Religious Liberty in Western Europe

Massimo Introvigne

This paper was presented at a conference in
Torino, Washington, 1, December 1997.

When in the United States it was suggested that religious liberty should become an issue in foreign relations, immediate references were made to Asian or African countries such as China, North Korea or Sudan. Recently former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, including Russia, have also been added to the list. Scholars of minority religions, however, know that serious problems also exist in some countries in Western Europe. In Europe some religious movements certainly have perpetrated serious crimes, for example the suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland in 1994 and in France in 1995 have caused widespread social concern. We certainly do not suggest that religious movements guilty of common crimes should not be vigorously prosecuted. However, the Solar Temple incidents have been used as a catalyst in a number of countries to propose actions against literally hundreds of groups thrown together under the label of 'cult'. In the wake of the Solar Temple, a dangerous ideology, hostile to religious minorities in general, seems to have made inroads in political and administrative circles of western European nations. In this paper I will examine these developments from a scholarly perspective, arguing that these developments will and have already damaged the rights of ordinary law abiding citizens in certain countries, and that certain governments need to seriously reconsider their policies towards religious minority groups in light of the information presented in this paper.

Part I will examine how this intolerant perspective has come about with such prominence by examining the main tenets of this ideology. Then we examine some details some of the results of the ideology in Western Europe, mostly in the form of parliamentary commissions and reports (Part II). After the examination of some examples (Part III), some final suggestions are offered (Part IV). It is important that while the European Parliament prepares to vote its own resolution on 'cults', an international dialogue on religious minorities takes place involving all parties concerned, including those who care about religious liberty.

Part I. The Rise of an Intolerant World-view

Redefining 'Religion
In present-day Western Europe few would admit to being against religious liberty, and this list would certainly not include governments or parliamentary commissions. However, in recent times discrimination against unpopular groups has been allowed to take place by redefining the notion of 'religion'. While most scholars favour a broad definition of religion (for example, as a system of answers to the basic human questions about the origins and destiny of humans), institutional definitions by political and judicial sectors are often result-oriented. For instance, a decision rendered by the Court of Appeal in Milan, Italy, on 2, December 1996, in order to deny the Church of Scientology the status of a religion, defined religion as 'a system of doctrines centred on the presupposition of the existence of a Supreme Being, who has a relation with humans, the latter having towards him a duty of obedience and reverence'. On 8, October 1997 the Italian Supreme Court annulled this Milan decision made in 1996, castigating its theistic definition of religion as 'unacceptable' and a 'mistake', because it is 'based only on the paradigm of biblical religions' and would exclude a number of mainline religions, including Buddhism. It is true that theologians, sociologists and historians have proposed different definitions of religion. It is, however, difficult to avoid the impression that in some European countries today, the selection of a set of criteria among the many that are available are governed primarily by whether an organisation deserves protection or punishment. Only broad definitions of religion appear to be consistent with the aims of religious liberty embodied in a number of national constitutions, international declarations and conventions.

The myth of brainwashing and mind control
One of the older, more established and most effective rhetorical tools used to claim that a religious group is not 'genuine', is by the claim that they do not have voluntary membership. Anti-Mormon propagandist, Maria Ward, claimed in 1855 that Mormon conversions were obtained only through '. . . a mystical magical influence . . . a sort of sorcery that deprived me of the unrestricted exercise of free will.' 1 In fact, Ward argued, Mormons used the secret of 'mesmerism' taught to their founder, Joseph Smith, by 'a German peddler'. The reference to 'magical influence', 'sorcery' and a non-existing German Mesmerist allowed anti-Mormons such as Ward to deny Mormonism the status of religion. Since religion is, by rhetorical definition, an exercise of free will, a non-religion may only be joined under some sort of coercion.

The same hypnotic paradigm has been applied, more recently, in order to distinguish between 'religions', joined voluntarily, and 'cults', joined only because of what was once called brainwashing (which has now been renamed as mind control, mental manipulation or mental destabilisation, since the label has been discredited by mental health scholars).

In the United States, theories of brainwashing and mind control applied to religious minorities have been debunked for at least ten years. The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1984 allowed Margaret Singer, the main proponent of anti-cult mind control theories, to create a working group called Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). In 1987 the final report of the DIMPAC Committee was submitted to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA. On 11, May 1987 the Board rejected the report and concluded that the mind control theories used in order to distinguish 'cults' from religions are not part of accepted psychological science. The results of this document were devastating for the validation of mind control theorists.

American courts have consistently rejected testimonies about mind control and manipulation since the Fishman case in 1990. In this case a defendant accused of commercial fraud claimed as his defence that he was not fully responsible, since he was under the mind control of Scientology. The court stated that mind control theories are not part of accepted mainline science. Brainwashing and mind control theories are, indeed, not part of psychological or social science. They lack empirical evidence, and are a mere tool used in order to deny the status of religion to groups perceived as deviant or subversive.

These American developments, on the other hand, are not well known in western Europe. Although with different nuances, and dismissing the word 'brainwashing' as inadequate and old-fashioned, even official documents by parliamentary commissions rely on the faulty model distinguishing between religions and 'cults' on the basis of manipulation and mind control.

Mind control theories are part of a rejected knowledge consistently repudiated by the academia, professional associations and courts of law. It is, however, argued that scholarly objections are less relevant than the 'testimony' of 'former members' who claim that 'cults' are indeed joined because of manipulation and mind control. It is unclear why the accounts of one or another 'former member' should be accepted by official political bodies, including parliamentary commissions, as more relevant by definition than scholarly research. Additionally, a misunderstanding about the very notion of 'former members' is perpetuated, and plays a key role in the public stigmatisation of minority religious movements. While parliamentary reports and sensationalised media accounts claim to rely on the 'testimony of former members', we learn invariably that, for each religious movement, only a very limited number of 'former members' have been heard by the parliamentary commissions, the courts or the press.

Sociological research suggests that among thousands of former members of any large organisation (no matter how controversial) only a small minority become 'apostates' (a technical, not a derogatory term). Not all former members are apostates. An apostate is a former member who reverses loyalties dramatically and becomes a professional enemy of the organisation he or she has left. Most former members do not become apostates. They remain-in sociological terms suggested by David Bromley and others-'defectors', members who somewhat regret having left an organisation they still perceive in largely positive terms, or 'ordinary leave-takers' with mixed feelings about their former affiliation. However, ordinary leave-takers (and, to some extent, defectors) remain socially invisible in so far as they do not like or care to discuss their former affiliation. Apostates, being more visible, are mistaken for the genuine representatives of the former members. In fact, quantitative research shows that even in extremely controversial groups, apostates normally represent less than 15% of former members.

Anti-cult movements
If apostates are only a minority of former members, it begs the question why they are so often the only ones interviewed by parliamentary commissions or the media? The logical answer is that they either volunteer to be heard, or are directed to testify by an oppositional coalition. This is, in fact, the role of the so-called anti-cult movement. Modern anti-cult movements (in opposition to older Christian counter-cult coalitions) are defined as primarily secular organisations fighting 'cults' based on the brainwashing or mind control paradigm. The recent lack of institutional and academic support for mind control theories has caused a serious crisis for the American anti-cult movement. In 1996 the largest American anti-cult organisation, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), filed for bankruptcy. An anti-cult movement, however, does continue to exist in the United States and in fact, claims that its accounts, although rejected by scholars, are validated by 'former members' (namely apostates).

Currently in Western Europe anti-cult movements (particularly ADFI in France, whose offices also serve as European headquarters for FECRIS, a Europe-wide federation of anti-cult movements) experience a degree of institutional support unknown in the United States. These well organised anti-cult movements-particularly in France, Germany and Belgium- have successfully introduced the mind control model to the press and to political bodies unfamiliar with the fact that this model has been discredited in the United States. When scholarly criticism of the mind control model is opposed to the anti-cult movements, it is dismissed on the basis of the testimony of 'former members'. In some countries, including France, anti-cult movements have considerable resources and operate with the help of taxpayers' money. They are responsible for spreading misleading information about a number of religious minorities.

The anti-cult organisation is usually not composed of scholars and they offer information-perhaps in good faith-that is simply not updated. Unfortunately, the consequences may be catastrophic. To mention only a few examples, in the early 1990s the international anti-cult coalition instigated police raids in a number of countries against The Family (formerly known as the Children of God), based on practices The Family had in fact discontinued for a number of years. Based on this false information, children were separated from their mothers, and adults as well as the children were taken into custody (inter alia in France and Spain) for weeks and even for months. Later, courts dismissed the charges, recognising that the information was either inaccurate or not updated, and castigated the anti-cultists. In Barcelona, Spain, Judge Adolfo Fernando Oubina in his decision of 22, May 1992 went so far to compare the actions against The Family to 'the Inquisition' and 'the concentration camps'. The legal decisions, although important, does not compensate the adults and the children for what was an unnecessary nightmare.

Another example of how inaccurate, dated information may easily mislead authorities concerns Tabitha's Place, the French branch of the Messianic Communities (a communal group originating from the Jesus Movement and headquartered in Island Pond, Vermont). The mother community in Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom Community Church, was raided in 1984, based on rumours of child abuse spread by local anti-cultists. However, no evidence of child abuse was found and the case was dismissed. By 1994, the Vermont community, although maintaining a strict Christian fundamentalist lifestyle, enjoyed a peaceful coexistence with neighbours and authorities. Unaware that similar charges were dismissed in the USA ten years earlier, the anti-cult movement in south-western France started a campaign against Tabitha's Place (a community that, in turn, had existed peacefully near Pau for more than ten years with no incidents). Charges of child abuse were carelessly repeated and the community, continuously harassed by police and tax authorities, struggled for its very existence.

In April 1997 a twelve-month child died of congenital heart problems. The parents were arrested for possible abuse, although a team of twelve doctors who examined the community's children concluded that there is no evidence of any abuse. It is possible that the infant's parents were not fully aware of the possibilities of surgery. However, the criminal case against them is being prosecuted within the frame of a general climate poisoned by rumours spread by anti-cultists on the basis of claims raised and dismissed in the US over a decade before the French situation. They also rely on the testimony of only one apostate, who spent just a few days at Tabitha's Place.2

Part II. The Results

In the United States the Jonestown tragedy of 1978 was the catalyst for an increase of anti-cult activity. The anti-cult worldview (described in Part I above) became widespread, but the activities of the anti-cult movement were ultimately kept in jeopardy by the reactions of the academia, mainline Churches and some of the religious minorities themselves. In Europe, as mentioned earlier, the suicide-homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple, repeated twice in the 1994 and 1995 (and a third time in 1997-but only in Quebec) enacted the same role Jonestown played in the United States. The anti-cult movements were energised and authorities started considering them more seriously. Discredited theories such as mind control surfaced again. Parliamentary commissions with a mandate to study the 'danger of cults' were established in a number of countries. Without examining all the results of this activity, here are some relevant examples.

After a number of secret hearings a parliamentary commission, composed solely of members of Parliament, issued a report entitled 'Cults in France' (10, January 1996). It is important to note that not a single scholar was consulted in the whole process; their expertise would be vital in producing an objective picture of the real danger of the groups in question. It included a laundry list of 172 dangerous cults. It did not recommend new legislation, but suggested a number of administrative actions and the establishment of a national Observatory of Cults (in fact established in 1996, with only two extreme anti-cultists as 'experts').

Although not technically a source of law, the report has already been quoted in court decisions and has led to discrimination against a number of groups. Teachers have been fired from public schools after years of honourable service only because they were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, one of the most dangerous 'cults' according to the report. A Roman Catholic theatrical group, the Office Cultural de Cluny, included in the report as a 'dangerous cult' against letters of protest of a number of French Catholic bishops, was nearly bankrupted due to the refusal of public theatres for its shows.

The city of Lyon has decided not to allow the use of public facilities to any group listed in the report as a 'cult'. Each French Department now has a 'Mr Cult' employed by the Ministry of Youth and Sport (often well connected with the anti-cult group ADFI) to tell the cultural and sport organisations about the evil of the cults. The anti-cult milieu is recommending actions by the Observatory against groups mentioned in its literature or in the report but not included in the list (particularly the Mormon Church and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal). Other groups are defined as 'cults' by the report (including the Baptists), but nevertheless called 'benign 'cults', a contradiction since the report starts by defining a 'cult' as a dangerous organisation.

Following an intensive anti-cult campaign in the wake of the Solar Temple and the French report, in February 1997 the Canton of Geneva released a report written by four lawyers after interviewing different personalities (one scholar only). The report is organised in chapters, each signed by one of the lawyers. While, at least in some chapters, the report is written in a more moderate style than the French one, the proposals are even more dangerous, advocating legislation against 'mind control' and against hiring members of 'dangerous cults' as government officers.

The Canton of Geneva Commission released its proposals on 24, May 1997, following up the February report. The most significant are: to promote an inter-cantonal conference in order to persuade other Cantons to follow the example of Geneva; to enact cantonal legislation in order to, inter alia, fund the anti-cult organisations and allow them to become parties in cult-related trials; to create a Cantonal observatory including, among others, two representatives of anti-cult organisations, two scholars, and two 'representatives of cults' (although it is unclear how the latter will be selected); to promote federal Swiss legislation making mind control a federal felony.

The Belgian parliamentary commission on cults released its report on 28, April 1997. This document is even more extreme than the French report. It included a number of bizarre allegations against many groups including five mainline Catholic groups, among them: the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Quakers, the YWCA (but, for some reasons, not the YMCA), Hasidic Jews, and almost all Buddhists. It also proposes legislation making 'mind control' a crime.

Reactions by scholars and mainline Churches have determined some turmoil in the Belgian Parliament and in the end it has vetoed the report itself but not the list of 189 groups included as an appendix. This was a symbolic victory for the scholars, but most of what is disturbing in the report is not only in the list, but also in the main body of the text.

Following the report legal actions have been taken against a Tibetan Buddhist group, a Catholic religious congregation called the Work, (a Belgian group now headquartered in Rome, not to be confused with Opus Dei, also mentioned in the report)-notwithstanding vigorous protests by the Vatican and by Belgian bishops. The report also calls for the dissolution of Sukyo Mahikari, a Japanese Shinto-based religious minority whose branches in countries such as Italy and United States have existed for decades without any trouble for public order.

Based on the testimony of apostates, extreme allegations have been made against dozens of groups. Serious concern has been expressed by scholars, inter alia about the accusation that Satmar Jews (a Hasidic community, based in New York and regarded as a 'cult' by the report) 'kidnap children and hide them within the international network of the movement'. This seems to be based on the Patsy Heymans case, where a Belgian Catholic woman, having obtained custody of her three children, had to recover them from her Satmar ex-husband who was keeping them illegally in the United States. However, the Heymans case is not specifically mentioned in the report. The parliamentary document rather states that kidnapping children 'does not seem to be merely occasional' among this group of Hasidic Jews.3 The inclusion of these general remarks in a parliamentary document may easily add fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism, whose continued presence raises concern in a number of European countries.

A parliamentary commission has been established including MPs and experts appointed by the different political parties. They have conducted hearings with scholars, anti-cultists and members of a number of religious movements. An interim report was released in June 1997. Although not final (and not including lists) the report raises some serious problems. In the meantime, without consulting the parliamentary commission, the government placed the Church of Scientology under watch of the local secret service. Even groups largely critical of Scientology have criticised the decision as a dangerous precedent, while local anti-cultists have already named the Jehovah's Witnesses as the second group that should be watched by the secret service. Police raids instigated by the same anti-cultists have occurred against small independent Pentecostal churches.

European Parliament
The Parliament has entrusted the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs with the task of preparing a report. Following criticism of the French and Belgian report by scholars (inter alia in a seminar organised by CESNUR, an independent organisation of scholars committed to researching new religious groups and providing accurate, unbiased information on them, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 13, May 1997), the Committee initially produced a draft with a number of positive features, questioning inter alia of the usefulness of preparing lists of 'cults'. However, following anti-cult pressure, amendments were introduced during the final debate within the Committee, and further amendments may be introduced during the plenary discussion of the European Parliament. Thus, anti-cult ideas initially rejected by the Committee may re-enter the document.

Part III. Case Studies

There are literally hundreds of religious minorities discriminated against or persecuted in Western Europe. They belong to all possible religious and spiritual persuasions. We have selected, as examples, two cases, concerning comparatively small French groups, which are not well known outside France. They could hardly be more different from each other. The Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besan�on is an example of how a group whose theology is clearly main line, and would be regarded as main-line in most Western countries, is marginalised after an encounter with the anti-cult movement. As mentioned earlier, a number of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups have suffered the same fate. The second example is the Aumist Religion (not to be confused with the Japanese Group Aum Shinri-kyo). It is headquartered at the Mandarom, Southern France and could hardly be less mainline. Its theological ideas are at the very fringe of the French religious scene. It is not difficult to understand why it has been easy to make the Mandarom extremely unpopular. However, constitutional guarantees are aimed, precisely, at protecting unpopular minorities. And even the most unpopular defendant should be guaranteed the due process and a fair trial.

The Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besan�on
The Protestant scenario in Western Europe is slowly becoming as diversified as the one in the United States. Large liberal denominations, members of the World Council of Churches (WCC) no longer represent the majority of Protestantism in a number of European countries. Literally hundreds of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, often with a conservative theology, have flourished. The large number of new churches- and new names-may easily confuse the authorities. As usual, anti-cultists propose very simple solutions.

In France CCMM (Center Against the Mental Manipulations, the second largest anti-cult group after ADFI) explicitly claims that all groups not belonging to the WCC, or to its corresponding French organisation, the French Protestant Federation, are suspicious and may possibley be 'cults'. Word games are easily played. In fact, the derogatory word in French is not 'culte' (the literal translation of 'cult') but 'secte'. The latter word may literally be translated as 'sect' but rather plays the same role as the English word 'cult'. In fact, the French word 'secte' has today two very different meanings. Books from sociologists of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are still republished, where the word 'secte' is used, without any derogatory meaning, simply to identify small denominations or groups that are not (or not yet) regarded as part of the mainline by the majority churches. On the other hand, for the general public 'secte' is rather used, in the sense of the 1996 parliamentary commission, to identify a dangerous religious (or, rather, 'pseudo-religious') movement using mind control techniques. As the noted historian and sociologist Emile Poulat accurately remarked about the Pentecostal Evangelical Church of Besan�on, that this church 'may be a "secte" in the sense of Weber [an early German sociologist of religion]; it is certainly not a "secte" in the popular and parliamentary sense of the term.' 4 Yet, Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches are easily labelled as 'sects' in the popular sense of the term, that is 'cult' in contemporary English.

The Belgian parliamentary report takes quite literally the anti-cult recommendation to target every Christian group not endorsed by the WCC. Its list includes Seventh-day Adventists,5 Amish, the Assemblies of God, Calvary Christian Center, Plymouth Brethren, the 'Charismatic Renewal' in general and a number of small independent Pentecostal Churches.

The French report limits itself, among hundreds of independent Churches, to a dozen names. Curiously enough, the French report mentions the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besan�on (EEPB) and ignores the Evangelical Missionary Federation, founded on the basis of the success of the Besan�on church and now including more than thirty churches. In fact, not unlike other groups, the EEPB seems to have been included in the report for one simple reason based on a family conflict between a pastor and his father-in-law and since then the EEPB has been targeted as a 'cult' by the anti-cult movement CCMM, particularly since 1994. Due to the peculiar status of the anti-cult movement in France, the accusations have been spread by the press (in previous years, quite favourable to EEPB) and up to the parliamentary commission.

Among hundreds of independent churches with very similar theologies, only those specifically targeted by an anti-cult movement (often for very local or personal reasons) have ended up being included in the report. In fact, the EEPB is just another Evangelical Pentecostal church. Its founder, Pastor Ren� Kennel, studied at Nogent-sur-Marne's Institut Biblique and started his career in 1950 as a Mennonite part-time preacher. He later welcomed the Pentecostal Gypsy Movement of Pastor Le Cossec (a member of the mainline French Protestant Federation) to his family farm. Impressed by the gypsies' enthusiasm Kennel started a Pentecostal ministry and in 1967 became a full-time pastor. In 1975, Kennel joined with Le Cossec to establish the Evangelical Free Pentecostal Federation (FELP). In 1977, he became the pastor of a Pentecostal independent church in Besan�on, the present-day EEPB. In 1986, Kennel abandoned his position as president of FELP in order to oversee the planting of daughter churches of EEPB in the region. These churches are the basis of the Evangelical Missionary Federation (FEM), incorporated under French Law in 1989.

The doctrinal statements of the EEPB are quite typical of hundreds of Evangelical Pentecostal churches. The accusations raised by the CCMM and the media influenced by it-literal belief in the existence of the Devil, in miracles, speaking in tongues-could be easily used against countless Pentecostal or Evangelical churches. It is possible that church leaders, unfamiliar with legal matters, made some mistakes when preparing the by-laws and the articles of incorporation, thus exposing the church to potential problems with the French tax authorities. On the other hand, it is a fact that the French Revenue Service only took action after the anti-cultists had started targeting EEPB as a 'cult'.

When, in July 1994, an ex-member who was visibly drunk damaged the furniture of the church belonging to the Evangelical Missionary Federation in Langres, anti-cultists (and a part of the press) quickly took the side of the apostate, presented as just another 'victim' of a 'cult'. Paradoxically, before and after being labelled a 'cult' by the parliamentary commission, the EEPB had always been able to maintain its pastors, for health and retirement insurance purposes. In the lists of CAMAC-CAMAVIC the social fund for pastors in France are largely controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, including ministers of all the mainline Christian churches. In the meantime, however, the fact that they were on the parliamentary list of 'dangerous cults' threatened the very existence of EEPB and of the whole FEM. It is not only the continual media pressure against the 'cult', but following administrative instructions enacted in the wake of the parliamentary report, it has been denied public halls for meeting by local authorities, and furthermore, the French Revenue Service is continually harassing this struggling minority.

The saga of EEPB confirms that in the present French scenario it is not enough to preach a mainline Christian theology in order to avoid the label of a cult. A minor incident is enough to be blacklisted by an anti-cult movement, and unfortunately the black-lists of the anti-cult movements easily become the black lists of the media and the government.

The French Aumist religion (the Mandarom)
The French Aumist Religion, whose legal structure is called the Association of the Triumphant Vajra, headquartered in its holy city of Mandarom (hence the popular nickname of 'The Mandarom'), is not only regarded by anti-cultists and by a sizeable part of the French media as a cult, it is a cult, particularly in southern France. This is, in itself, an interesting phenomenon. The Aumist Religion is not a very large group, with less than one thousand members in France and a smaller constituency in Italy, Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland and Africa. The holy city of the Mandarom-described as the very epitome of the 'danger of the cults' and a base threatening a whole country-does not include more than fifty residing monks.

The Aumist Religion (the name comes from the sacred Eastern sound AUM, the only common element with the Japanese Aum Shinri-kyo) has been founded by Mr Gilbert Bourdin, a native of French Martinique. In the early 1960s he was initiated by the Indian master Sivananda and started gathering followers as an ascetic practising austerities in Southern France. He also became quite well known as a Yoga teacher and author. In 1967, he established the Association of the Knights of the Golden Lotus (replaced in 1995 by the current Association of the Triumphant Vajra) and in 1969 he founded the holy city of the Mandarom. Gradually, Bourdin revealed himself as the Messiah: the Lord Hamsah Manarah. In 1990 he was publicly crowned as the Messiah at the Mandarom; some of the ceremonies were open to the media. At that time the movement hoped to crown the existing constructions at the Mandarom (temples representing all the great religions of the world and huge statues) with a larger Temple-Pyramid, a building of great spiritual and cosmic significance for the Aumists.

The public ceremonies of 1990 were interpreted as an arrogant challenge by the anti-cult movement and the media. The Mandarom with its huge constructions was, simply, too visible. Two TV networks started a campaign exposing the Mandarom as a 'cultic concentration camp'. Among the anti-cult activists emerged militant psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall. He went on record on TV commenting, about Aumism, that 'notwithstanding what they claim, cults are not religious movements, but rather criminal movements organised by gurus who use brainwashing to manipulate their victims', a nice summary of the anti-cult ideology.

The campaign against the Mandarom was largely organised by ADFI, and from 1992 it was joined by an ad hoc ecologist group led by Mr Robert Ferrato. The latter claimed that the Mandarom disturbs the ecological equilibrium of the mountain where it is built, and called for its destruction. As mentioned earlier, anti-cult activists are taken more seriously in France than in other countries, and even an extreme character such as Dr Abgrall managed to become one of the two 'experts' in the national observatory of Cults established in 1996.

The Mandarom was raided repeatedly between 1992-1995 by tax and police officers in a military style. ADFI, Mr Ferrato, and a reporter for the TV network TF1, Bernard Nicolas, played a keyrole in making an apostate, Florence Roncaglia (whose mother is still with the Mandarom), 'remember' that she had been molested and raped by Bourdin in the 1980s. A complaint was filed in 1994, just before the expiration of the legal delay. Later, three other female apostates also 'remembered'. Based on Roncaglia's complaint, the Mandarom was raided again on 12, June 1995 and Bourdin was arrested. Coincidentally, at the same date the French Council of State should have rendered its final decision on the question of building permission for the Temple-Pyramid. The decision was finally unfavourable to the Aumist Religion. On 30, June 1995, Mr Bourdin was released and the procedure against him is still pending.

For the Aumists, the fact that the Temple-Pyramid can no longer be built is extremely serious. They are also concerned with the climate surrounding the prosecution against their leader, the latest of which manifested in October 1997 in the media comments about the criminal procedure against a local politician, Pierre Rinaldi, for alleged corruption in connection with the building of the road leading to the Mandarom.

The case of the Mandarom raises important questions. There is little doubt that the claims the Aumists make for their founder are quite extreme. Generally speaking, claiming to be the Messiah does not make any religious leader particularly popular. The Aumist literature combines eastern themes and western esotericism, and it is difficult to distinguish between actual and symbolic claims (for example, it is argued that the Messiah has destroyed millions of devils threatening Planet Earth; these and similar claims are routinely quoted by anti-cultists in order to ridicule the Mandarom). In short, Mr Bourdin is an unpopular religious leader, and Aumism is an unpopular minority. This circumstance makes Aumism an excellent case to test religious liberty in France. When a group is protected by its own popularity, there is no need for constitutional or international guarantees.

The scholars who have taken the time to study the Mandarom (many are simply scared away by controversy) have raised doubts about the possibility for Bourdin to obtain a fair trial. They certainly do not suggest that sexual abuse by pastors or religious leaders should be condoned. They agree that it should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. Some comments made by scholars about the Mandarom case are, however, enough to raise concerns about how the authorities have mishandled the situation.

First, the local judges do not seem to be familiar with doubts raised in the United States and elsewhere about belated memories of sexual abuses surfacing after many years in therapy or within the frame of national controversies. In fact, in the last few years, US courts have dismissed most cases of the so-called 'recovered memories'. It is, in fact, too easy to accuse public figures of sexual abuses allegedly taking place ten or fifteen years ago.

Secondly, it is questionable that the Court of Digne regarded it as necessary to appoint an expert to investigate 'the doctrines and practices of the Mandarom and their connection, if any, with the facts of the case against Mr Bourdin'. The Court of Digne appointed Dr Jean-Marie Abgrall to carry out this investigation to confirm their suspicions. He is not only a militant anti-cultist but an author who has written in a book that Bourdin is 'a fraud', 'a paranoid' and that Aumism is a 'clownesque caricature of a cult'.6 The verdict of a similar 'independent expert' has been rendered in advance.

Finally, irrespective of the personal problems of Mr Bourdin, one wonders why, in connection with his prosecution, the Mandarom has been repeatedly raided Waco-style by paratroopers, and a number of members of the movement, though not Mr Bourdin himself, have been handcuffed and taken into custody even though no charges have finally been filed against any of them.

Scholars are often asked whether there is a risk that groups such as the Mandarom may become involved in violent confrontations with the authorities or commit mass suicides like the Solar Temple. They normally answer that the Aumist doctrine is firmly against violence and suicides. This is, however, only part of the story. Writing on the situation at the Mandarom, an Italian scholar Luigi Berzano (a professor of sociology at the University of Turin and a Roman Catholic priest) mentioned the sociological theories of amplified deviance.7 According to these theories, the hostile official responses to a movement regarded as deviant may, in fact, amplify its deviance. In a sense-as suggested in the US debate by Passas and others- the movement is 'deformed' by official and anti-cult harassment. Excessive reaction against a movement, thus, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and may cause the very evil it is supposed to avoid.

Part IV. Suggestions

While it is not for scholars to recommend specific policy attitudes, some general suggestions seem to be in order.

  1. It should be clear from our report that Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe should not be the only areas of concern when religious liberty risks are evaluated. At least three countries in the European Union (France, Belgium and Germany) should be considered at risk (with the addition of Greece, where the problems are however more similar to those prevailing in Eastern Europe).
  2. A primary cause of concern in these countries, is the public sponsorship of private anti-cult movements. It is abundantly clear that these movements are responsible for spreading misleading and often simply false information about religious minorities creating an intolerant world-view.
  3. It should be clarified that disgruntled apostates, no matter who sponsors their claims, are but a minority of the larger population of ex-members of any given religious minority, and should not, without further investigation, be considered as representative of ex-members in general.
  4. It is a cause of serious concern that myths discredited and debunked in the United States about brainwashing and mind control, thanks to the promotion by the anti-cult lobby, are still taken seriously in certain European countries. They need to be exposed as pseudo-science.
  5. Words are not neutral. Words such as 'cults' (or 'sectes' in French or equivalent words in other European languages) are easily used as tools of hate and discrimination and should be avoided, particularly in official documents. Scholars often use 'new religious movements'. Although better than 'cults', even this language can cause misunderstandings about movements which are new only in the West while they represent a century-old-tradition in the East (such as ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement, or Soka Gakkai, part of the mainline tradition of Japanese Nichiren Buddhism). The most neutral term is 'religious minorities'. It avoids judgements about whether a group is acceptable, or is connected to an old tradition.
  6. Nothing in this report should suggest that laws should not be enforced against criminal actions perpetrated within the frame of old (or not so old) religious movements. The experience shows that there are, in fact, dangerous and even criminal religious groups. In case of common crimes (a different thing from the imaginary crimes of 'belonging to a cult' or 'using mind control techniques') the suspects should be investigated and prosecuted as criminal suspects, not as members of religious minorities.





  1. Female Life Among the Mormons, London, Routledge, (1855), p. 38, 240.

  2. Compare the scholarly study of the Messianic Communities by John M. Bozeman and Susan J. Palmer, 'The Northeast Kingdom Community Church of Island Pond, Vermont: Raising Up a People for Yahshua's Return', Journal of Contemporary Religion, (May, 1997), pp. 181-90, with the report of attorney Pierre Pecastaing at CESNUR's 1997 conference in Amsterdam, Holland.

  3. Belgian report, Vol. I, p. 359.

  4. E. Poulat, 'L'Eglise Evangelique de Pentec�te de Besan�on-Eglise ou secte?', R�forme 2733, (1997).

  5. This is defined, apparently without fear of ridicule, as a form of 'Biblical fundamentalism' founded in May 1963 by William Mille, Belgian report, Vol. II, p. 228.

  6. Abgrall, La M�canique des sectes, 1996, p. 31, 91.

  7. Berzano, 'La d�viance suppos�e dans le 'ph�nom�ne sectaire': l'exemple de la religion aumiste', in Pour en finir avec les sectes. Le d�bat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire, Paris, Dervy, 1996, pp. 315-20.