When, in the United States, it is suggested that religious liberty should become an issue in foreign relations, immediate references are to Asian or African countries such as China, North Korea, or Sudan. Former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, including Russia, have recently been added to the list. Scholars of minority religions, however, know that serious problems also exist in some countries of Western Europe. Some cases are becoming well-known. There are, among others: the inclusion of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, and his wife in the so-called Schengen list (preventing persons allegedly dangerous for public order to enter a number of European countries), and the extreme measures advocated in Germany against the Church of Scientology.
These cases, unfortunately, are not simply exceptions to a general rule of religious tolerance. Pentecostal Churches, Roman Catholic organizations, Jewish groups and many other religious minorities face discrimination in a number of Western European countries, including France, Belgium, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. 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.
It is certainly true that serious crimes have been perpetrated by certain religious movements in Europe. The suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland in 1994 and in France in 1995 have caused widespread social concern. Certainly we do not suggest that religious movements guilty of common crimes should not be vigorously prosecuted. However, the Solar Temple incidents have been used as a catalyst in a number of countries to propose actions against literally hundreds of groups lumped together under the label of "cults". In the wake of the Solar Temple a dangerous ideology, hostile to religious minorities in general, seem to be making inroads in political and administrative circles. As scholars, we believe that it is important to understand the main tenets of this ideology (Part I). We then detail some of the results of the ideology in Western Europe, mostly in the form of parliamentary commissions and reports (Part II). After the examination of some examples (Part III), we offer some final suggestions (Part IV). It is important that -- while further action is proposed at different levels in Europe -- an international dialogue on religious minorities may involve all the interested parties and those who care about religious liberty.
I. The Rise of an Intolerant Worldwiew
1. Redefining "Religion"
Virtually no one in present-day Western Europe, and certainly not governments or parliamentary commissions, would admit to being against religious liberty. The technique used to discriminate against unpopular groups is to redefine the notion of "religion". While most scholars favour a broad definition of religion (for example, as a system of answers to the basic human questions about the origins and destiny of humans), institutional definitions by political and judicial actors are often result-oriented. For instance, in ruling to deny to the Church of Scientology the status of a religion, the Appeals Court of Milan, Italy (December 2, 1996) defined religion as "a system of doctrines centered on the presupposition of the existence of a Supreme Being, who has a relation with humans, the latter having towards him a duty of obedience and reverence". On October 8, 1997 the Italian Supreme Court annulled this decision, castigating its theistic definition of religion as "unacceptable" and a "mistake", because it is "based only on the paradigm of biblical religions" and would exclude a number of mainline religions, including Buddhism.
It is true that theologians, sociologists and historians have proposed different definitions of religion. It is however, difficult to avoid the impression that in some European countries today the selection of a set of criteria among many available is governed by a preliminary feeling whether an organization deserves protection or punishment. Only broad definitions of religion appear to be consistent with the aims of religious liberty embodied in a number of national constitutions and international declarations and conventions.
2. The Myth of Brainwashing and Mind Control
One of the older and most effective rhetorical tools used in order to claim that a number of groups are not "genuine" religions is that they are not joined willingly. The anti-Mormon writer Maria Ward claimed in 1855 (Female Life Among the Mormons, London: Routledge, 1855: 38, 240) that Mormon conversions were obtained only through "a mystical magical influence (...) -- a sort of sorcery that deprived me of the unrestricted exercise of free will". In fact, Ward argued, Mormons used the secret of "Mesmerism", taught to their founder Joseph Smith by "a German peddler". The reference to "magical influence", "sorcery" and a non-existing German Mesmerist allowed anti-Mormons such as Ward to deny Mormonism the status of religion. Since religion is, by rhetorical definition, an exercise of free will, a non-religion may only be joined under some sort of coercion.
The same hypnotic paradigm has been applied, more recently, in order to distinguish between "religions", joined voluntarily, and "cults", joined only because of what was once called brainwashing and now -- since the label has been discredited by mental health scholars -- has been renamed as mind control, mental manipulation, or mental destabilization. In the United States, theories of brainwashing and mind control as applied to religious minorities have been debunked from at least ten years. The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1984 allowed Margaret Singer, the main proponent of anti-cult mind control theories, to create a working group called Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). In 1987 the final report of the DIMPAC Committee was submitted to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA. On May 11, 1987 the Board rejected the report. The results of this rejection were devastating for mind control theories.
Starting from the Fishman case (1990) -- in which a defendant who was accused of commercial fraud defended himself on the basis that he was not fully responsible because he was under the mind control of Scientology -- American courts have often rejected testimonies about mind control and manipulation, stating that they are not part of accepted mainline science. Anti-cult brainwashing and mind control theories are, indeed, not part of psychological or social science. They lack empirical evidence, and are a mere tool used in order to deny the status of religion to groups perceived as deviant or subversive. (These and other comments in this text apply to brainwashing and mind control theories as normally proposed in the "classic" anti-cult literature. Recently, a small minority of social scientists has proposed to use the word "brainwashing" in a different sense, in order to indicate certain techniques allegedly used -- rather than in order to persuade non-members to join -- in order to keep members of religious movements within the fold by maximizing their exit costs. The proponents of these comparatively new theories -- accepted by a tiny minority only of scholars of religion -- agree, at any rate, that they shall not be used in order to distinguish between "religions" and "cults").
In Western Europe, on the other hand, these American developments are not well-known. Although with different nuances, and dismissing the word "brainwashing" as inadequate and old-fashioned, even official documents by parliamentary commissions rely on the faulty model distinguishing between religions and "cults" on the basis of manipulation and mind control.
Mind control theories are part of a rejected knowledge consistently repudiated by the academia, professional associations, and courts of law. It is, however, argued that scholarly objections are less relevant than the "testimony" of "former members" who claim that "cults" are indeed joined because of manipulation and mind control. It is unclear why the accounts of one or another "former member" should be accepted by official political bodies, including parliamentary commissions, as more relevant by definition than scholarly research. Additionally, a misunderstanding about the very notion of "former members" is perpetuated, and plays a key role in the public stigmatization of minority religious movements. While parliamentary reports and sensationalized media accounts claim to rely on the "testimony of former members", we learn invariably that, for each religious movement, only a very limited number of "former members" have been heard by the parliamentary commissions, the courts, or the press.
Sociological research suggests that, among thousands of former members of any large organization (no matter how controversial) only a small minority become "apostates" (a technical, not a derogatory term). Not all former members are apostates. The apostate is the former member who reverses loyalties dramatically, and becomes a professional enemy of the organization he or she has left. Most former members do not become apostates. They remain -- in sociological terms suggested by David Bromley and others -- "defectors" (members who somewhat regret having left an organization they still perceive in largely positive terms), or "ordinary leavetakers" with mixed feelings about their former affiliation. However ordinary leavetakers (and, to some extent, defectors) remain socially invisible, insofar as they do not like or care to discuss their former affiliation. Apostates, being more visible, are mistaken for the genuine representatives of the former members. In fact, quantitative research shows that even in extremely controversial groups apostates normally represent less than 15% of former members.
4. Anti-cult Movements
If apostates are only a minority of former members, why often only apostates are interviewed by parliamentary commissions or the media? The logical answer is that they either volunteer to be heard, or are directed to testify by an opposition coalition. This is, in fact, the role of the so-called anti-cult movement. Modern anti-cult movements (in opposition to older Christian counter -cult coalitions) are defined as primarily secular organizations fighting "cults" based on the brainwashing or mind control paradigm.
The recent lack of institutional and academic support for mind control theories has caused a serious crisis of the American anti-cult movement. In 1996 the largest American anti-cult organization, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), filed for bankruptcy. An anti-cult movement, however, does continue to exist in the United States, and in fact claims that its accounts, although rejected by most scholars, are validated by "former members" (i.e. apostates). Currently in Western Europe anti-cult movements (particularly ADFI in France, whose offices also serve as European headquarters for FECRIS, a Europe-wide federation of anti-cult movements) experience a degree of institutional support unknown in the United States. These well organized anti-cult movements -- particularly in France, Germany and Belgium -- have successfully introduced the mind control model to the press and to political bodies unfamiliar with the fact that this model has been discredited in the United States. When scholarly criticism of the mind control model is brought to bear agaist to the anti-cult movements, it is dismissed on the basis of the testimony of "former members". In some countries, including France, anti-cult movements have considerable resources and operate with the help of taxpayers' money. They are responsible for spreading misleading information about a number of religious minorities.
Not composed of scholars, the anti-cult organization often -- perhaps in good faith -- offer information that is simply not updated. The consequences, however, may be catastrophic. To mention only some examples, in the early 1990s the international anti-cult coalition instigated in a number of countries police raids against The Family (formerly known as the Children of God), based on practices The Family had in fact discontinued for a number of years. Based on this false information, children were separated from their mothers, and adults and children were kept in custody (inter alia in France and Spain) for weeks and even for months. Later, courts dismissed the charges, recognizing that the information was either inaccurate or not up to date, and castigated the anti-cultists. In Barcelona, Spain, Judge Adolfo Fernando Oubina in his decision of May 22, 1992 went so far to compare the actions against The Family to "the Inquisition" and "the concentration camps". These legal decisions, although important, do not compensate either the adults or the children for what was an unnecessary nightmare.
Another example of how non-updated information may easily mislead authorities concerns Tabitha's Place, the French branch of the Messianic Communities (a communal group originating from the Jesus Movement and headquartered in Island Pond, Vermont). The mother community in Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom Community Church, was raided in 1984, based on rumours of child abuse spread by local anti-cultists. However, no evidence of child abuse was found and the case was dismissed. By 1994, the Vermont community, although maintaining a strict Christian fundamentalist lifestyle, enjoyed a peaceful coexistence with neighbours and authorities.
Unaware that similar charges were dismissed in the U.S. ten years previously, the anti-cult movement in South-Western France started a campaign against Tabitha's Place (a community that, in turn, had existed peacefully near Pau for more than ten years with no incidents). Charges of child abuse were carelessly repeated and the community, continuously harassed by police and tax authorities, struggles for its very existence. In April 1997 a twelve-month-old infant child died for congenital hearth problems. Its parents have been arrested for possible abuse, although a team of twelve doctors who has examined the community's children has concluded that there is no evidence of any abuse. It is possible that the infant's parents were not fully aware of the possibilities of a surgery to remedy their child's condition. However, the criminal case against them is being prosecuted within the framework of a general climate poisoned by rumours spread by anti-cultists on the basis of claims raised and dismissed in the U.S. one decade before the French facts. They also rely on the testimony of only one apostate, who spent just a few days at Tabitha's Place (compare the scholarly study of the Messianic Communities by John M. Bozeman - Susan J. Palmer, "The Northeast Kingdom Community Church of Island Pond, Vermont: Raising Up a People for Yahshua's Return", Journal of Contemporary Religion, 12:2, May 1997: 181-190).
II. The Results
In the United States the Jonestown tragedy of 1978 was the catalyst for an increase of anti-cult activity. The anti-cult wordview (described in Part I above) became widespread, but the activities of the anti-cult movement were ultimately kept in jeopardy by the reactions of the academia, mainline churches, and some of the religious minorities themselves. In Europe, as mentioned earlier, the suicides-homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple, repeated twice in the 1994 and 1995 (and a third time in 1997 -- but only in Quebec), played a similar role to that played by Jonestown in the United States. The anti-cult movements were energized, and authorities started considering them more seriously. Discredited theories such as mind control surfaced again. Parliamentary commissions with a mandate to study the "danger of cults" were established in a number of countries. While not attempting to examine all the results of this activity, we have selected some relevant examples.
A parliamentary commission, composed of Members of the Parliament only, issued after a number of secret hearings (not including any scholar as a witness) a report called Cults in France on January 10, 1996. It included a laundry list of 172 "dangerous cults". It did not recommend new legislation, but suggested a number of administrative actions and the establishment of a national Observatory of Cults (in fact established in 1996, with two extreme anti-cultists as its only "experts").
Although not technically a source of law, the report has already been quoted in court decisions and has led to discrimination against a number of groups. Teachers have been fired from public schools after years of honorable service only because they were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, one of the most dangerous "cults" according to the report. A Roman Catholic theatrical group, the Office Culturel de Cluny, included in the report as a "dangerous cult" despite letters of protest of a number of French Catholic bishops, is nearly bankrupted due to the refusal of public theatres to air its shows. The city of Lyons has decided not to allow the use of public facilities to any group listed in the report as a "cult". Each French Department has now a "Mr. Cult" employed by the Ministry of Youth and Sport (often well connected with the anti-cult group ADFI) to tell the cultural and sport organizations about the evil of the cults. The anti-cult milieu element advocates actions by the Observatory against groups mentioned in its literature or in the report but not included in the list (particularly the Mormon Church and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal). Other groups are defined as "cults" by the report (including the Baptists), but nevertheless called "benign cults", a contradiction since the report starts by defining a "cult" as a dangerous organization.
The first yearly report of the Observatory, concerning the year 1997, has been published in June 1998 in a French anti-cult Web page. Its substance was known through a number of media articles. CESNUR has reposted it after correction of a number of typos, and the full text (in French) is now available on CESNUR's Web page. According to the anti-cult page this report is not (yet) "official" since it was signed only by the Observatory's president, M. Guerrier de Dumast, and not by the whole Observatory. A "truly official" report should follow shortly.
Be it as it may be, this is a very disturbing document for a number of reasons.
1. The report admits that it is impossible to define what a "cult" is (note that in French the derogatory word is "secte", but it serves the same function of the English "cult" and should be translated as "cult", not as "sect"). In this situation, the report continues to focus on the list of 172 "dangerous cults" included in the 1996 document "Les Sectes en France". The report says that a number of movements have asked to be removed from this list, but that the Observatory has no authority to do it because of the principle of the "separation of powers" (the Observatory is an emanation of the administrative power and cannot interfere with the legislative power that produced the 1996 parliamentary document). The movements who hoped to be removed from the list by the Observatory have thus be disappointed. The report implies that a cult is simply a religious group listed as such in the 1996 parliamentary document. While there is no way for a movement to be removed from the list, it is not excluded that new movements may be added. In fact, the report claims that there are in France "more than twenty" new cults (although their names are not mentioned). The Observatory is looking for cults particularly in the Evangelical world and in the New Age. It reports that its "full attention" has been focused on "the risk of a development on the national territory of a certain kind of Evangelical mass meeting, such as the 'healing and miracles crusade' that gathered a crowd of 15,000 at the Bourget in July 1997 to watch the exhibition of American televangelist Morris Cerullo".
2. The report has nothing good to say about the cults. If they have changed something -- or have engaged in charitable activities useful to the community and impossible to deny -- the Observatory concludes that it is a public relation activity or a cosmetic window-dressing in order to overturn the negative impact of the 1996 parliamentary report. Jehovah's Witnesses are particularly singled out in this respect. These apparently "good" activities only prove that the cults are smart. The authorities need to be even more careful.
3. On the practical side, the Observatory's aim is to co-ordinate any and all public and semi-public authorities in order to both "inform" about the evil of the cults and try to "limit" their activities. The list is long, and seems a war bulletin. The Ministry of Education should prevent cults from "infiltrating" schools, and be "careful" when a teacher is a member of a cult. The Ministry of Finances should make sure that cults are watched by the Revenue Service.
The National Order of Medical Doctors should fight cultists who happen to be doctors. Notaries Public should be careful when they are requested to enter a deed involving a cult or a cultist. Judges should be educated about how bad the cults are. Sport and youth groups should organize lectures about the evil of the cults. And so on and on.
4. On the doctrinal side, the report is a hymn to the French idea of "laïcité" or secular humanism. The only way of fighting cults is to spread through national education and school an education "secular humanist in essence".
5. Although the press reported that more extreme proposals were rejected, the Observatory asks the parliament for more support to the anti-cult movements, including ADFI, CCMM and the European anti-cult federation FECRIS. This money should noyt only come from the generous French taxpayers. It is also suggested that anti-cult movements may become a party in court cases involving cults and collect damages. This is regarded as a key step in the fight against cults.
6. The Observatory, although it met (the report says) with four respected scholars, shows no interest in understanding what the new religious movements really are and do. The verdict has already been rendered. They are evil. The Observatory (that includes some extreme anti-cultists such as the psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall) admits that it has no operational definition of what a cult is. For all practical purposes, it regards as cults the 172 movements listed in the 1996 parliamentary report, and any other movement exposed as such by ADFI, CCMM or FECRIS (particularly in the Evangelical world, whose expansion is seen as a threat to the secular humanist ideology the Observatory is dedicated to promote).
Following an intensive anti-cult campaign in the wake of the Solar Temple and the French report, in February 1997 the Canton of Geneva released a report written by four lawyers, after interviewing various individuals (one scholar only). The report is organized in chapters, each signed by one of the lawyers. While, at least in some chapters, the report is written in a more moderate style than the French one, the substantial proposals are even more dangerous, advocating legislation against "mind control" and against hiring members of "dangerous cults" as government officers. The Canton of Geneva Commission released on May 24, 1997 its proposals following up the February report. The most significant are:
- to promote an inter-Canton conference in order to persuade other Cantons to follow the example of Geneva;
- to enact Canton-level legislation in order to fund the anti-cult organizations, inter alia, and allow them to become parties in cult-related trials;
- to create a Cantonal observatory including among others two representatives of anti-cult organizations, two scholars, and two "representatives of cults" (although it is unclear how the latter will be selected);
- to promote Swiss federal legislation making mind control a federal felony.
Further measures were proposed by Geneva in 1998 (with no particular federal interest, but creating a difficult situation for minorities at the Cantonal level).
The Belgian parliamentary commission on cults released its report on April 28, 1997. This document is even more extreme than the French report, including as it is bizarre allegations against many groups including five mainline Catholic groups (among them the Catholic Charismatic Renewal), Quakers, the YWCA (but, for some reasons, not the YMCA), Hasidic Jews, and almost all Buddhists. It also proposes legislation making "mind control" a crime.
Reactions by scholars and mainline Churches have determined some turmoil in the Belgian Parliament and in the end it adopted the report itself but not the list of 189 groups included as an Appendix. This was a symbolic victory for the scholars, but most of what is disturbing is not only in the list, but also in the main body of the report. Following the report, legal actions have been taken against a Tibetan Buddhist group, a Catholic religious congregation called The Work (a Belgian group now headquartered in Rome, not to be confused with Opus Dei, also mentioned in the report) -- notwithstanding vigorous protests by the Vatican and by Belgian bishops. An action has also be initiated to force the dissolution of Sukyo Mahikari, a Japanese Shinto-based religious minority whose branches in countries such as Italy and United States have existed for decades without any trouble for the public order.
Based on apostates' testimony, extreme allegations have been made against dozen of groups. Serious concern has been expressed by scholars, inter alia about the accusation that Satmar Jews (a Hasidic community, based in New York and regarded as a "cult" by the report) "kidnap children and hide them within the international network of the movement". This seems to be based on the Patsy Heymans case, where a Belgian Catholic woman, having obtained custody of her three children, had to recover them from his Satmar ex-husband who was keeping them illegally in the United States. However, the Heymans case is not specifically mentioned in the report. The parliamentary document rather states that kidnapping children "does not seem to be merely occasional" among this group of Hasidic Jews (Belgian report, Vol. I: 359). The inclusion of these general remarks in a parliamentary document may easily add fuel to the fire of anti-semitism, whose continued presence raises concern in a number of European countries.
An Observatory similar to the French one has now been voted into existence in Belgium.
A parliamentary commission was established including MPs and experts appointed by the different political parties. They conducted hearings with scholars, anti-cultists, and members of a number of religious movements. An interim report had been released in June 1997. In the meantime, without consulting the parliamentary commission, the government placed the Church of Scientology under watching of the local secret service. Even groups largely critical of Scientology have criticized the decision as a dangerous precedent, while local anti-cultists have already named the Jehovah's Witnesses as the second group that should eventually be watched by the secret service. Police raids instigated by the same anti-cultists have occurred against small independent Pentecostal churches. A huge report has been published in 1998. Although moderate on some points (doubts are raised on the definition of "cults" and on brainwashing) it still advocates strong measures against Scientology (regarded as a political subversive, rather than a religious, organization) and has been criticized by legal scholars for a trend towards an increased administrative and police control of any and all religious associations.
Italy is an interesting example of a more moderate approach, as confirmed by a 1997 Supreme Court decision on Scientology and a 1998 police report on cults.
a. The Italian Supreme Court Decision on Scientology (October 8, 1997)
On October 8, 1997 the Italian Court of Cassation (the Supreme Court for jurisdictional purposes in Italy) rendered an important decision on Scientology. We offer a summary of the decision -- extremely important for the ongoing debate on the nature and definition of religion -- without entering here into the specific discussion about Scientology. One may also read a full copy (in Italian) of the 48-pages decision on CESNUR's Web site.
While some Italian courts (including Rome and Turin) have considered Scientology as a religion, a different conclusion was reached by the Court of Appeal of Milan. Reforming a first degree decision favourable to Scientology, on November 5, 1993 the Milan appeal judges found a number of Scientologists guilty of a variety of crimes, all allegedly committed before 1981, ignoring the question whether Scientology was a religion. The Italian Supreme Court, on February 9, 1995, annulled the Milan 1993 decision with remand, asking the Court of Appeal to reconsider whether Scientology was indeed a religion. On December 2, 1996 the Court of Appeal of Milan complied, but maintained that Scientology was not a religion. Not unlike their Turin homologues, the Milan appeal judges noted that "there is no legislative definition of religion" and "nowhere in the [Italian] law there is any useful element in order to distinguish a religious organization from other social groups". However, among a number of possible definitions, the Milan judges selected one defining religion as "a system of doctrines centered on the presupposition of the existence of a Supreme Being, who has a relation with humans, the latter having towards him a duty of obedience and reverence". Additional criteria based on the case law of the Italian Constitutional Court are considered, but these are clearly ancillary to the main definition. Theoretically, the reference to a "Supreme Being" may be interpreted in a non-theistic sense. This was the interpretation in the case law of the U.S. Supreme Court interpreting the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948, also including in its definition of religion a reference to "a relation to a Supreme Being". The Milan judges, however, interpreted "Supreme Being" in a theistic sense. As a consequence, they could easily exclude the non-theistic worldview of Scientology from the sphere of religion.
On October 9, 1997 the Supreme Court annulled also the Milan 1996 decision, again with remand (meaning that another section of the Court of Appeal of Milan shall re-examine the facts of the case). The Supreme Court regarded the Milan theistic definition of religion as "unacceptable" and "a mistake", because it was "based only on the paradigm of Biblical religions". As such, the definition would exclude Buddhism, whose main Italian organization, the Italian Buddhist Union, has been recognized in Italy as a "religious denomination" since 1991. Buddhism, according to the Supreme Court, "certainly does not affirm the existence of a Supreme Being and, as a consequence, does not propose a direct relation of the human being with Him".
It is true, the Supreme Court observes, that "the self-definition of a group as religious is not enough in order to recognize it as a genuine religion". The Milan 1996 decision quoted the case law of the Italian Constitutional Court and its reference to the "common opinion" in order to decide whether a group is a religion. The relevant "common opinion", however, according to the Supreme Court is rather "the opinion of the scholars" than the "public opinion". The latter is normally hostile to religious minorities and, additionally, difficult to ascertain: one wonders, the Supreme Court notes, "from what source the Milan judges knew the public opinion of the whole national community". On other hand, most scholars -- according to the Supreme Court -- seem to prefer a definition of religion broad enough to include Scientology and, when asked, conclude that Scientology is in fact a religion, having as its aim "the liberation of the human spirit through the knowledge of the divine spirit residing within each human being". The 48-pages decision of the Supreme Court also examined some of the arguments used by critics (and by the Milan 1996 judges) in order to deny to Scientology the status of religion. Five main arguments were discussed.
1. First, critics object that Scientology is "syncretistic" and does not propose any really "original belief". This is, the Supreme Court argues, irrelevant, since syncretism "is not rare" among genuine religions, and many recently established Christian denominations exhibit very few "original features" when compared to older denominations.
2. Second, it is argued that Scientology is presented to perspective converts as science, not as religion. The Supreme Court replies that, at least since Thomas Aquinas, Christian theology claims to be a science. On the other hand, science claiming to lead to non-empirical results such as "a knowledge of God" (or "of human beings as gods") may be both "bad science" and "inherently religious".
3. Third, critics make reference to ex-members (mostly militant apostates such as "Atack and Armstrong", quoted in the Milan 1996 decision) who claim that Scientology is not a religion but only a facade to hide criminal activities. The Supreme Court asks how we may know that the opinion of disgruntled ex-members is representative of the larger population of ex-members. Other ex-members have in fact appeared as witnesses for the defense, and at any rate, the number of ex-members of Scientology appears to be quite large. The opinion of two and even twenty of them, thus, is hardly representative of what the average ex-member believes.
4. Fourth, texts by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and by early Italian leaders seem to imply that Scientology's basic aim is to make money. Such texts' interest in money is, according to the Supreme Court, "excessive" but "perhaps appears much less excessive if we consider how money was raised in the past by the Roman Catholic Church". The Supreme Court quotes Ananias and Sapphira in the Acts of the Apostles (who died because they kept for personal use a part of what they obtained from the sale of their property and lied to the bishop, rather than giving everything to him), late Medieval controversies about the sale of indulgences, and the fact that until very recently Italian Catholic churches used to affix at the church's door "a list of services offered [Masses and similar] with the corresponding costs". The latter comments, according to the Supreme Court, confirm that quid pro quo services are more widespread among religions that the Milan 1996 judges seemed to believe. Concerning Scientology, the Supreme Court went on to observe that the more "disturbing" texts on money are but a minimal part of Hubbard's enormous literary production (including "about 8,000 works"); and that they were mostly circular letters or bulletins intended "for the officers in charge of finances and the economic structure, not for the average member". Finally, even if one should take at face value the "crude" comment included in a technical bulletin of Scientology (not written by Hubbard) that "the only reason why LRH [L. Ron Hubbard] established the Church was in order to sell and deliver Dianetics and Scientology", this would not mean, according to the Supreme Court, that Scientology is not a religion. What is, in fact, the ultimate aim of "selling Dianetics and Scientology"? There is no evidence, the Supreme Court suggests, that such "sales" are only organized in order to assure the personal welfare of the leaders. If they are intended as a proselytization tool, then making money is only an intermediate aim. The ultimate aim is "proselytization", and this aim "could hardly be more typical of a religion", even if "according to the strategy of the founder [Hubbard], new converts are sought and organized through the sale and delivery of Dianetics and Scientology" .
5. A fifth objection discussed by the Supreme Court is that Scientology is not a religion since there is evidence, in the Milan case itself, that a number of Scientologists were guilty of "fraudulent sales techniques" or abused of particularly weak customers, when "selling" Dianetics or Scientology. These illegal activities, the Supreme Court comments, should be prosecuted, but there is no evidence that they are more than "occasional deviant activities" of a certain number of leaders and members within the Milan branch, "with no general significance" concerning the nature of Scientology in general .
The Italian Supreme Court 1997 decision on Scientology includes one of the most important discussions -- so far and at an international scale -- of how courts may apply existing laws apparently requiring them to decide whether a specific group is, or is not, a religion. It argues that the non-existence of a legal definition of religion in Italy (and elsewhere) "is not coincidential". Any definition would rapidly become obsolete and, in fact, limit religious liberty. It is much better, according to the Italian Supreme Court, "not to limit with a definition, always by its very nature restrictive, the broader field of religious liberty". "Religion" is an ever-evolving concept, and courts may only interpret it within the frame of a specific historical and geographical context, taking into account the opinions of the scholars .
It remains to be seen whether this 1997 opinion of the Italian Supreme Court -- that it is better not to have a legal definition in order to allow a broader religious liberty -- will be shared by other courts. The Italian decision is, at any rate, an interesting addition to an ongoing international discussion.
b. The "Italian Report on Cults"
On April 29, 1998 the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs sent to the Commission for Constitutional Affairs of the Camera dei Deputati (the lower house of the Italian Parliament) a report by the General Direction of Preventive Police dated February 1998. The report is entitled "Sette religiose e nuovi movimenti magici in Italia" ("Cults and New Magical Movements in Italy": in Italian the current derogatory word equivalent to the English "cult" is "setta"). The General Direction of Preventive Police co-ordinates, inter alia, the police intelligence activities in Italy. The Commission for Constitutional Affairs of the lower house receives this document when a (quite liberal) draft law on religious minorities and religious liberty, introduced by the government, is being examined. Since the Italian Report is not well-known outside Italy, a fuller analysis is offered here.
What Is (and Is Not) the Report
The report is not the Italian equivalent of the reports prepared by parliamentary commissions in France, Belgium, and Germany. It does not come after public hearings, and has not been solicited nor examined by the parliament. It is a police report. Similar reports have been prepared in the past for internal use of the police and intelligence authorities. The significant new circumstance is that in this case the report has been sent to members of the parliament and to the press. But the report remains a typical police document in its format, style and aims.
The Content of the Report
The report includes (a) an introduction, in four chapters (pp. 1-19); (b) entries about 34 "new religious movements" (pp. 18-63) and 36 "new magical movements" (pp. 64-102). Pages 103-105 include the index.
The introduction's four chapters deal respectively with:
(1) roots of the phenomenon and corresponding social concern;
(2) terminology and typology;
(3) possible dangers and criminal connections;
(4) membership figures.
(1) (pp. 1-3) is a short introduction, mentioning the international concern after Waco, the Solar Temple and Aum Shinri-kyo, confirming that police intelligence is monitoring "Italian cults" from many years, and commenting that this is a "difficult task" and requires some clarifications about terminology.
(2) (pp. 3-9) includes a discussion about the use of the word "cult" and concludes that "scholars of this matter today prefers to use 'new religious movements' and 'new magical movements'" (p. 4). The report goes on to discuss what "religion" is, noting that theistic definitions of religion "are not acceptable" and "are against the most recent Italian case law" (the reference in a footnote is to the Supreme Court decision of October 8, 1997 affirming the religious nature of Scientology). Religion is better defined as "the relationship between the human being and the sacred, when the latter is regarded as a transcendent reality going beyond the material world" (p. 5). Problems remain, and the report quotes the (Stark-Bainbridge) distinction between audience cults, client cults and cult movements. The next question concerns the difference between new religious movements (or "cults") and "traditional" religions. The report quotes the opinion that new religious movements are more aggressive in their proselytization and intolerant, but disagrees with it, noting that "these aspects do exist also in some traditional religions or at least in their splinter or fundamentalist groups" (p. 5). Others think that new religious movements create among their members a stronger link with a leader or guru; but in fact -- the report comments -- "in many cases after the founder's death the movement survives and may even continue to grow" (p. 5). The report prefers to classify as new religious movements those that appear to have appeared historically in the West in more recent times, and to have doctrines and teachings regarded as quite foreign to mainline (Judeo-Christian) religion. Three main groups are taken into account:
(a) movements "with a Christian origin";
(b) movements "inspired by the East"; and
(c) movements arising from "Western religious innovation".
The first group -- movements "with a Christian origin" -- includes those that "go beyond" Protestantism in their refusal of "Catholic orthodoxy". It may be distinguished into five families or subgroups:
1. Apocalyptic-Millennialist families, including the Adventist family and the Restaurationist family. In the Adventist family the report mentions the Seventh-day Adventists, the Advent Christian Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Worldwide Church of God. In the Restaurationist family the Mormon Church, the Apostolic Church and its larger splinter group New Apostolic Church, and the Church of the Kingdom of God (a splinter group from what later became the Jehovah's Witnesses) are quoted.
2. Catholic splinter groups, following "anti-popes" (Magnificat Church, Apostles of the Infinite Love) or the schism of Mons. Marcel Lefebvre (Fraternity of St. Pius X).
3. Prophetic and messianic groups.
4. Syncretic groups.
5. Pseudo-Churches (groups gathered around "wandering bishops", Orthodox non-canonical bishops, or similar, easily mistaken by the Italian population for Roman Catholic bishops or priests but in fact not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church).
Although movements in families under (1) and (2) may profess "teachings quite original" (page 8: a footnote mention the Mormons' baptism of the dead and teachings that God the Father may have "a body of flesh and blood") or be involved in conflicts with mainline churches or the society at large (pp. 7-8: Jehovah's Witnesses are particularly mentioned), in fact "they are not really interesting for the present report". The report will focus on families 3 to 5, where -- it claims -- some risks may exist.
The second group -- movements "inspired by the East" -- includes three families:
1. Movements created by Westerners fascinated by Eastern religions (Theosophical Society, Anthroposophical Society, Alice Bailey Group and the Urusvati Center, the latter a small group headquartered in Torino).
2. Eastern groups with a missionary activity in Italy (the report lists Ananda Marga, the Baha'is, the Self-Realization Fellowhip, ISKCON, Transcendental Meditation, Divine Light Mission, Sahaja Yoga, Sant Bani Ashram, Rajneesh groups, Sri Chinmoy groups, Subud, Sathya Sai Baba groups, Bal Ashram, Dzog-Chen, Soka Gakkai and Sukyo Mahikari).
3. Eastern-oriented groups recently established by Italian-born gurus.
Although movements under (1) and (2) may be criticized abroad (it is mentioned that the Dalai Lama does not endorse Soka Gakkai) and even subject to criminal prosecution, "they never caused any problem whatsoever in Italy". The report, as a consequence, will only include entries about family No. 3.
The third group should include the fruits of "Western religious innovations". In fact the group only includes the "human potential movements". The report quote "self-religions" and "psycho-cults" as synonimous for "human potential movements". It notes that these will be "the main focus of the report since it is mostly against these 'cults' [the word is written between brackets in the report: p. 6] that accusations of 'mental destructuration' or fraud are heard".
From the new religious movements, the report then distinguishes the "new magical movements", where the sociological structure is similar to the new religious movements but the central experience is different, being more (in terms of Eliade) a "cratophany", or experience of power, than a "hierophany", or experience of the sacred. New magical movements are also divided into families:
1. Esoteric and occult family, sub-divided into (a) "initiatory groups, universal brotherhoods and pythagorical orders"; (b) Rosicrucian movements; (c) neo-gnostic movements; (d) ritual magic groups.
2. Spiritualist/ Spiritist family.
3. UFO family.
4. Neopagan and New Age family.
5. Satanist and Luciferian family.
All the new magical movements have individual entries in the report.
Chapter 3 of the introduction (pp. 10-15) is written "from a law enforcement point of view" and lists the possible criminal problems connected with "some individual movements". Five potential problems are listed:
a. Brainwashing and mind control (with a footnote giving the standard anti-cult reconstruction of the brainwashing process).
c. Covering under the religious facade "immoral practices or illegal activities".
d. Preaching doctrines so "irrational" that they may bring the members to activities dangerous for the national security.
e. Subversive political plans.
About (a) -- brainwashing -- the report notes that what is commonly called brainwashing was included in the Italian criminal code under the name of "plagio", and that the corresponding provision (Section 603 of the criminal code) was declared non-constitutional by the Italian Constitutional Court in 1981. About (c) -- and more generally -- the report notes that in Italy there is no difference between "cult crime" and "normal crime". Accordingly, "criminal activities within the frame of a religious activity are considered as common crimes, although religion may have a role in determining the motivation" (p. 12). The report also notes that "in Italy today no religious or magical movement as such is accused of criminal activity of any kind" (p. 12): even notorious Satanists such as the Children of Satan have been found not guilty in the 1997 Bologna case where they have been tried. It is true, however -- the report adds -- that in a couple of cases of the 1980s involving fringe Catholic groups regarded as illegitimate by the Roman Catholic Church (the Pia Unione di Gesù Misericordioso of Ebe Giorgini, "Mamma Ebe", in 1984; and the Rosary Group in 1988) the defendants were found guilty of serious crimes. The risk considered under (e) -- subversive political plans -- is not regarded as a serious danger in Italy. "Not even the Church of Scientology", "in Germany (...) regarded as a serious threat to the democratic institutions", meet in Italy the pre-conditions needed to carry on serious political plans or projects (p. 14). Soka Gakkai and Ananda Marga, accused of political plans in other countries, are "quite different" in Italy. (The report incorrectly argues, p. 15, that the Italian Soka Gakkai was "apparently excommunicated by the Japanese mother organization". In fact both the Italian and the Japanese Soka Gakkai as lay organizations parted company from the monastic order they used to be affiliated with, Nichiren Shoshu).
Fraud seems to remain the main risk the Italian police is concerned about. About (d) many newspapers have quoted the few lines about the year 2,000 and the Catholic Holy Year. The report in fact says that millenarian groups may be progressive or apocalyptic, and that the latter are more dangerous for public security than the former. It adds (p. 14): "It is true that, particularly in the perspective of the Holy Year, we cannot exclude as a general hypothesis that some individual, member of one or another group and conscious that Italy will then become the focus of considerable international attention, may decide to do something extreme in order to send a message to the whole world. However risks of this kind always exist in large international events. Mythomaniacs and disturbed individuals exist also, and in no lesser percentage, outside religious movements. Even as far as satanists are concerned it is not probable that they will do something that will attract the general attention, considering that their primary interest is mostly to remain invisible and anonymous (...)" (p. 14).
Finally, the fourth chapter of the introduction (pp. 15-17) mentions how difficult it is to count members of new religious movements, since the very concept of "member" is controversial, and tentatively assess the number of new religious movements in Italy as 76, with 78,500 members. New magical movements may be 61, with 4,600 members.
Is There a "List" of the "Cults"?
In fact, there is no real list of the "cults" parallel to the lists in French or Belgian parliamentary reports. There are individual entries for 70 movements but the report itself mentions that 137 groups are monitored as either new religious or new magical movements (p. 17). As mentioned earlier the report's choice has been to prepare individual entries for some "families" of movements, ignoring altogether other "families". As a consequence, for example, all groups in the "prophetic-messianic" subfamily are included and no group at all in the "adventist" subfamily has an individual entry. But the fact that a group has no individual entry does not mean that it is not currently monitored by the Italian intelligence or police. Conversely, groups are included because they are part of a certain "family" but the entry makes it clear that they are not accused of any wrongdoing.
What Sources Have Been Used?
Italian readers familiars with Massimo Introvigne's "Le nuove Religioni" (Milan: SugarCo, 1989) and "Il cappello del mago" (Milan: SugarCo, 1990), the two Italian standard encyclopedic textbooks on religious minorities, would easily recognize that a good portion of the report is taken from these two books. Particularly, the definition and typology of new religious movements and the identification of families and subfamilies follow closely the scheme of "Le nuove Religioni", although with some differences in terminology (groups called "micro-churches" in "Le nuove Religioni" are called "pseudo-churches"; human potential movements are also called "psycho-cults": the latter term is not used in "Le nuove Religioni"). The very notion and terminology "new magical movements" come from "Il cappello del mago", and the distinction of new magical movements into families follow strictly the distinction in sections of "Il cappello del mago". A number of individual entries also follow largely "Le nuove Religioni", "Il cappello del mago" or other CESNUR sources (on O.T.O. and splinter groups the entries largely and at time almost verbatim reproduce PierLuigi Zoccatelli's report available on CESNUR's Web page). There is considerable evidence of the many hours spent in Turin's CESNUR library. The introduction reproduces entire paragraphs of works by Massimo Introvigne. No quotes or credits are included. Since this is a police report, not a book intended for commercial publication, CESNUR has nothing to complain. In fact, it is quite happy that reliable information has found its way into the report.
There are, of course, other sources that have been used. On a number of Italian micro-groups, not included in either "Le nuove Religioni" or "Il cappello del mago", anti-cult or counter-cult sources (particularly files of the Catholic counter-cult organization GRIS) appear to have been used. On some groups that the report regards as particularly controversial (and where many different sources were available), it has obviously considered different sources and elected to follow one or another. This is particularly true about Scientology (the single largest entry in the report), where the report largely follows the scheme and the reconstruction of the decision rendered by the Court of Appeal of Milan in 1996, although it also notes that this decision has been annulled by the Supreme Court in 1997 (pp. 49-50). Occasionally previous police reports have been used, such as in the case of the Children of God/The Family (pp. 20-23).
Is the Report Anti-Cult?
The report per se does not embrace the typical anti-cult positions. In fact -- as opposite to the French and Belgian parliamentary reports -- it does insist on using the terminology "new religious movements" and "new magical movements" rather than "cults". It notes that no movement as such is currently accused of any criminal activity in Italy. It regards a number of current anti-cult criticism as grossly exaggerated. And, in most individual entries, it does not mention any wrongdoing. In fact many of the entries are quite accurate, if short and simple, and a number of groups may only comply of having been mentioned at all in a document concerning possible "dangers" -- on the other hand, they come clean out of it (see, for instance, entries on AMORC, Lectorium Rosicrucianum, New Acropolis).
It is unfortunate that the language of some entries does not always respect the good intentions of the second chapter of the introduction (where "cult" -- "setta" -- is normally written between brackets, while in some entries one find "cult" and even "pseudo-cult" -- for a UFO group and whatever it may mean: p. 83 -- used quite liberally). The report knows that "plagio" (the Italian version of brainwashing) was exposed as a non-existing crime by the Italian Constitutional Court in 1981. However in the entries we occasionally read that members are "submitted to plagio" in some groups (see p. 89).
Overall, the main parts where the report appears to reproduce anti-cult stereotypes are one and a half page about brainwashing (pp. 10-11 and particularly footnote 13) -- although, as mentioned earlier, the report does not fail to note the legal problems in using such a concept in Italy after the Constitutional Court decision of 1981 -- and some individual entries. In the latter the report is either not updated or has elected not to follow (against its general style) scholarly sources. The worst example of an entry not updated is the entry on the Children of God/ The Family where the report fails to note that the sexual wrongdoings of old are no longer practiced by The Family. It does not mention a 1991 courty decision by the Justice Court of Rome quite favorable to The Family. It also mentions that The Family was raided in France in 1993 and accused of child abuse, but fails to mention that nothing came out of the raid and the members of The Family involved were finally not prosecuted. The report also does not seem aware of the Italian schism of a small group that intends to resist the changes introduced in The Family in the late 1980s and 1990s. This splinter groups is now completely separate from The Family but may have created some confusion among law enforcement personnel.The entry on Scientology, as mentioned earlier, was prepared on the basis of a Milan court decision later annulled by the Supreme Court. One may wonder whether in fact it was not prepared before this decision, and some references to the decision itself subsequently included. Hostile comments also pop up in the entry about the Unification Church (an entry where recent developments are also ignored), although it is duly noted that these largerly come from "campaigns organized by the anti-cult movements" (p. 28).
A General Evaluation of the Report
If compared with the Belgian and the French parliamentary reports, the Italian police report is a comparatively moderate and accurate document (with the exception of a couple of entries, particularly the entry on Scientology). The Italian intelligence services may teach many of their European homologues a lesson on how to use scholarly sources and not to rely exclusively on anti-cult movements. On many issues the Italian services appear to have done their homework, precisely what their French and Belgian homologues failed to do before the parliamentary reports. This does not exclude occasional factual mistakes. Most entries summarize -- obviously in the style of a police report, something different from a doctoral dissertation - scholarly literature on the group. Others do not, and unfortunately follow anti-cult stereotypes. In the introduction, a generally acceptable and moderate paper, a couple of pages emerge where some legitimacy is granted to anti-cult stereotypes on brainwashing. Normally, reports of this kind are not the work of two hands only, and it is not surprising to find some contradictions.
We shall, however, not forget, that this is a police report. It is written often in a law enforcement jargon. It also summarizes an intelligence work done following the rules of intelligence services throughout the world. They collect all rumors and all whispers -- some of them may eventually be true. Typical of the report's style are sentences introduced by words such as: "According to rumors we were unable to confirm..." (p. 56); "according to oblique rumors...." (p. 58); "according to a source..." (p. 61); and even "according to information we received from an anonymous source..." (p. 62). It is indeed the work of police intelligence to collect rumors. Rumors, however, should not be mistaken for facts, or for confirmed or reliable information.
Although areas of inaccuracy exist in the report, the main problem is not the report itself. The problem is that a police report has been converted in headline news overnight by sending it to several politicians and journalists. When an inventory of rumors reach the media, they tend to regard the rumors as facts, particularly if rumors appear to have been granted some legitimacy by having been included in an official report. The fact that most rumors are dismissed is easily overlooked. A number of media had headlines on "the danger of cults on the Holy Year 2,000" although the report itself regard current ideas about this danger as grossly exaggerated. A number of media also published the list of the 70 "cults" that have an individual entry (at times including mistakenly some that in fact do not have such an entry, such as Soka Gakkai), although in fact they are called in the report "new religious and magical movements" rather than "cults". The report also mentions for most of them that they are not accused of any wrongdoing. Their having an entry is only due to the fact that they have been classified in a "family" of movements regarded as worth watching as a general category. The most sensational portions of the report about brainwashing, Scientology or the (old) sexual mores of The Family -- in fact the weakest parts of the report -- also became the most quoted. (However, in fact, two of the three Italian leadig daily newspapers carried on April 30 ,in the same page where their lead article about the report was published, long interviews with Dr Massimo Introvigne, director of CESNUR, about the danger of a witch hunt: see "Una caccia alle streghe" [A Witch Hunt] in La Stampa and "Ma attenti a non stilare le liste nere degli eretici" [Beware the Black List of the Heretics] in La Repubblica -- the titles tell it all).
The real danger is that, because of the media event created around the report, respectable and law-abiding citizens who happen to be members of movements mentioned, but explicitly exonerated from any charge, in the report, may be discriminated or maligned as "members of a dangerous cult" in Italy (just as it happens in France or Belgium). One cannot blame the authors of the report for this (although they can be blamed for some inaccurate entries and comments). The interesting question is who decided to create the media event and why. Conjectures in Italian political circles mention two possibilities: political conflicts (within the same majority parties) about the text of the new law on religious minorities introduced by the government and currently pending before the parliament, and foreign pressure. It is possible that German and French intelligence services and anti-cult politicians are not happy about being accused of bigotry in international forums and contrasted with their more liberal and tolerant Italian counterparts. The report in fact rather confirms that Italy, and even Italian intelligence services, have an approach different from Germany and France (not to mention Belgium, where the worst of the parliamentary reports was produced in 1997). However the media results of the publicity given to the reports may undoubtely give the impression that Italy is following a similar path. Some media will undoubtely use the report to continue sensational campaigns about brainwashing, "psycho-cults", Satanism, and crazy cultists threatening the Catholic celebration of the Holy Year 2,000. On the other hand, Italy has only a very small anti-cult movement and, even energized by this incident, it is doubtful that it will become a significant force in the next few months.
5. European Parliament
The Parliament has entrusted the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs with the task of preparing a report. Following criticism of the French and Belgian reports by scholars (inter alia in a seminar organized by CESNUR at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on May 13, 1997), the Committee produced a draft with a number of positive features (questioning, inter alia, the usefulness of preparing lists of "cults"), although not entirely free from anti-cult influence. In July 1998 the plenary of the Parliament rejected the report lead by a strange coalition of anti-cultists (regarding it as too soft) and religious liberty activists (questioning the usefulness of these reports in general). It has now been sent back to the Committee where it may well rest and die. (The European Parliament should not be confused with the Council of Europe, an institution including more European countries but less authoritative and well-known in Western Europe. Members of the Council of Europe, unlike those of the European Parliament, are not elected directly by the people. The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is currently preparing a report on "cults". "Experts" consulted have included some of the most extreme French anti-cultists. A number of members of the Assembly are trying to amend the initial anti-cult text at the time of this writing).
III. Case Studies
There are literally hundreds of religious minorities discriminated against or persecuted in Western Europe. They belong to all possible religious and spiritual persuasions. We have selected, as examples, two cases, concerning comparatively small French groups, certainly not well known outside France. They could hardly be more different from each other.
The Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besançon is an example of how a group whose theology is clearly mainline (and that will be regarded as mainline in most Western countries) is marginalized after an encounter with the anti-cult movement. As mentioned earlier, a number of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups have suffered the same fate. The second example -- the Aumist Religion (not to be confused with the Japanese group Aum Shinri-kyo), headquartered at the Mandarom, Southern France -- could hardly be less mainline. Its theological ideas are at the very fringe of the French religious scene. It is not difficult to understand why it has been easy to make the Mandarom extremely unpopular. However, constitutional guarantees are aimed, precisely, at protecting unpopular minorities. And even the most unpopular defendant should be guaranteed due process and a fair trial.
1. The Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besançon
The Protestant scenario in Western Europe is slowly becoming as diversified as the one in the United States. Large liberal denominations, members of the World Council of Churches (WCC), no longer represent the majority of Protestants in a number of European countries. Literally hundreds of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, often with a conservative theology, have flourished. The large number of new churches -- and new names - may easily confuse the authorities. As usual, anti-cultists propose very simple solutions. In France CCMM (Center Against the Mental Manipulations, the second largest anti-cult group after ADFI) explicitly claims that all groups not belonging to the WCC, or to its corresponding French organization, the French Protestant Federation, are suspicious and may be "cults".
Word games are easily played. In fact, the derogatory word in French is not "culte" (the literal translation of "cult") but "secte". The latter word may literally be translated as "sect" but rather plays the same role as the English word "cult". In fact, the French word "secte" has today two very different meanings. Books from sociologists of late 19th and early 20th century are still republished, where the word "secte" is used, without any derogatory meaning, simply to identify small denominations or groups that are not (or not yet) regarded as part of the mainline by the majority churches. On the other hand, for the general public "secte" is rather used, in the sense of the 1996 parliamentary commission, to identify a dangerous religious (or, rather, "pseudo-religious") movement using mind control techniques. As the noted historian and sociologist Emile Poulat remarked precisely about the Pentecostal Evangelical Church of Besançon, this church "may be a 'secte' in the sense of Weber [the early German sociologist of religion]; it is certainly not a 'secte' in the popular and parliamentary sense of the term" (E. Poulat, "L'Eglise Evangelique de Pentecôte de Besançon - Eglise ou secte?", Réforme 2733, August 28, 1997). Yet, Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches are easily labelled as "sects" in the popular sense of the term, i.e. -- in plain contemporary English -- "cults".
The Belgian parliamentary report takes quite literally the anti-cult recommendation to target every Christian group not endorsed by the WCC. Its list includes Seventh- day Adventists -- defined, apparently without fear of ridicule, as a form of "Biblical fundamentalism" founded in "May 1963" by "William Miller" (Belgian report, Vol. II, p. 228) --, Amish, the Assemblies of God, Calvary Christian Center, Plymouth Brethren, the "Charismatic Renewal" in general, and a number of small independent Pentecostal Churches. The French report limits itself, among hundreds of independent churches, to a dozen of names. Curiously enough, the French report mentions the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besançon (EEPB) and ignores the Evangelical Missionary Federation, founded on the basis of the success of the Besançon church, and now including more than 30 churches. In fact, not unlike other groups, the EEPB seems to have been included in the report for one simple reason. Based on a family conflict between a pastor and his father-in-law, the EEPB has been targeted as a "cult" by the anti-cult movement CCMM, particularly after 1994. Due to the peculiar status of the anti-cult movement in France, the accusations have been spread by the press (in previous years, quite favorable to EEPB) and up to the parliamentary commission. Among hundreds of independent churches with very similar theologies only those specifically targeted (often for very local or personal reasons) by an anti-cult movement have ended up being included in the report.
In fact, the EEPB is just another Evangelical Pentecostal church. Its founder, pastor René Kennel, studied at Nogent-sur-Marne's Institut Biblique and started his career in 1950 as a Mennonite part-time preacher. Soon, he welcomed on his family farm the Pentecostal Gipsy Movement of Pastor Le Cossec (a member of the mainline French Protestant Federation). Impressed by the gypsies' enthusiasm Kennel started a Pentecostal ministry and in 1967 became a full time pastor. In 1975 Kennel joined with other pastors to establish the Evangelical Free Pentecostal Federation (FELP). In 1977, he became the pastor of a Pentecostal independent church in Besançon, the present-day EEPB. In 1986, Kennel abandoned his position as president of FELP in order to oversee the planting of daughter churches of EEPB in the region. These churches are the basis of the Evangelical Missionary Federation (FEM), incorporated under French Law in 1989. The doctrinal statements of the EEPB are quite typical of hundreds of Evangelical Pentecostal churches.
The accusations raised by the CCMM and the media influenced by it -- literal belief in the existence of the Devil, in miracles, speaking in tongues -- could be easily used against countless Pentecostal or Evangelical churches. It is possible that church leaders, unfamiliar with legal matters, made some mistakes when preparing the by-laws and the articles of incorporation, thus exposing the church to potential problems with French tax authorities. On the other hand, it is a fact that the French Revenue Service only took action after the anti-cultists had started targeting EEPB as a "cult". When, in July 1994, an ex-member visibly drunk damaged the furniture of the church belonging to the Evangelical Missionary Federation in Langres, anti-cultists (and a part of the press) quickly took the side of the apostate, presented as just another "victim" of a "cult". Paradoxically, before and after being labeled a "cult" by the parliamentary commission, EEPB has always been able to maintain its pastors, for health and retirement insurance purposes, in the lists of CAMAC-CAMAVIC. (This is the social fund for pastors in France that is largely controlled by the Roman Catholic Church and includes ministers of all the mainline Christian churches).
In the meantime, however, the fact of being in the parliamentary list of "dangerous cults" threatens the very existence of EEPB and of the whole FEM. Not only does media pressure against the "cult" continue but -- following administrative instructions enacted in the wake of the parliamentary report -- the federation's churches have been denied the use of public meeting halls by local authorities, and the French Revenue Service is continuously harassing this struggling minority. The saga of EEPB confirms that in the present French scenario it is not enough to preach a mainline Christian theology in order to avoid the label of a "cult". A minor incident is enough to result in being blacklisted by an anti-cult movement. And, unfortunately, the black lists of the anti-cult movements easily become the black lists of the media and the government.
2. The French Aumist Religion (the Mandarom)
The French Aumist Religion, whose legal structure is called Association of the Triumphant Vajra, headquartered in its holy city of Mandarom (hence the popular nickname of "The Mandarom"), is not only regarded by anti-cultists and by a sizeable part of the French media as a cult. It is the cult, particularly in Southern France. This is in itself an interesting phenomenon, taking into account that the Aumist Religion is not a very large group, with less than one thousand members in France and a smaller constituency in Italy, Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland and Africa. The holy city of the Mandarom -- described as the very epitome of the "danger of the cults", a base threatening a whole country -- does not include more than fifty residing monks.
The Aumist Religion (the name comes from the sacred Eastern sound AUM, the only common element with the Japanese Aum Shinri-kyo) was founded by Mr. Gilbert Bourdin, a native of French Martinique. In 1961 he was initiated by the Indian master Sivananda in Rishikesh (later, he received other initiations, inter alia by the 16th Karmapa) and started gathering followers as an ascetic practising austerities in Southern France. He also became quite well-known as a Yoga teacher and author of some 22 books (some of them translated in several languages). In 1967 he established the Association of the Knights of the Golden Lotus (replaced in 1995 by the current Association of the Triumphant Vajra) and in 1969 he founded the holy city of the Mandarom. Gradually, Bourdin revealed himself as the Messiah: the Lord Hamsah Manarah. In 1990 he was publicly crowned as the Messiah at the Mandarom; some of the ceremonies were open to the media. At that time the movement hoped to crown the existing constructions at the Mandarom (temples representing all the great religions of the world and huge statues) with a larger Temple-Pyramid, a building of great spiritual and cosmic significance for the Aumists.
The public ceremonies of 1990 were interpreted as an arrogant challenge by the anti-cult movement and the media. The Mandarom with its huge constructions was, simply, too visible. Two TV networks, Antenne 2 and TF 1, started a campaign exposing the Mandarom as a "cultic concentration camp". Among the anti-cult activists emerged militant psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall. He went on record on TV commenting, about Aumism, that "notwithstanding what they claim, cults are not religious movements, but rather criminal movements organized by gurus who use brainwashing to manipulate their victims", a nice summary of the anti-cult ideology. The campaign against the Mandarom was largely organized by ADFI, and from 1992 it was joined by an ad hoc ecologist group lead by Mr. Robert Ferrato. The latter claimed that the Mandarom is an offense to the ecological equilibrium of the mountain where it is built and called for its destruction. As mentioned earlier, anti-cult activists are taken more seriously in France than in other countries, and even an extreme character such as Dr. Abgrall managed to become one of the two "experts" in the national Observatory of Cults established in 1996.
The Mandarom was raided repeatedly between 1992-1995 by tax and police officers in a military style. ADFI, Mr. Ferrato, and a reporter for the TV network TF1, Bernard Nicolas, played a key-role in making an apostate, Florence Roncaglia (whose mother is still with the Mandarom), "remember" that she had been molested and raped by Bourdin in the 1980s. A complaint was filed in 1994, just before the expiration of the legal delay. Later, other female apostates also "remembered". Based on Roncaglia's complaint, the Mandarom was raided again on June 12, 1995 and Bourdin was arrested. Coincidentially, at the same date the French Council of State should have rendered its final decision on the question of building permission of the Temple-Pyramid. The decision was finally unfavourable to the Aumist Religion. On June 30, 1995, Mr. Bourdin was released but the proceedings against him were kept pending. For the Aumists, the fact that the Temple-Pyramid can no longer be built is extremely serious. In 1998 Bourdin died and was denied burial not only at the Mandarom but in all the main cemeteries around it (he is buried in a disaffected cemetery) -- the authorities cited anti-cult concerns about the Aumists converting the grave into another pilgrimage site.
The case of the Mandarom raises important questions. There is little doubt that the claims the Aumists make for their founder are quite extreme. Generally speaking, claiming to be the Messiah does not make any religious leader particularly popular. The Aumist literature combines Eastern themes and Western esotericism, and it is difficult to distinguish between actual and symbolic claims. (For example, it is argued that the Messiah has destroyed millions of devils threatening Planet Earth. These and similar claims are routinely quoted by anti-cultists to ridicule the Mandarom). In short, Mr. Bourdin was an unpopular religious leader, and Aumism is an unpopular minority. This circumstance makes Aumism an excellent case to test religious liberty in France. When a group is protected by its own popularity, there is no need for constitutional or international guarantees.
The scholars who have taken the time to study the Mandarom (others are simply scared away by controversy) have raised doubts about the possibility for Bourdin, had he lived, to obtain a fair trial. They certainly do not suggest that sexual abuse by pastors or religious leaders should be condoned. They agree that it should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. Some comments about the Mandarom case are, however, in order. First, the local judges do not seem to be familiar with doubts raised in the United States and elsewhere about belated memories of sexual abuses surfacing after many years in therapy or within the frame of national controversies. In fact, in the last few years, most cases of so-called "recovered memories" have been dismissed by U.S. courts. It is in fact too easy to accuse public figures of sexual abuses allegedly taking place ten or fifteen years ago. Second, it is questionable that the Court of Digne had regarded it as necessary to appoint an expert to investigate "the doctrines and practices of the Mandarom and their connection, if any, with the facts of the case against Mr. Bourdin". A point confirming the dubious objectivity of this proceeding is that the Court of Digne has appointed Dr. Jean-Marie Abgrall as its expert -- not only a militant anti-cultist but an author who had written in a book that Bourdin is "a fraud" and "a paranoid," and that Aumism is a "clownesque caricature of a cult" (Abgrall, La Mécanique des sectes, 1996, pp. 31, 91). The verdict of a similar "independent expert" had been rendered in advance. Finally, irrespective of the personal problems of the late Mr. Bourdin, one wonders why, in connection with his prosecution, the Mandarom has been repeatedly raided, Waco-style, by paratroopers, and a number of members of the movement other than Mr. Bourdin have been handcuffed and taken into custody (although no charges were ever filed against any of them).
Scholars are often asked whether there is a risk that groups such as the Mandarom may become involved in violent confrontations with the authorities, or commit mass suicides like the Solar Temple. They normally answer that the Aumist doctrine is firmly against violence and suicides. This is, however, only part of the story. Writing on the situation at the Mandarom, Italian scholar Luigi Berzano (a professor of sociology at the University of Turin and a Roman Catholic priest) mentioned the sociological theories of amplified deviance (Berzano, "La déviance supposée dans le 'phénomène sectaire': l'exemple de la religion aumiste", in Pour en finir avec les sectes. Le débat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire, Paris: Dervy, 1996: 315-320). According to these theories, the hostile official responses to a movement regarded as deviant may in fact amplify its deviance. In a sense -- as suggested in the U.S. debate by Passas and others -- the movement is "deformed" by official and anti-cult harassment. Excessive reaction against a movement, thus, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and may cause the very evil it is supposed to avoid.
While it is not for scholars to recommend specific policy attitudes, some general suggestions seem to be in order.
1. It should be clear from our report that Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe should not be the only areas of concern when religion liberty risks are evaluated. At least three countries in the European Union (France, Belgium and Germany) should be considered at risk (with the addition of Greece, where the problems are, however, more similar to those prevailing in Eastern Europe).
2. A primary cause of concern is the public sponsorship in these countries of private anti-cult movements. It is abundantly clear that these movements are responsible for spreading misleading and often simply false information about religious minorities, and an intolerant worldview.
3. It should be clarified that disgruntled apostates, no matter who sponsors their claims, are but a minority of the larger population of ex-members of any given religious minority, and should not, without further investigation, be considered as representative of ex-members in general.
4. It is a cause of serious concern that myths at least partially discredited and debunked in the United States about brainwashing and mind control, thanks to the promotion by the anti-cult lobby, are still taken seriously in certain European countries. They need to be exposed as pseudo-science.
5. Words are not neutral. Words such as "cults" (or "sectes" in French, or equivalent words in other European languages) are easily used as tools of hate and discrimination, and should be avoided, particularly in official documents. Scholars often use "new religious movements". Although better than "cults", even this language can cause misunderstandings about movements which are new only in the West while they represent a century-old-tradition in the East (such as ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement, or Soka Gakkai, part of the mainline tradition of Japanese Nichiren Buddhism). The most neutral term is "religious minorities". It avoids judgements about whether a group is acceptable, or is connected to an old tradition.
6. Nothing in this report should suggest that laws should not be enforced against criminal actions perpetrated within the frame of old (or not so old) religious movements. The experience shows that there are, in fact, dangerous and even criminal, religious groups. In case of common crimes (a different thing from the imaginary crimes of "belonging to a cult" or "using mind control techniques") the suspects should be investigated and prosecuted as criminal suspects, not as members of religious minorities.
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