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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 Besançon
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 Besançon
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 Besançon, 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 Besançon (EEPB) and
ignores the Evangelical Missionary Federation, founded on the basis
of the success of the Besançon 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 René 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 Besançon, 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 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
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
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
Back to Top
- Female Life Among the Mormons, London,
Routledge, (1855), p. 38, 240.
- 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.
- Belgian report, Vol. I, p. 359.
- E. Poulat, 'L'Eglise Evangelique de Pentecôte
de Besançon-Eglise ou secte?', Réforme 2733, (1997).
- 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.
- Abgrall, La Mécanique des sectes, 1996,
p. 31, 91.
- Berzano, 'La déviance supposée dans le 'phénomène
sectaire': l'exemple de la religion aumiste', in Pour en finir
avec les sectes. Le débat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire,
Paris, Dervy, 1996, pp. 315-20.