French tax of Jehovah's Witnesses hinders rights: court
European rights judges said Thursday that France had interfered with the religious freedom of Jehovah's Witnesses in imposing a supplementary tax assessment on gifts by its faithful.
The Association of Jehovah's Witnesses claimed that the French government was trying to repress their activities by imposing in 1998 a tax assessment that amounted in total to 45 million euros ($65 million), covering the period from 1993 to 1996.
According to the most recent information submitted by the French government, the amount claimed from the Jehovah's Witnesses was more than 57.5 million euros, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said in a statement.
The judges noted that the supplementary taxation "had concerned the entirety of the manual gifts received by the association... the main source of its funding."
Consequently with its operating resources cut, "it had no longer been able to guarantee to its followers the free exercise of their religion in practical terms," the court said.
"There had therefore indeed been interference in the applicant association's right to freedom of religion," it said.
The Jehovah's Witnesses movement, which claims to have more than 17 million followers worldwide with 250,000 in France, identifies itself as a Christian religion with its beliefs based solely on the Bible.
The judges also declared that the gifts had been taxed under a law that was too imprecise.
However, there is no final ruling yet as the judges did not rule on the demand to annull the taxation, restore the amounts seized -- some 4.5 million euros plus interest -- and pay damages and expenses.
The court said that those questions would be dealt with later in light of any supplementary observations by the parties and/or an eventual agreement between them.
© 2011 AFP