Cults and governments

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Religious freedom by country

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In many countries there exists freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. Some of these countries, expressing concern with possible abuses by cults, have taken restrictive measures against some of their activities. Against a background of suspicion of, and generally low regard for, so-called cults (or in most places in Europe, "sects"), those measures were mostly precipitated by various crimes committed inside cults, especially by a string of murderous incidents involving doomsday cults circa 1995.

There exists a controversy regarding religious tolerance between the United States and several European countries, especially France and Germany, that have enacted legislation against cults. Critics of such measures claim that the counter-cult movement and the anti-cult movement, abetted by media sensationalism, have succeeded in influencing governments in transferring the public's abhorrence of doomsday cults such that it is directed indiscriminately against all small or new religious movements. Proponents of those measures contend that this criticism is unwarranted and that there exist a variety of dangerous actions (sexual abuse, extortion, etc.) that cults engage it, besides mass suicides and murders.

European countries criticized by the United States see the United States' political interventions in their internal affairs as pro-cultic,[citation needed] uninformed meddling; they contend that these interventions lack responsibility towards the wellbeing of citizens, especially concerning children and incapacitated persons. They claim that the United States' attitude is, at least partially, due to lobbying by cults and cult apologists of the United States government.[citation needed]


[edit] Belgium

In Belgium, the Belgian Parliamentary Commission on Cults submitted a report to the Belgian Parliament in 1997. The report differentiated in its conclusions between three types of "sectes":

  • the sect in strict sense (la secte strictu sensu). a group distinguished by a particular belief which is a normal expression of religious freedom
  • harmful sectarian organizations (Les organisations sectaires nuisibles) defined as a group with real or pretended philosophic or religious vocation which in its organisation or its practices includes harmful illegal activities, harms individuals or society or interferes with human dignity.
  • criminal associations (Les associations de malfaiteurs) defined as criminal organisations (frauds, money launderers, drug traffickers, pedophile rings, etc.) using a cult-like or pseudo-religious front to disguise their criminal practices. 2(pg. 99-101)

The report included a list of 189 organizations which had come up during the investigation, including the Amish Mission in Belgium, Buddhism, several Catholic groups such as Opus Dei, some Evangelical Christian denominations, Hasidic Judaism, Quakers, and Satanists, but stated clearly immediately before the listing:

"This listing does not constitute a specific position or a judgment by the commission. The fact that a movement is listed here, even if at the instigation of an official instance, does not signify that the commission regards it as a sect, let alone as dangerous. (Cette énumération ne constitue donc ni une prise de position, ni un jugement de valeur de la part de la commission. Ainsi, le fait pour un mouvement d'y figurer, même si c'est à l'initiative d'une instance officielle, ne signifie pas que pour la commission, il soit une secte, et a fortiori qu'il soit dangereux.) 2(pg. 227)

Still more important, most of the commission’s report, including the above mentioned list (tableau synoptique), was rejected by the Belgian Parliament in the plenary session on May 7, 1997. Out of the 670-pages-report, the Belgian Parliament approved only the section “conclusions and recommendations” (pages 209-226).3

The Quakers complained to Deputy Prime Ministers about their inclusion on the list, pointed out their humanitarian aid programs, and requested to see the evidence against them which had been presented the federal police in a closed session to the Parliamentary Commission. They were unsuccessful in their appeal.[citation needed]

As a consequence of the advice of the commission to the parliament, a law was accepted to observe cults that possibly break the law. This resulted in the foundation of a centre on June 2, 1998 for the information and advice on harmful cults, located in Brussels. [1]

[edit] China

Main article: Falun Gong

An extreme form of measures against "cults" is the case of Falun Gong in China. The government of the People's Republic of China considers Falun Gong a dangerous cult and seeks to dismantle it; Falun Gong followers have been jailed, and numerous occurrences of torture have been reported. Many critics of cults believe that even if Falun Gong meets the definition of a cult widely accepted by Western anti-cult groups (as opposed to the Chinese government's definition), the Chinese government nevertheless has violated the human rights of Falun Gong members in a criminal manner for which there can be no excuse. (It should be noted that there is no clear consensus within the U.S. anti-cult movement as to whether or not Falun Gong should be regarded as a cult.)

The People's Republic of China has also engaged in repression against Buddhist worshippers, especially monks and nuns, in Tibet, on suspicions that they work for the end of the Chinese domination of Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama as ruler of Tibet.

Persecution of Christianity is also a problem in China. The Pope of the Roman Catholic church is not recognized, forcing the official church to go underground. Instead, a government-controlled "Patriotic" Catholic church has been established. Numerous priests and other religious have been arrested and brutalized. Christian proselytization is illegal and only one Bible may be brought into the country at a time. Despite these measures, China has a large number of Christians. Catholics alone number somewhere between 30 and 100 million.

Controversies have erupted concerning the reaction of various foreign governments with respect to the Chinese anti-Falun Gong and anti-Tibetan actions, or, rather, the lack thereof.[2] Some foreign governments, including the French, were criticized for complacency with respect to Chinese authorities, especially for restricting demonstrations against the Chinese government during official Chinese visits and ceremonies organized in collaboration with the Chinese government. [3] [4]

[edit] Council of Europe

While the US constitution allows no legislation on religion, the European view is different: The Council of Europe to which 46 European nations belong, has since 1953 a "Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" in force, which defines religious freedom and sets certain limits to it:

Article 9 Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

On June 22, 1999 The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly adopted, unanimously, in view of the " the serious incidents which had occurred in recent years" a recommendation which gives priority to the prevention against dangerous sects (Council of Europe, 1999). It concludes that major legislation on sects is undesirable, but it calls also on the member states to

  • to support the setting up of independent, national or regional information centres on sects;
  • to include information on the history and philosophy of important schools of thought and of religion in general school curricula;
  • to use the normal procedures of criminal and civil law against illegal practices carried out by these groups;
  • to encourage the setting up of non-governmental organisations to protect victims, but also;
  • to take firm steps against any discrimination or marginalisation of minority groups and encourage a spirit of tolerance and understanding towards religious groups.

[edit] European Union

On May 22, 1984 the European Parliament passed a resolution with the title "New Organizations Operating Under the Protection Afforded to Religious Beliefs" that expressed the parliament's concern about the recruitment and treatment of the members of these new organizations. [5]

On March 1997, a "Resolution on cults in Europe" by the European Parliament, reaffirmed its attachment to the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law, such as tolerance, and freedom of conscience, religion, thought, association and assembly, as well as calling on its Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs to meet and work on collecting and sharing information that would enable conclusions to be drawn on the best way to restrain undesirable activities by sects and on strategies to raise public awareness about them. [6]

On December 22, 1997 the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs released an amended resolution named "Resolution on Cults in the European Union" that was originally to be voted by the European Parliament in Strasbourg during the session of January 1998. The text of the resolution was rejected by the plenary of the European Parliament in July 1998 by a coalition of anti-cultists and religious liberties activists (the former complaining that it was too weak, and the latter considering it out of the scope of the European Parliament to decide). The resolution was sent back to the Commission for further consideration.

[edit] France

Following the 1995 "mass-suicides" of the Order of the Solar Temple adepts, the French government created a Parliamentary commission, led by MP Alain Gest, and encouraged public caution toward some minority religious groups that it considers to be cults. The Commission parlementaire sur les sectes en France ("Parliamentary Commission about cults in France") published in December 1995 a report classing various new religious movements and qualifying as cults those new religious movements which were considered as representing a potential threat either toward the adepts themselves or toward society and the state. Legislation making it easier to prosecute alleged crimes committed by cults was also adopted. However, both the reports and the legislation have been controversial; Scientology, in particular, refuses to be classified as a cult. Whatever the stance adopted, the report is one of the only serious categorization of new religious movements and attempt to define what constitutes a "cult", notwithstanding the necessary respect of freedom of religion and the 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State. To this day, it is one of the only official indicator allowing to define a new religious movement as a cult or not.

Former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin issued a circular on May 2005 indicating that the list of cults published on the parliamentary report should no longer be used to identify cults.<ref>Circulaire du 27 mai 2005 relative à la lutte contre les dérives sectaires</ref>

The French parliament passed a law (the About-Picard law), declared by its proponents to be aimed at repressing the excesses of groups infringing on human rights and fundamental freedoms. The law makes it possible to prosecute organizations, rather than individuals, for a number of crimes already represented in the criminal code; in the case of established criminal behavior by an organization, courts may disband the organization. A controversial provision criminalizing "mental manipulation", included in early drafts, was not included in the final law, because of concerns about the vagueness of this notion.

This legislation attracted some critical remarks, but no condemnation, from the Helsinki International Federation for Human Rights (See index of documents), the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, an Investigatory Commission for Violations of Human Rights hosted by the Omnium des Liberté, and from minority religious groups. The US government under the Clinton administration was also critical. The criticism argued that, if legislation was applied improperly, it could result in the arbitrary banning of unpopular religious groups; and that the legislation fostered in the public and officials an atmosphere of discrimination against members of emerging religions.

[edit] Germany

The German federal government does not accept Scientology's claim to be a religion but asserts that it is a business disguised as a religion. Scientology is monitored by the Verfassungsschutz (internal secret service) and Germany puts restrictions on its activities [7]. The United States Congress failed to pass a resolution in 1997 related to "discrimination by the German Government against members of minority religious groups" that mentioned only Scientology related examples of discrimination [8]. See also status of religious freedom in Germany.

[edit] Switzerland

In Switzerland, there exists according to the constitution no legislation whatsoever about religion at the national level, only at the level of the cantons. There is no church or religion officially recognized at national level, no official recognition any religious groups, and no legislation forbidding any religious groups.

Some cases in which members of religious groups and purported cults were sentenced for breaking Swiss law are described below.

  • On 5 December 1997, one of the leaders of the theosophic Universal Church was sentenced by the federal court to a fine for publishing antisemitic statements. The defense claimed that they are part of the teaching of the church, and its leader Peter Leach-Lewis has lost the right to enter Switzerland due to a similar charge.
  • On 3 April 2003 the Swiss federal court confirmed a sentence against Uriella, the leader of the Fiat Lux group. She was to pay back a large sum to an ex-member. The court reasoned that normal loan regulations apply also between leaders and members of cults.
  • On 10 June 1987 the penal court of Basel sentenced two Scientologists for continued extortion to a suspended prison sentence and fine because they had sold services at high prices to a physically and mentally handicapped person.
  • In December 2003, the head of Scientology Lausanne was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence and the payment of damages for defamation of a former member.

[edit] United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom a charity named INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) was founded in 1988 by professor Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics, with the funding from the Home Office and the support of mainstream Churches. According to their website, their primary aim is "... to help people through providing them with accurate, balanced, up-to-date information about new and/or alternative religious or spiritual movements." [9]

INFORM patrons includes Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia (Greek Orthodox Church) and Lord Bishop Graham James of Norwich (Church of England), Lord Dahrendorf and Lord Desai.

[edit] United States

Timothy Miller, of the University of Kansas writes that no country in the world has a religious diversity as extensive as that found in the United States. He asserts that this religious diversity is due in significant part to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees that no religion will have governmental endorsement and that all Americans are free to practice the religions of their choice.1

The frequent accusations by the United States government against countries such as France and Germany for what they consider to be the protection of their citizens against destructive and/or fraudulent cults of violating human rights are energetically protested by the countries concerned.[10] [11]. Shortly after German Scientologist Antje Victore 1996 received political asylum in the US due to alleged religious persecution in Germany, German newspapers showed evidence that Victore's "proofs", letters denying her employment due to being a Scientologist, had been fabricated by fellow-Scientologist company owners.[12]

A travel advisory by the United States Department of State, in which neither Sathya Sai Baba or other persons are mentioned, warns US citizens traveling to Andhra Pradesh of unconfirmed reports of inappropriate sexual behavior toward young male devotees by a prominent local religious leader.[13]

[edit] References

  • Note 1: Miller, Timothy, Religious Movements in the United States: An Informal Introduction, The New Religious Movements Homepage at the University of Virginia. available online
  • Note 3: Vote of the Belgian Parliament about the report of the Enquete Commission on Cults, Session of May 7, 1997. available online
  • Council of Europe: Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 4th November 1950 [14]
  • Council of Europe: Recommendation 1412-Illegal Activities of Sects. Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee. 22nd June 1999, 3pp; [15]

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