"European Conference on Sectarianism" in Paris: An Unsuccessful Affair

A report compiled by CESNUR staff on the basis of information received from friends and associates of CESNUR who attended the conference, and documents distributed there. See full text in French of Mr. Vivien's opening speech.

On April 23-24 at the French Parliament (or, more exactly, in one of its underground floors) a "European Conference on Sectarianism" (Colloque européen sur le sectarisme) was organized by FECRIS (the European Federation of Centers for Research and Information on Sectarianism, a federation of fifteen European anti-cult movements) and by the two French anti-cult movements UNADFI and CCMM. Although introduced as the largest anti-cult gathering in history, the conference failed to attract the largest Catholic and Protestant counter-cult associations (such as the Dialog Center in Denmark or GRIS in Italy), confirming the difficulty of co-ordinating the secular anti-cult and the religious counter-cult movements. Catholics who attended (such as José-Maria Baamonde of the Argentinian SPES Foundation, or Father Jacques Trouslard) have always manifested an anti-cult rather than a counter-cult attitude, and certainly do not represent the larger Christian counter-cult community. From outside Europe the conference attracted only some anti-cult luminaries, such as Mike Kropfeld of Info-Secte/Info-Cult in Montreal and Hiroshi Yamaguchi from Tokyo. Edward Lottick, hardly an anti-cult heavyweight, was mentioned as the most prominent U.S. participant and, although the American Family Foundation was hailed in some speeches, its main leaders remained safely away from a gathering whether the U.S. Department of State was repeatedly targeted. Only a handful of academics (mostly political scientists and criminologists) showed up, none of them a specialist of religious studies or religious movements. Not many attended from Eastern Europe, although one of the main papers was read by the (perhaps aptly named) Victor Lugosi of the Kossuth Klub in Budapest. It is worth noting that this Mr. Lugosi was not among the twenty or so Hungarian experts invited on April 27 to address the conference on religious minorities organized by the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest (and opened by papers read by Massimo Introvigne and Eileen Barker). Significant delegations came from Germany (including veteran anti-cultist Ingo Heinemann, while professional anti-Scientologist Ursula Caberta delivering one of the most acclaimed papers), French-speaking Switzerland (François Bellanger), Belgium (Luc Willems), Catalunia (Maria-Rosa Boladeras of AIS) and UK (former Minister Thomas Sackville; and Lady Daphne Vane and Audrey Chaytor from FAIR). The French governmental Mission to Fight Cults was of course prominently represented (Alain Gest, Jacques Guyard...) and its president, Alain Vivien, delivered the opening paper after the welcome speech by Jacques Richard, president of FECRIS.

The speech celebrated the successes of anti-cultism in France, but ended on a much different vein:

"... But all is not white in this scenario.

In Vienna, at the last meeting on religious liberty of the Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights (ODIHR) - a body of OSCE - the infiltrated presence of several cults was obvious. Self-styled chairpersons, appointed in total darkness, justified the action of cults more than they pitied the suffering of their victims [The reference, here, is to the opening reports read in Vienna by experts appointed by OSCE, including Massimo Introvigne and Alain Garay]. Such incidents should not take place again in the future.

The same applies to the crusade organized by the US State Department against the states defending themselves against sectarianism. According to certain ‘good apostles’, religious freedom would not be threatened in Iran or Afghanistan, but rather by the preventive or cautionary measures taken in Germany or in France against totalitarian cults. It seems necessary to add that a notorious member of one of the most dangerous multinational cults was among the members of the official US delegation recently seen in Paris.

But the citizens of the US have started themselves a reaction against these excesses alarmingly reminiscent of Senator McCarthy and his time. In a few weeks a conference of the American Family Foundation will take place in Minneapolis...".

Vivien, whose anti-clerical and anti-Catholic background is well-known, concluded that: "Today’s struggle joins the old struggle for free thought, free belief and free expression, against all the obscurantisms of a paste that should never return". ("Obscurantism" was the code word used in 19th century France anti-clerical campaigns to designate Catholicism and conservative religion in general). Vivien was obviously not pleased by the attack published on April 20 in the French Catholic daily newspaper "La Croix" under the title "Du rififi à la mission de lutte anti-sectes". As usual, he blamed such criticism to a "destabilization campaign" organized by the cults.

Many speakers reported the failure of the anti-cultists outside French-speaking Europe (and, partially, Germany) to attract any significant attention. A particularly sad tale was told by the tiny Italian anti-cult movement ARIS. Their "big expense of energy and money" has been, they claimed, largely in vain. "We have often asked an interview with the actual [sic: they mean ‘present’] Minister for Family and Social Solidarity, Mrs Livia Turco, but without any result. We have also met many members of Italian Parliament, who didn’t know or want to support our initiatives".

A (perhaps slightly exaggerate) report posted on April 26 in the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology by author, former Scientologist, and self-styled "secticide" Roger Gonnet claimed that, after Scientology ("quoted almost a hundred times") the second most dangerous organization haunting anti-cultists is CESNUR (quoted 30 times"), with the Jehovah’s Witnesses coming third ("about 10 or 15 times"). (Gonnet, apparently, forgot in his statistics The Family/Children of God, and the US State Department and US in general). Scholars called "cult apologists" and associated with CESNUR were regarded as particularly "dangerous" mostly because - as Gonnet reported - their work appears to be quite effective: they are "efficient", and are taken more seriously than the anti-cultists in most countries (not including, of course, France). Even in France, however, Gonnet reported that "it has been observed that it was quite difficult to get new complaints from ex-members" in order to keep the anti-cult mill running.

The conference got less media attention than the average soccer game of one of the minor leagues in France, and was, from this point of view, an almost complete failure. Scientologists seriously risked to change this situation by participating, photographing, being finally evicted by the police, and picketing outside the Parliament distributing tracts. In the end, however, the event was so not cool that even the protest by French Scientologists managed to attract a significant media attention.

On the other hand, the conference confirmed to envious non-French anti-cultists what everybody already knows: that, as the Swedish governmental report of 1998 put it so aptly, "in France the state has on the whole made common cause with the anti-cult movement", in order to "declare a war on new religious movements". This situation is replicated in the French-speaking part of Belgium and, partially, in the Canton of Geneva and certain areas of Germany, while it is obviously unreplicable elsewhere. Secular anti-cultists scare religious counter-cultists away from their activities by their very secularism. Even the alliance in the East between western anti-cult missionaries and Eastern Orthodox nationalists is precarious. Orthodox counter-cult leaders such as Alexander Dvorkin did not attend the Paris conference, where Hungarian anti-cultist Victor Lugosi noted that "anti-cultists in Central and Eastern Europe are compelled to fight on two fronts: against liberty-threatening cults, and against conservative and reactionary political-ecclesiastical forces". This confirms, once again, the contrast between secular anti-cultists and religious counter-cultists such as Johannes Aagaard (another prominent no-show in Paris). The latter, unlike Lugosi, are quite willing to co-operate with "conservative and reactionary political-ecclesiastical forces" in Russia and elsewhere in order to fight "cults".

Lack of media attention and evidence of French marginality in international religious liberty forums was particularly distressing to many participants. The disturbed, yet somewhat still hopeful, mood was perhaps best captured in another alt.religion.scientology posting by Roger Gonnet, who concluded: "We are not losers this time, and ‘they’ know it, whatever Introvigne could say".


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