© RELIGION NEWS SERVICE
(As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, electronic edition for December 6, 1997)
WASHINGTON -- A new report by an Italian religion think-tank says American-style religious pluralism is under official attack in much of Europe -- including several western European nations considered bastions of democratic freedom.
While American attention has largely been focused on Russia's recent approval of a law regulating religious expression there and Germany's ongoing conflict with the Church of Scientology, the report by the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Turin, Italy, notes ``there are literally hundreds of religious minorities discriminated against or persecuted in Western Europe.''
Generally, the faith discriminated against are dismissed as cults. Moreover, said the report released Monday, ``these cases, unfortunately, are not simply exceptions to a general rule of religious tolerance.'' Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Hare Krishnas and Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church are among the minority groups facing the greatest official opposition, according to the study by CESNUR -- which draws on the work of international religion scholars but is largely funded by the Italian government.
But Roman Catholic, evangelical and Penecostal Protestant and Hasidic Jewish groups also have come in for official sanction in France, Belgium and Switzerland, said CESNUR managing director Massimo Introvigne. ``Greece, meanwhile, by keeping in its constitution a provision that outlaws proselytism on behalf of any religion other than the Greek Orthodox Church, has apparently not yet decided whether, in religious liberty matters, it really wants to belong to the West,'' the study said.
At a news conference, Introvigne said the purpose of the study was ``to ring a bell that we're seeing the beginning of a widespread trend of intolerance.'' While a group such as Scientology has the resources and know-how to fight what it perceives as official bias, he noted most religious minorities lack the ability to defend themselves.
In France, said the study, public-school teachers have been fired recently despite "years of honorable service" because they are Jehovah's Witnesses, branded a ``dangerous cult'' in a 1996 government report.
Also in France, the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besancon -- a group whose theology the CESNUR study labeled ``clearly mainline'' -- was deemed a cult in the same government study largely because it does not belong to the World Council of Churches or other establishment church bodies.
In Belgium, Quakers, Catholic charismatic renewal organizations, Buddhists, Satmar Hasidic Jews and the YWCA -- but not the YMCA -- were labeled cults in a government report issued earlier this year.
The CESNUR study called the Belgium government report ``bizarre.''
The study said that much of the religious intolerance is a reaction to the Order of the Solar Temple suicides and homicides in Switzerland and France in 1994 and 1995.
The incidents -- along with the Aum Shinri Kyo subway poisonings in Japan -- prompted an anti-cult backlash in Europe much as the Jonestown, Guyana, Peoples Temple mass suicide and murder of 1978 unleashed similar sentiment in the United States, Introvigne said.
In Russia, the recent law regulating religious expression was instituted largely at be behest of the Russian Orthodox Church, which felt threatened by the inroads that newer, often Western, faiths have made among Russians since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
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