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Polish Governmental Report – the Embodiment of the Anti-cult Propaganda

by Agnieszka Koscianska
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London. Preliminary version - Do not reproduce without the consent of the author.

In their article, " ‘Brainwashing’ Theories in European Parliamentary and Administrative Reports on ‘Cults’ and ‘Sects’" (2001), James T. Richardson and Massimo Inrovigne analyzed European governmental and parliamentary reports on new religions in Western European countries using Introvigne’s typology (Type I and Type II reports Introvigne, 2001). In May of 2000, the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Poland issued a report on the activities of new religious movements in Poland similar to those analyzed by Richardson and Inrovigne. Simultaneously, the Polish Parliamentary Commission on Family Affairs prepared a legislative draft, which sought to establish mental manipulation as a crime in the Polish penal code. In this paper, I present the Ministry of Internal Affair’s report, and discuss the legislative attempts by the Commission on Family Affairs. I will then suggest how the Internal Affair’s report might be classified by Introvigne’s typology, and compare the Polish report to similar documents elsewhere in Europe.

New Religions and Anti-Cult Movements in Poland

During communism, Poland was often considered to be a country with one nationality and one religion by most Poles. The Catholic Church was the primary foundation of Polish anticommunist activity. After the fall of communism in 1989 in Poland, a period of transformation began. One of the trends of this transformation has been increased multi-culturalization broadly speaking, as well as the pluralization of religion in particular. One manifestation of this process has been the appearance of new religious movements (NRM’s). [1]

Along with new religions, civic and church anti-cult movements have emerged. In order to better understand the sources of the Ministry of Internal Affairs report on ‘cults’ and ‘sects,’ I will discuss the main Polish anti-cult movements.

The Catholic Church in Poland has a network of anti-cult centres that are organized and managed by the Dominican Order. While they generally offer spiritual help, the Dominican Order in Warsaw is more oriented toward civic, non-church related affairs, and the friars employ secular psychotherapists. There is also a network of civic centres associated with Catholic Church throughout Poland known as Civitas Christiana. Many parish associations in Poland also foster anti-cult activity. The Committee for the Defence against Sects in Poland is the only entirely non-church related association that works to stop the introduction of sects into Poland. It was established by Ryszard Nowak, a former member of parliament from the political left who was pushed out of political life for creating this organization. This past year, he organized a press release, claiming to have an alarming report on children in ‘sects,’ which proved to be very controversial. It also proved very difficult to get a copy of.

The Polish section of the French anti-cult organization, AFDI, is also quite influential and is by far the most radical. It is not, however, the largest. Among other things, they are actively involved in legislative activity. In the last year, they acted as influential advisers in the preparation of the report issued by Poland’s Ministry of Internal Affair. Importantly, they draw on conspiracy theories to form their beliefs that have at the center a fear of being controlled by foreign governments.

In reference to Richardson and Introvigne’s article on governmental reports on sects and cults, Thomas Robbins (2001), argues that an important reason governments create anti-cult legislation the belief that cults are alien, imposed by or brought from foreign sources. He suggests they are seen as imported, for example from America, and arrive in Western Europe. We can observe similar trends in Poland. For example, in the course of my fieldwork among members of the Family and Individual Preservation Society, I was often told that ‘sects’ and ‘cults’ are sent by Germans. This foreign importation of sects from Germany, they felt, was part of a larger conspiracy to build the EU around the principles of Vedic morality and based on the caste social system. Germans export ‘sects,’ they would tell me, like ISKCON, to make Poles to believe they are from a lower caste — meant to be slaves for Germany (s. Michaela, 2000) Analyzing the ideology of the Polish AFDI, I would argue that their anti-cult activity is motivated by "anti-alien" fears, in accordance with Robbins arguments.

Robbins goes on to quote James Beckford, who writes that, ‘ "the arrival of ‘aliens’ and in some case aggressive new religions has aggravated French and German fears about national identity and cultural integrity’ (2001: 174). In Polish anti-cult publications, the most famous of which is called Anatomy of the Sect by Andrzej Zwoliński, authors frequently argue that ÔsectsŐ are a threat to Polish national identity and religion (i.e., Catholicism) [2]. These authors feel it is their obligation to protect Christian values in Poland, if not in the rest of Europe. The reason for this, they argue, is that Christian values are the bases of human rights and democracy. ‘Sects,’ on the other hand, are part of an international conspiracy against their values.

But what, given the range of international anti-cult organizations, is specific to those working in Poland? Introvigne argues, for example, that the sources of anti-cult politics in France are often rooted in secular traditions. In Poland, however, no such traditions exist. Even during communism, the Catholic Church remained synonymous with Polishness, and was the foundation of national identity and cultural integrity.

Polish anti-cult movements are almost exclusively formed in support of the Catholic Church (even, in cases where Church itself does not officially support them). Anti-cult movement organized in support of the Catholic also tends to have a nationalist character, generally meaning, is "anti-alien." The one striking exception, as mentioned above, is Ryszard Nowak’s Committee for the Defense Against Sects.

The Polish Governmental Report on "Sects": Between Type I and Type II

I would classify the recent Polish report as between Type I and Type II, as the are defined by Richardson and Introvigne (2001). In May of 2000, the Interdepartmental Council for New Religious Movements, working under the auspices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, published a Report on Certain Phenomena Connected to the Activity of Sects (Raport o niekt—rych zjawiskach wziązanych z działalnością sekt). This Interdepartmental Council was composed of representatives from the police, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Public Finance, the Polish Customs Agency and Department of Family Affairs.

The report consisted of two parts. The first section discussed "Sects in Poland — A social perspective." The second part of the report, then, focused on "Sects as destructive groups." I will begin with a discussion and analysis of the first part of the report, and later return to the second.

Part One:

The report begins by attempting to create the effect of being an object, scientific discussion of social perspectives on new religious movements in Poland. The authors discuss the social context in which sects have emerged and definitional problems relating to what is a sect or a cult. They also discuss in the first part of the report how sects can be classified, their structures and their legal regulation. In reading the table of contents of part one, it appears the report will provide an objective account of new religious movements in Poland — suggesting it will fall into a Type II category as per Richardson and Introvigne’s typology. For example, the authors stress that not all new religions are ‘sects.’

However, when they come to the definition and classification of ‘sects,’ they are less objective, and indeed quite controversial–providing a normative and extremely general definition:

"A sect refers to every group that possesses a highly developed structure of power, that is characterized at the same time by differences between declared aims and realized aims, and by the concealing of norms that essentially regulate members' lives. It violates basic human rights and principles of normal social intercourse. Its influence on members, sympathizers, families and society has a destructive character" (p.16-17)

After they present the definition of a sect, they discuss the social reasons for their popularity, and go on to elaborate on their classification and structure. The most significant moment for my purposes comes in their discussion of how sects should be classified:

Sects in Poland may be divided into categories according to different criteria… At the same time we want to stress that if the doctrine and worldview of a group is similar to one of the categories it does not necessarily mean that this group should be considered sect — the most important criterion is destructiveness (p.19).

On one hand, the report allows for the possibility that a new religious movement might meet some of their criteria for being considered a sect, but not in fact be a sect. The most important criterion, they say, is "destructiveness." While the report tries to be objective, it does not, ultimately, define what is meant by "destructiveness." It turns out, in fact, that "destructiveness" is left as a category that is open to much interpretation and manipulation.

According to the report destructive sects may be divided as follows:

  1. Religious sects/ not religious/ syncretic
  2. Rejecting the world/ affirming the world
  3. Convertistic/ adventistic/ pietistic/ Gnostic.

For this discussion, the first classification is most significant. This categorical division– religious, not religious and syncretic-- is further broken into sub-categories.

Religious sects in Poland include a strikingly broad range of possible organizations:

  1. Christian groups that believe they are finishing Jesus’ mission, or feel they are ‘real Christians’ in contrast, for example, to followers of Catholicism.
  2. Eastern religious groups, i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism.
  3. Islamic religious movements
  4. Neopagan organizations, such as the restoration of old Slavic beliefs.
  5. Deep Ecological movements.
  6. Neodeism, including movements to revive 17th century Deism.
  7. Groups founded as a result of somebody’s vision.
  8. Worshippers of UFOs.
  9. Theosophical, occult and rosicrucian organizations.
  10. Satanism, resulting through trends in youth fashion and music such as heavy metal, or believers in the power of nature against middle class, Christian civilization.
  11. Believers in the hidden potential of the human brain, healing through pseudo-scientific methods.
  12. Groups connected in general with New Age spirituality.

Non-religious groups that fall into the category of sect, according to the Polish government’s report, include:

  1. Pseudo-psychoanalytic and parapsychological practices that have developed in opposition to classical psychology and psychoanalysis.
  2. Therapeutic practices for healing, overcoming addiction, and youthful rejuvination.
  3. Economic schemes for extracting money from the participants.
  4. Educational schools and courses using alternative teaching methods.
  5. Political groups that seek to influence state politics.
  6. Alternative communities that propose transformed social and interpersonal relations.
  7. Healing methods that promote or make use of irrational, non-scientific methods. (p.19-22)

The third classification of religious sects, named in the report as "syncretic," is treated in a much less detailed manner. According to the report, these are ‘sects’ which link different kinds of activity — religious and not religious and they use different ‘facades’ partake in what the report names as ‘dangerous activities.’

The following chapter of part one of the report addresses the registration of ‘sects’ with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Here it outlines the organisational forms in which a ‘sect’ may be registered, including churches, religious and secular associations [3]. "It is obvious," the report announces, "that some of the registered churches and associations [in Poland] are destructive." (p.34) It continues by noting that on one hand not all new religious movements are ‘sects,’ while on the other hand some ‘sects’ may be not registered-- or may even be hidden as different organisational forms.

If these sects are so dangerous, one must ask, where exactly are all these destructive groups to be found in Poland? A primary concern to raise, is the strong possibility that anti-cult groups could leverage these classifications to label religious groups as sects, and therefore as destructive. One characteristic of Type II governmental reports on sects, as outlined by Richardson and Introvigne , is their precise acknowledgement of this kind of ‘anti-cult terrorism,’ along with unfair accusations of mental manipulation by anti-cult groups against non-traditional religious movements (see Richardson and Introvigne 145-146). However, in the Polish governmental report, any discussion of this possibility is notably absent. But even though there is no discussion of controversies surrounding terms like "manipulation," and despite the fact that anti-cult movements are not discussed in the Polish report as possibly taking part in "anti-cult terrorism," we can still observe that the authors are open to some academic findings characteristic of Type II reports (Richardson, 2001: 145).

In the first part of the report, the authors seem to acknowledge there is a good deal of ambiguity surrounding the naming of groups as sects. They include an in depth discussion of the problems of defining of ‘sect’ and the social context. As an anthropologist, I may agree or disagree their thesis, but the style is rather Type II, and the material remains open for discussion. At the same time, in many respects it is not a typical example of a Type II report in many ways as mentioned above.

Part Two:

Unlike the first part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs report on sects, which had components of both Type I and Type II classifications, the second part of report is a clear example of a Type I report. Type one reports, Richardson and Introvigne write, tend to be characterized by "adopting a four stage interpretive model," involving these basic tenets (Richardson and Inrovigne 2001, p. 145):

  1. Cults or Sects are not religions.

    In the Polish governmental report, ‘sects’ are not discussed in a religious context, but instead as imposters that manipulate religiosity. ‘Sects’ are instead perceived as anti-social groups.

  2. "Brainwashing" and "Mind Control".

    In the Polish report, "manipulation" is discussed as one of the three main characteristics of a ‘sect’. This use of manipulation recalls the use of "mental manipulation" in the 1999 French report.

  3. "Apostates"

    Testimonies of ex-members were one of the main sources to construct the Polish definition of a sect. However, the authors do not discuss research conducted for example by David Bromley on ex-member’s experiences (1998). These studies indicate only a small percentage of ex-members who seek to actively crusade against their former group.

  4. Anti-Cult Organizations

Radical anti-cult organizations are one of the important advisers for the Polish governmental report. The authors propose cooperation with non-governmental organizations to focus specifically on ‘sects,’ i.e. form anti-cult groups. I explore this cooperation later.

This second part of the report is titled, ‘Sects as destructive groups.’ Here the authors elaborate three characteristics of sects taken from their initial definition:

  1. Structure of power — for example, control over lifestyles, including private or family life, and eating habits.
  2. Difference between declared and realized aims — the nature of the ‘sect’ is manipulation. [4]
  3. The norms regulating life within the group are hidden — The real norms of interpersonal relations are described in documents for internal use only. New members are not informed about the rules of behaviour. Moreover, the larger the difference is between declared and realised aims, the more intense the manipulation. ‘Sect’ indoctrination concerns all fields of human activity and the members’ lives are planned with great detail. The report argues that people within these sects are indoctrinated into a specific, and imposed, system of thought and language. (Raport...:33-35)

The authors assume, then, that based on this explanation of their definition identifying these groups ought to be a straightforward exercise. But ultimately the authors write very little about the characteristics and don’t explain their meaning with any depth. ‘Sects,’ they propose, are dangerous because they employ high levels of manipulation within a well developed structure of power. ‘Sects’ are dangerous for mental health as well as family and social relations.

Next they discuss the reasons people join ‘sects,’ as well as the effects of membership on members’ lives. Certain individuals, the report suggests, are simply more open to being influenced, or attracted to joining sects. On the other hand, the group’s influence over individuals can also be the deciding factor. This is an important moment in the report because the authors rely specifically on anti-cult publications to form their argument (e.g. Gajewski 1999, anti-cult journals Drogami sekt i kultów, Sekty i fakty.) The authors don’t, however, discuss precisely why certain individuals are more likely to be susceptible to participating in ‘sects.’ Instead, they move directly to a discussion of techniques for recruiting and maintaining members. These methods include:

  1. Disinformation
  2. Friendship (love bombing)
  3. Group pressure
  4. Persuasion
  5. People with prestige

Methods for keeping members engaged in sects include:

  1. Technique of small steps
  2. Hidden system of punishments and awards
  3. Reinterpretation of reality
  4. Emotional blackmail
  5. Selfcontrol of thinking
  6. Hypnosis (p.40-45)

The report calls the ultimate result of ‘sect’ membership, ‘sect syndrome,’ and suggests this is treatable through medical methods. It should, then, be treatable by medical students who could be trained specifically in this field. The symptoms of this newly proposed medical category are broken into two groups, current and former members. For members, the symptoms can be recognised as:

  1. Inability to converse
  2. Frequent reliance on direct quotation of their guru’s words
  3. Inability to concentrate on tasks
  4. General lack of activity and self-initiative
  5. Feelings of fear or paranoia
  6. Difficulty communicating with people from the outside world
  7. Routine, mechanistic physical exercises
  8. Automatic reaction to the voice of the person who ‘programmed’ the sect member.
  9. Changes of eating habits based on the teacher’s instruction (p.46)

Symptoms for ex members are characterised by:

  1. Depression
  2. Problems concentrating
  3. To become lost in one’s own world
  4. Abused language
  5. Fears (p.46)

The following chapter in the report concerns the relationship between criminal and sect activities. Here the authors present crime statistics. However, from the years 1992 to 1999 there were a total of merely forty-nine trials against sect members, and of these, thirteen ‘sect’ members were found guilty. In addition, fifty-two trials connected with ‘sects’ and family issues arose, mostly related to divorce and custody questions. But authors state that because we have no specific anti ‘sect’ legislation in Poland, many crimes are unreported.

In the conclusion, then, the authors try to answer the question of what should be done. Their suggestions hinge around state activity, including:

  1. Research (in co-operation with non-governmental organisations focusing on ‘sects’, helping victims and working with Catholic Church and Polish Ecumenical Council).
  2. Help caring for victims
  3. Crime intervention
  4. Techniques for sect prevention
  1. Courses for teachers, psychologist, etc.
  2. Informational meetings with parents
  3. Therapy
  4. Publications (59-60)

The language used in the report is both non-scientific and propagandistic. For example, they draw on vocabulary taken from anti-cult publications such as ‘facade,’ or werbownik — a 19th century term for a military recruiter. The report is also inspired by anti-cult logic at the level of explanation. The authors explain the popularity of the ‘sects’ by the influence they have on potential new members in ways directly inspired by anti-cult publications. The main anti-cult assumption is that ‘sects’ are not religions, and rely on manipulative techniques to gain popularity and support. Both anti-cult movements and the authors of the report consider ‘sects’ to be an international problem. That is, ‘sect’ activity is part of an international conspiracy, harboring hidden political aims.


The Influence of Anti-cult Movements

As I mentioned above, the Polish governmental report on sects can be predominately characterized as in the Type I category, but in certain moments shows Type II characteristics. It is important to ask about the sources of this ambiguity. I believe it can be explained by the influence of anti-cult movements in Poland. The authors strive to be open to suggestions from both anti-cult organizations as well as from academic scholars. In the end, the anti-cult influence, however, proved more powerful, and thus the report supports a predominately anti-cult worldview.

The legislative process illustrated how influential anti-cult groups can be.

The report was prepared by the Interdepartmental Council for New Religious Movements. They worked in co-operation with the Parliamentary Commission on Family Affairs and a Special Sub-Commission for Mental Manipulation Groups. The report, then, is the result of this group cooperation. A meeting of the Commission for Family Affairs on April 28, 2000 provided one excellent example of exactly how productive this teamwork was. During the meeting they discussed the report on sects, as well as the work of the Special Sub-Commission for Mental Manipulation Groups, which presented a legislative draft to establish mental manipulation as a crime. The meeting was intended, then, to accomplish at least two things: a report on sects in Poland, and a new criminal law regarding mental manipulation. In order to understand the role anti-cult groups played on the forming of the report, it is instructive to briefly consider the effort to draft this new criminal legislation.

The Sub-Commission was comprised of Members of Parliament along with members of civic and church anti-cult organizations. The criminal legislation was particularly inspired by French law, and the Sub-Commission’s participants even attended a meeting with the prominent French anti-cult activist, Alaine Viviene. In the discussion, they found the French solutions to be both interesting and acceptable. They also stressed that the Polish law should be changed in order to integrate with the Europian Union. [5]

Originally, before this April meeting, the Sub-Commission prepared a legislative draft to define mental manipulation as the psychological influence of sects on a person or group. The goal of this manipulation, this initial draft suggested, would be the victim’s total subordination to the sect (they drew this from a definition prepared earlier by the Family and Individual Preservation Society). The following draft, however, did not define mental manipulation at all. Other proposals by the Sub-Commission included preventative measures which could be deployed in the fight against mental manipulation groups (the term mental manipulation, in the legislative draft, is ultimately a synonym for ‘sect’). For example, they proposed establishing an "anti-sect structure" within the police that would mirror the French anti-cult efforts.

During the meeting, the discussion was heated. The most radical anti-cult activists were not satisfied with the Sub-Commission’s work, arguing it was too lenient. The Family and Individual Preservation Society were particularly interested strengthening the criminal code. According to them, a law to treat mental manipulation as a crime was necessary in order to create a series of punishment for sect-related crimes. The commission’s proposal, however, did not go far enough towards this end. They also criticized scholars for analyzing beliefs without doing research on the possible results of ‘sect’ membership–and who sometimes evaluate these ‘destructive sects’ in a positive light. In contrast to the legislation, the Preservation Society was relatively satisfied with the report. For example, the SocietyŐs Chair, Anna Łobaczewska, mentions in her speech that she is quite pleased to have the report completed after four years of work. In this regard, she now has an official report to which she can refer should any conflict arise. Her criticism of the report was simply that it did not thoroughly discuss all possible social and psychological results of ‘sect’ membership.

Jolanta Socha, a representative from two other anti-cult organizations, also took part in the meeting. In this context, she represented both the European Federation of Associations for Research into Mental Manipulation, and the Center to Research Methods for Counteracting Mental Manipulation. Her focus was especially on the conspiratorial activity of ‘sects.’ ‘Sects’, she argued, initially began working in Central and Eastern Europe secretly, laying a groundwork to successfully lure new adherents. She suggested, for example, that they organized centers for research as a facade in order to gain entrance onto Polish territory. The results of this secret conspiratorial activity, she feels, has threatened Polish family values and for example can be blamed for an increase in the number of divorces in Poland. I should also stress that Members of Parliament from different political parties were also involved in the critique of activity of ‘sects’.

Ultimately, however, the effort to draft new criminal legislation failed, leaving the report on sects as the meeting’s only conclusive result, despite having been planned as a meeting that would accomplish much more. The legislative draft failed largely due to formal mistakes, and was never discussed in Parliament. The mere fact that this kind of law draft appeared, of course, remains significant. Moreover, the glorification of French models for intervening in ‘sect’ activity proves instructive for understanding the general view of the meeting’s participants.

In February 2001, I attended a meeting of the Family and Individual Preservation Society. The anti-cult activists were disappointed that the legislation failed, and indignant with the ignorance of Members of Parliament for not establishing Mental Manipulation as new crime. This came on the heels of losing two ‘sect’-related trials, and the defeats were met with increased fears over general changes in Polish society. Some, for example, hypothesized that in the future, the majority of the judges in Poland will be involved in Hare Krishna movements, and there was much discussion about how ‘sects’ had conspired to defeat the legislation. Ultimately, though, the inter-institutional cooperation from the April 2000 meeting culminated in the governmental report–relatively speaking, a modest accomplishment.

Critique of the report.

The governmental report was generally reviewed negatively by scholars and journalists. Writing in Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper, Ewa Siedleska offered what became one of the most highly publicized critiques. Her article is titled, "Sects are Lurking Everywhere," (2000.09.20) and argues the report is overly general, utterly lacks examples and simply reiterates carefully selected anti-cult statements from a Council of Europe report. After this article appeared, the report was removed from Ministry of the Interior’s web site.


The report is extremely general. One won’t, for example, find any specific examples or statistics. It seems the most likely reaction to the report, ultimately, is to become paranoid over the possibility of unknown dangers. Unlike the French report, the Polish version does not provide a ‘black list’ of suspected ‘sect’ organizations. Instead, it gives the readers their own interpretive tools— especially the definition of ‘sect’ — to discriminate against all minorities, and religious minorities in particular. That is, the report’s definition for ‘sect’ could theoretically encompass most new religious movements and minorities in Poland (including Old Catholics and Protestants). Every organization could ultimately be called a ‘sect,’ and therefore the consequences similar to having created a ‘black list.’ And despite the fact that the report was taken off the Ministry’s web site, it still exists and is quoted by anti-cult oriented authors. One can, for example, read it as an official governmental document on web site of the Dominican anti-cult center in Warsaw (http://sekty.sluzew.dominikanie.pl)


Gajewski M.

1999 ABC o sektach, Gajewski M. (ed.), Kraków: Wydawnictwo Civitas Christiana.

Introvigne M.

2000 Moral Panics and Anti-Cult Terrorism in Western Europe, "Terrorism and Political Violence: 12, p. 47-59.

s. Michael

2000 Wyznawcy Kryszny w Polsce.


2000 Raport o niekt—rych zjawiskach związanych z działalnością sekt w Polsce, Międzyresortowy Zesp—ł do Spraw Nowych Ruch—w Religijnych, Warszawa.

Richardson J. T., Introvigne M.

2001 "Brainwashing" Theories in European Parliamentary and Administrative Reports on "Cults" and "Sects", "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion", July, p. 143-168.

Robbins T.

2001 Combating "Cults" and "Brainwashing" in the United States and Western Europe: A Comment on Richardson and Introvigne’s Report, "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion", July, p. 169-175.

Zwoliński A.

1999 Anatomia sekty in Gajewski M. (ed.).


[1] But the first NRMs come to Poland in early 80’.

[2] Discussion about anti-Polish mission of sects is theme for second article.

[3] To register a religious association one has to be a Polish citizen, and the group must have at least 100 members.

[4] The term brainwashing is not used. Generally I thing that in Europe is not as popular as in U.S.

[5] The irony of this is that the meeting was comprised largely of politicians and citizens who are politically on the right in Poland, which means they generally oppose EU integration.

[6] But they did not give up. In their new book one can find petition to national authority to change the law.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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