SCHOLARS PRESENT REQUEST TO DECLASSIFY JONESTOWN DOCUMENTS
On November, 18, 1998, the twentieth anniversary of the death of some 900 members of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars who have specialized in the study of New Religious Movements (often referred to as "cults") will release a letter sent to the House of Representatives International Relations Committee asking the Committee to declassify the massive collection of documents sealed following the investigation into the death of Congressman Leo J. Ryan on November 18, 1978.
The letter will be released at a press conference jointly sponsored by the Institute for the Study of American Religion and CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions (Torino, Italy) to be held at the Washington (D.C.) Press Club, at noon on Wednesday, November 18, 1998. Speakers at the conference will include Dr. J. Gordon Melton, the Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR) and the author of more than twenty-five books on American religious groups; Dr. Mary McCormick Maaga, the author of the most recent assessment of Jonestown, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Religion and Politics), (Syracuse University Press, 1998); and Dr. Massimo Introvigne, Director of the Center for Studies on New Religions. Dr. Melton will address issues of the impact on Jonestown on American religious studies; Dr. Introvigne will address the impact on the European situation; and Dr. Maaga will present her latest finding on what occurred at Jonestown.
The shooting of Congressman Ryan, immediately followed by the suicide and murder of the members of the Peoples Temple, was an event that has become of immense importance to the study of religion in general and of New Religious Movements in particular. At the time of its presentation of its report, the Committee on International Relations (then known as the Committee on Foreign Affairs) classified a significant number of documents that it has assembled. These documents have remained inaccessible for the intervening decades to scholars, individuals who lost family members at Jonestown, and the general public.
'Twenty years later there appears to be no compelling issues of national security or interest to keep these documents secret," said Dr. Gordon Melton, in remarks prepared for the press conference. "Now twenty years later, it is our belief that the time has come for the release of these documents so that a more thorough assessment of what occurred at Jonestown can be made. Our understanding of the Jonestown deaths is still hindered by the unavailability of numerous key documents that would highlight the situation at Jonestown immediately prior to and during Congressman Ryan's visit, the relationship of the State Department to the Jonestown community, and the state of mind of Peoples Temple leader, Rev. Jim Jones."
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