Europe's Cult Wars -
Yet Another Cure Worse than the Disease
by Dan Fefferman
A wave of legislation, investigations and outright discrimination against religious minorities is sweeping across Western Europe today.
The cause of the current fear of "sects" is complex. Part of it, no doubt results from concern that the tragedies of the Solar Temple and Aum Shinreko not be repeated. Part of it is due to organized lobbying efforts of the anti-cult movement coupled with sensationalized media accounts. And part of it seem to been rooted in old patterns of intolerance of things new, foreign or different.
Whatever the causes, the new European Sect Scare is widespread, and it's for real.
The German government seems to be at the center of the European anti-sect hysteria. especially with regard to the Church of Scientology.
The government has officially placed the Church and its members under police surveillance. Scientologists are banned from joining the ruling Christian Democratic Party. They are even forbidden to become dentists. Literature published by the Christian Democrats caricatures the church's religious symbol by transforming it into a skull-and -crossbones.
It's not just the Scientologists that receive the brunt of German intolerance. A pamphlet published by the Christian Democratic Youth, entitled "InSects: No thanks!" features a cover illustration of a huge fly swatter squashing a variety of mosquitoes and other in-"Sects." Among those sects singled out by the ruling party's youth arm to be treated as vermin are Jehovah's Witnesses, Unificationists, Hare Khishna adherents and Scientologists.
The German government went so far as to publish at taxpayers' expense a booklet attacking the Unification Church and has placed the church's founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, on the Schengen Treaty list, effectively banning him from entry into most European nations. The church won a court order preventing distribution of the booklet after it demonstrated some of the government's claims to be patently false. Meanwhile, the Dutch government took the unusual step of stipulating that Reverend Moon is welcome to visit the Netherlands, despite Germany's listing him as an undesirable.
The UN's Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance has taken a strong interest in the German situation and has recently concluded a fact-finding tour. A report will be forthcoming.
A French Parliamentary report published in 1996 listed no less than 172 dangerous "cults" in France. Although the report has no official legislative power, it has nonetheless been quoted as authoritative in several court cases and has resulted in widespread consequences for members of minority religions.
Observers report a "severe anti-minority-religion climate" has resulted from the report and media coverage of it.
A member of the Jehovah's Witnesses was fired from a public school after years of honorable service apparently for no other reason than that he was a member of one o the listed groups.
At least one bombing has been linked to this atmosphere of hate. Shortly after a Paris newspaper responded to the Parliamentary report with a headline to the effect that "Something Must Be Done" about the cults, the headquarters of the French Unification Church were bombed.
Despite the protests of a number of French Catholic bishops, the Report even includes a Roman Catholic theatrical group on its list of "dangerous cults." The troupe, Office Culturel de Cluny, has been denied the use of public theatres for its shows and is reportedly nearly bankrupt as a result.
The French Ministry of Youth and Sport now employs anti-cultists to speak to youth organizations and athletic groups about the evils of minority religions, and Time magazine reports that there are plans to fund hundreds of offices nationwide to educate young people against organizations on the List.
Critics say the French report is riddled with unsubstantiated rumors and false information. According to an analysis by the academically-oriented Center for the Study of New Religions (CESNUR), the French Report "was completed without reference to any number of easily acquired resources that could have corrected the misleading information utilized by the commissioners."
Following a recommendation in the Report, the government has now established a national Observatory of Cults, with two extreme anti-cultists reportedly appointed as "experts."
Reports Get Bad Marks
The poor scholarship evident in the French Report has not stopped it from setting a trend for other countries in Europe.
In Belgium, a parliamentary commission on cults released its report on April 1997. It outdoes even the French report both in sheer numbers of "cults" listed and in the types of organizations it considers dangerous-among them the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers, the Amish and (believe it or not) the YWCA.
The Report, which was adopted by the Belgian Parliament minus its embarrassing list, recommended that "mind control" be made a crime punishable by law. It also stated that a US Hasidic group, the Satmars, was engaged in kidnapping Christian children-a charge which would be ridiculous if it were not eerily similar to previous patterns of European anti-Semitism.
In Switzerland, the city government of Geneva has recommended making "mind manipulation" a federal felony crime, funding anti-cult groups, and creating a government body to oversee cults.
Austria too has published a list of dangerous "sects." Children of minority religions hear their teachers in public schools ridicule their parents' religious beliefs and practices and face derision by classmates as a result. Listed groups are not allowed to incorporate or own property. In effect, they must operate as underground organizations.
In Greece, the special status of the Orthodox Church results in severe limitations for minority groups. Smaller religions complain that they are denied official status and cannot legally hold meetings, conduct worship services or own property. Non-Orthodox children are required to attend Orthodox religion classes in public schools.
Until recently, attempting to convince a person to change his or her faith-even with that person's permission-was a criminal act. In addition, any new place of worship could not be opened without the approval of the Orthodox bishop. The European Court of Human Rights, however, has declared these two laws void.
Both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe are considering actions to control minority religions.
The European Parliament has voted to investigate "sects" across all of Europe. The Parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties has appointed a Rapporteur to prepare a draft report on cults. Whether the Committee will live up to its name is another question.
Meanwhile, the Council of Europe, comprised of representatives of all European nations, approved in May a recommendation that each country create a cult oversight body and draft appropriate anti-cult legislation. Although the Council is a purely consultative body with no juridical authority, it is considered to be very influential among Europe's smaller nations.
Europe today is witnessing a widespread trend toward controlling minority religions. While fears of a repeat of the Solar Temple and Aum Shenriko tragedies is understandable, European legislators apparently did not adequately consider the consequences of various governmental reports on the liberties of innocent people who hold unconventional religious beliefs.
Could this be another case where the cure does more harm than the disease?