Ever since the discovery of the tragic deaths of members of the Solar Temple in 1994 and 1995, a number of European countries including France have been planning to bring in laws against sects.
The Internet Christian magazine web site Christianity Today.com reported in July 1997,
In April, the Belgian Parliamentary Commission on Cults issued a 600-page report identifying 189 religious groups as cults. Included were 21 evangelical denominations, such as the Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free Church, and Religious Fellowship of Friends (Quakers). Many Protestant congregations not belonging to the officially recognized United Protestant Church of Belgium are a part of the list.
Likewise, in March the State Secretariat for Cults in Romania issued a letter forbidding issuance of construction permits for any place of worship not recognized by the state. Romania identifies only 16 officially recognized religious groups, but about 30 denominations or other groups are active in the country.
Germany, Austria, and Italy, standard-bearers of the state church system, recently proposed a religion supplement to the Maastricht Treaty, the constitution of the European Union. The wording suggests that churches without a “constitutional status”-including evangelical and charismatic churches-could be discriminated against. Although it is unlikely that the supplement will be passed any time soon, McAllister says Christians must show “vigilant and active” resistance. “We shouldn’t passively allow frontiers to be pushed back,” he says. “We must pray and we must do what we can politically. The European Evangelical Alliance will seriously resist any new religion laws.”
A “Resolution on Cults in the European Union” was also placed before the European Parliament in Strasbourg during their session of January 12-16, 1998. However, this was finally rejected by the plenary of the European Parliament in July 1998 and the document sent back to the originating Commission for further consideration. Apparently, nothing further has yet been done with the document.
More recently, reports coming out of France seem to show that these initial fears and doubts were not altogether unfounded. A press release from Washington DC, USA in August 2000 informed us that,
Baptists in France are keeping a close watch on anti-sect law that was approved by the French National Assembly last June but which has not yet been approved by the Senate. The bill goes to Senate for approval in September.
TRUE RELIGION OR CULT
It would be good here to underline that there are clear differences between evangelical Christianity and the sects and cults that offer a false hope and maybe use manipulative controls. It may not be easy for a non-religious person to understand these differences just by looking from the outside but anyone wanting to take the time to investigate will have no problems. Try investigating by using the following measures:
Does the group insist on or even strongly encourage that a new member cuts themselves off from close friends, relatives and ‘securities’ of the past rather than encouraging the member to go back and share with their friends what has happened?
Is the group obsessed with the need for secrecy or sharing of misinformation about what is happening rather than there being a true openness concerning all that goes on?
Is someone free to leave the group without pressure either psychologically or physically?
Is the group continually orientated to the corporate or is the individual person important too?
Are the needs of the individual cared for or are the members simply pawns used for the advertising of the group and raising of finances?
Returning to the subject of the legislation, the major problem with any such a bill is the terminology used. Whatever the proposers of the law may or may not mean, it is what the courts decide, and that could mean that genuine Christians get caught up in the net. In the French bill, initially it was the words “mental manipulation” which caused the main concern. It was envisaged by opponents that such phraseology would almost certainly mean that groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Scientologists and the Unification Church would be severely punished but would it go further than this? Yes, because any group that sought to change the way a person thinks about their faith could be accused of this and it would depend on how their accusers and the judges defined ‘manipulation’ as to whether they were found guilty or not.
It should be made clear that groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons do have a wrong belief system and people joining them will never receive the promised ‘eternal life’. However, I would not want, in most cases, to accuse them of “mental manipulation” – this is not just the way to deal with such groups.
On this very subject a recent email (1 February 2001) from the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity in Paris tells us that,
The Catholic Church has expressed its reservations about French legislation that would cover the crime of “mental manipulation” and be aimed at so-called religious sects. Including this problem in the penal code as the crime of “mental control” creates difficulties for European lawmakers, who differ on how to define “sects.” Some experts believe that the word should be replaced by “destructive group.”
In fact, the French authorities have listened to the protests, the text of the anti-cult law has been amended and the reference to a new crime of “mental manipulation” has been eliminated. However, some feel that this is a hollow victory because the authorities now propose to modify an existing part of the French Criminal Code that deals with the exploitation of those mentally or physically weak. They will include the crime of the exploitation of “a state of psychological dependence” caused by “the use of serious and repeated pressure, or of techniques aimed at altering the capacity of judgement.”
Ms. J. Tavernier, president of France’s largest anti-cult organisation ADFI is reported as saying that the crime is still there but it is now simply under another name.
The email from the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity however also made a very valid point about existing law in light of the above.
According to Monsignor Jean Vernette, secretary of the French Church’s pastoral service, responsible for sects and new beliefs, the current French laws are sufficient to address the manipulation of sects.
This to me is a very important point and one, which needs to be, addressed fully especially when we consider what might happen in Britain too.
Indeed, we need to realise that if ever a European law were passed on this subject, it would be the law of Britain too. However, we already have laws that deal with crimes against the person and property that can be brought against sects and cults that abuse people – why do we need a specific law that deals with belief? The outcomes are the same it is just the methods that are different.
Even as I write this article news is coming in of student nurse Caroline Green suing the Essex-based Peniel Pentecostal Church for more than £160,000 because she claims the sect brainwashed her and forced her to hand over earnings. Whether this is found to be true or not only the courts will decide but the point I am making is that there are laws there which can be used if people feel they have been ‘brainwashed’ or ‘mentally manipulated’ we do not need one that tries to define the groups concerned. The moment that happens we will have a law that can be clearly misapplied to many groups who are not forcing people to join them but to whom people willingly go.
The moment there is legislation that seeks to define that certain groups are ‘cults’ because of their system of belief or practice of recruitment alone, we are going to face these problems. The groups will continue to exist and people will still believe and join. Western Europe only needs to look east to see how Communism failed to stamp out belief in God and people still joined outlawed groups. We must realise that we cannot legislate belief out of existence and indeed at times if people feel that their human rights are being affected it can have the opposite effect.
I believe that if we do not want a worse situation on our hands we should not legislate against such groups and belief systems but rather rely on the laws already in place. At the same time, we need to finance and develop ways of communicating with, especially the most vulnerable groups, such as the young, the recently bereaved and the lonely.
The cry needs to go out EDUCATION not LEGISLATION.