impediments to spiritual aid that they wish to bring to prison detainees who have expressly asked for it.

They have tried to remain satisfied with the use of prison visiting rooms for their ministerial visits, but have found the conditions there unacceptable, whether it was because they were purely and simply denied the opportunity to meet with prisoners, with the excuse that their visits would not promote the detainee’s social integration (4), or because they were denied permission to bring with them their Bible or other religious works. (5)

Also, those prisoners who had legally subscribed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazines “The Watch Tower” and “Awake” were denied access to them because it was claimed that they were published by a deviant sect. (6)

Granted, the justice ministry has from time to time and in various places put an end to these attacks on the freedom of religion, but an officially authorized status for Jehovah’s Witnesses chaplains by the Chancellery would ensure a better respect for the religious practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (or its sympathizers) in the prison environment.

There are other problems that granting official status to Jehovah’s Witnesses chaplains would help solve. First, meetings with ministerial visitors in a common meeting room do not permit any private interaction, even confidential discussions, and moreover count against the quota of family visits.

In addition, Article R. 57-9-6 of the Penal Procedural Code stipulates that chaplains be allowed to have conversations with their adherents “outside of the presence of a supervisor, whether in the visiting room, in a room provided for that purpose, or in the cell of the prisoner.” These conditions prove to be indispensable for all pastoral activities.

Finally, if no Jehovah’s Witnesses chaplain exist in penal institutions, no religious ceremonies for that religion can be organized, certainly a religion of minority status, for those who have chosen to practice the faith.

Does the low number of requests prevent the naming of Jehovah’s Witnesses chaplains?

To justify their refusal to accept Jehovah’s Witnesses chaplains, the prison administration and the “Keeper of the Seals” (Minister of Justice) responded to the Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal by stressing that there were not enough prisoners claiming to be members of their church. But is this a realistic argument?

From a legal point of view, theParis Administrative Court of Appeal has ruled that “no statutory law or regulation can set conditions for the naming of a prison chaplain based on a minimum number of prisoners capable of appealing for spiritual help (7).” The administrative courts of appeal in both Nancy and Douai have also arrived at the same conclusion.(8)

Furthermore, administrative practice shows that this pretext for denial is not applied to other religions. On the contrary, Le Monde has revealed that the public authorities have, on their own initiative, talked to the Buddhist Union of France (UBF) in order to nominate several Buddhist chaplains (9). Yet, as the somewhat surprised Buddhist Union admits, the typical number of requests from Buddhist prisoners amounts only to about twelve per year. By comparison, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the same article, count about a hundred such requests a year.

Moreover, as the president of the UBF justly points out, making more authorized chaplains available will allow more detainees to make their spiritual needs known, since the steps to do so will thereafter be easier to process and better accepted.

Is there a risk of proselyting by prison chaplains?

Article R. 57-9-6 of the Penal Procedural Code stipulates that “persons detained can, at their request, meet with chaplains from their religious tradition as often as is necessary.”

Chaplains are not able to tract (go door to door) in the prisons nor do they have free access to the prison cells for proselyting. They are only allowed to go among the prisoners who claim to belong to the same religion and expressly request the visit of a minister of the religion authorized by the prison administration.

Likewise, according to article D. 439-1 of the Penal Procedural Code: “Chaplains consecrate all or part of their time to the duties defined in article R. 57-9-4 depending on the number of prisoners who wish to meet with those authorized chaplains who work at that particular facility.”

It is thus clear that spiritual help and religious services are offered only to those who express such a need. In the unlikely possibility that it be otherwise, any attempt to go beyond the well-defined limits of the law would no doubt be prevented by prison officials.

Human Rights Without Frontiersrecommends to the French authorities to put an end to religious discrimination in prison and to allow detainees to have access to JW chaplains

Source : Droits des cultes et Témoins de Jehovah’s (Davy)

Translation French-English by Human Rights Without Frontiers

Footnotes :

(1) RTL Midi, RTL, 19 May 2011, 12h30.

(2) Journal, France Culture, 30 May 2011, 22h.

(3) Libération, Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 February 1995.

(4) Tribunal administratif de Limoges, 16 October 2008, n° 0700710.

(5) Le Monde, 29 May 2010, p. 12.

(6) Tribunal administratif de Lille, 1 July 2003, n° 00-1519.

(7) Cour administrative d’appel de Paris, 30 mai 2011, n° 10PA03567 ; Cour administrative d’appel de Paris, 30 mai 2011, n° 10PA03589 ; Cour administrative d’appel de Paris, 30 mai 2011, n° 10PA03618 ; Cour administrative d’appel de Paris, 30 mai 2011, n° 10PA03619.

(8) Cour administrative d’appel de Nancy, 13 octobre 2011, n° 11NC00211 ; Cour administrative d’appel de Douai, 25 octobre 2011, n° 11DA00554 ; Cour administrative d’appel de Douai, 25 octobre 2011, n° 11DA00555 ; Cour administrative d’appel de Douai, 25 octobre 2011, n° 11DA00556.

(9) Le Monde, 8 and 9 January 2012, p. 11.


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