Articles‎ > ‎

Religious Liberty and New Religious Movements


ICSA Today, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2014, 14-19

Religious Liberty and New Religious Movements: The Italian Experience and the Observatory on Religious Liberty

Massimo Introvigne


From January 5 to December 31, 2011, I served as Personal Representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) Chairman-in-Office on combating racism, xenophobia, and discrimination and intolerance against Christians and members of other religions—which made, at least, for a long business card. I was the third such representative after the office was established, and the first scholar—my two predecessors were politicians. My successors have been an Irish retired judge, in 2012, and the Ukrainian Ambassador to the Holy See, in 2013. Headquartered in Vienna, OSCE has 57 participating States, including the United States, Canada, all the states of Europe, and those resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of which are in fact located in Asia. A number of nonparticipating states have signed partnership agreements and maintain embassies to the OSCE in Vienna. Representatives’ positions are honorary, which, translated from diplomatic jargon, does not mean that the representatives only pretend to work, but instead that they do not receive any monetary compensation.

I regard as the main achievement during my mandate an OSCE high-level meeting held in Rome on September 12, 2011, on the theme of hate crimes against Christians. Calling the Rome event a high-level meeting is not a self-laudatory way of emphasizing its importance. In fact, high level meeting is an OSCE technical term to indicate meetings the organization regards as especially important. At the concluding OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting for that year, held in Vilnius on December 6 and 7, 2011, the Vatican Secretary for the Holy See’s Relation with the States, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, mentioned “the outstanding work” done in 2011 on behalf of religious liberty, praising especially “last September’s Meeting in Rome […,] a successful and hopeful event.”

At that meeting, I was instrumental in introducing a three-stage model of dangers that threaten religious liberty. First comes intolerance, a cultural phenomenon; second, discrimination, a legal process; and third, hate crimes. The social actors involved in the three steps are obviously different. But there is a slippery slope from the first step to the second, and from the second to the third.

After the end of my term as representative of the OSCE, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, taking advantage of my experience at the OSCE, approached me about the possibility of setting up an Observatory on Religious Liberty in Italy. The general idea was that the Observatory should adopt the three-stage model of the Rome conference and assist Italian diplomacy throughout the world in making the defense of religious liberty part and parcel of Italian foreign policy. As a secondary aim, the Observatory’s aim was to spread awareness in the Italian media of international religious-liberty problems Because the Observatory was being promoted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its aim was primarily international rather than domestic. However, one idea was to present the Italian system of cooperation between the state and several churches and religious organizations as a possible model for countries in which democracy and religious liberty were newly introduced.

The Observatory was formally established as a joint venture between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the City of Rome in 2012, with the undersigned as chairperson, and four other members, two of them diplomats and two of them coming from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) active on behalf of victims of religious persecution.

We decided to start the activities of our Observatory with the quite provocative idea of an event about threats to religious liberty, not in Pakistan or Nigeria—in fact, we addressed Nigeria in our second public event—but in the United States. We invited the Catholic Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who presented the documents of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which he was the main architect, about threats to religious liberty in their country. He described these threats according to the Rome OSCE model, starting from a general attitude of religious intolerance in some media and escalating to legal and administrative discrimination, and to occasional incidents of violence. Discrimination in the area of conscientious objections by Christians with respect to laws affecting what they regard as a non-negotiable view of life and family, and of free speech, was of particular concern.

The discussion extended to Canada, where in April 2012 the Roman Catholic Bishops had published a Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion denouncing similar forms of discrimination, and to Europe. The Canadian Bishops gave as examples of discrimination that in their country

some colleges of physicians require that members who refuse to perform abortions refer patients to another physician willing to do so; elsewhere pharmacists are being threatened by being forced to have to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or the “morning after” pill; and marriage commissioners in British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan must now perform same-sex marriages or resign.

In addition, Canadian courts of law used laws against homophobia in order to punish preachers—Catholic, Protestant and Islamic—who were denouncing homosexual practices as sins, a position everybody should be free to disagree with but whose public expression should be protected by free speech.

I had the similar experience at the OSCE when I was confronted with British cases of Protestant street preachers facing criminal prosecution for their graphic descriptions of how homosexuals will burn in hell. As a Roman Catholic, I have no special sympathy for the style of these preachers, the more so since some of them informed their audiences that Catholics will also burn in hell. At the same time, who will burn in hell has always been a favorite topic of religious controversy whose discussion should be protected by religious freedom and not decided by secular courts.

By directing the attention to North America and Western Europe in the Observatory’s first public event, we wanted to call attention to the fact that threats to religious liberty do not exist only in Asia and Africa, but also surface daily in what is commonly called the West. Of course, it would be absurd to equate the bloody persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in some areas of Africa and Asia with the administrative discrimination in the West. However, there are risks associated with what the well-known American Jewish jurist of South African origin, Joseph Weiler, called the West's “Christophobia.”

Christians are the most persecuted and discriminated religious minority in the world. According to statistics released yearly by the US-based International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 75% of those killed in the world because of their religious faith are Christians. Of course, other communities are threatened as well, both in Europe and on other continents. Laws limiting free speech in cases of so-called homophobia affect Muslims as well as Christians. In July 2012, the Observatory issued a press release denouncing attempts by German courts to forbid circumcision of minors, with decisions affecting both Muslims and Jews. The German Parliament later prevented this judicial campaign to go further through a law, but—as the German Die Zeit editorialized on July 20, 2012—it was

not about the foreskin, nor about any special exotic provisions in Islam and Judaism—it's about something that goes much further, and that must concern the entire society: it’s about religion as a whole […]. What a society that tends to be tone-deaf towards religion tends to forget—or the point that it often simply misses—is the depth of the injury that comes from meddling in religious freedoms.

The Observatory also cooperated with the National Permanent Conference on Religion, Culture, and Integration instituted by the Ministry of International Cooperation and Integration, of which I am also a member, to investigate incidents of Islamophobia and the role of prejudice in the denial of permits to build new mosques in Italy. Although this is a complicated problem, and Muslim communities may perceive as discrimination what is the simple enforcement of general provisions of the admittedly intricate Italian law on zoning regulations or building permits, there is little doubt that certain political forces do try to manipulate these laws and exploit fears of fundamentalist Islam for electoral reasons, thus feeding Islamophobic prejudice.

This conference focuses on new religious movements (NRMs), and I am personally a scholar specialized in this field. Reflecting on my experience first at OSCE in 2011, and then at the Observatory in 2012 and 2013, what surprises me, however, is that very few incidents submitted to these institutions refer to NRMs. In 2011, the three OSCE representatives for combating intolerance visited France. Among the official meetings there, I organized one in the offices of Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires—i.e., “Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances,” or MIVILUDES; but the only complaint OSCE had received referred to problems encountered by a branch of the Plymouth Brethren about their home-schooling system, a problem we were able to address with MIVILUDES in a very cooperative and sympathetic way.

So far, the Observatory has not received complaints about violations of the religious liberty of the NRMs. We are of course aware of criticism against some police and other activities in Italy, but the Observatory’s mission is about international rather than Italian issues. Other governmental institutions are monitoring religious liberty within the Italian territory. Internationally, most of the truly serious and bloody incidents affect Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Very few cases of murder of believers and destruction of places of worship concern the NRMs, except perhaps in China with the cases involving Falun Gong, although there are of course several instances of administrative discrimination.

The Observatory addressed these problems indirectly, by presenting certain positive features of the Italian model—although we are aware, of course, that Italy has also its shares of problems. We celebrated with a special event the fact that, in 2012 Intese between the Italian government and respectively the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., the Mormon Church), the Italian Hindu Union, and the Italian Buddhist Union entered into force. Italy has a system of concordats called Intese that regulate the State’s relations with a number of religious bodies. Intese provide inter alia for spiritual assistance in the military forces, hospitals, public schools, and jails, and legal recognition of marriages performed by a priest or minister. An important feature is the possible entrance of the religious bodies with an Intesa, which so elect (they can, in fact, refuse this benefit, as the Mormons did) into the 0.8% system. This is a peculiar Italian system wherein each taxpayer should devote 0.8% of his taxes either to a religious body or to the national public-charity system by selecting the preferred institution’s box on the tax form. Unlike in Germany, taxpayers who fail to mark a choice do not keep the money; instead, it is divided between the different bodies according to their national percentage scores unless they have explicitly declared that they want to keep only the 0.8% of those who select their name. For example, if one does not select any option and the Catholic Church option is chosen by 90% of those who do mark an option, and the Baptist Church is chosen by 2%, then 90% of the 0.8% of taxes paid by the nonchooser will go to the Catholic Church, 2% of the 0.8% will go to the Baptist Church, and so on. Most churches advertise through TV and other campaigns to capture the 0.8%. Only a minority selects the state charities, which are often plagued by scandals.

Before 2012, churches with Intese included Waldensians (the oldest Italian Protestant community) and Methodists (1984), Seventh-day Adventists (1986), Assemblies of God (1986), the Jewish Communities (1987), Baptists (1993), and Lutherans (1993). In 2012, Apostolic Pentecostals and Greek Orthodox were also included. The Catholic Church has a Concordat, something more than the Intese, with a constitutional status that protects it from interferences by the Italian judiciary, and it gets a large majority of the 0.8% tax money. Jehovah’s Witnesses are next in line for a final approval of their Intesa, although in their case opposition also exists. The fact that the system of the Intese in 2012 was extended to include Mormons, Hindus, and Buddhists was presented by the Observatory as quite significant, and as an example of how traditions that are not indigenous to a certain country may be accommodated and even regarded as valuable partners by the governments.

In my view, another positive feature of the Italian system is the fact that the Constitution, by not defining the notion of religion, allows for a broader and evolving recognition of what groups the community of scholars may recognize as inherently religious over the course of time. I am aware that every mention of Scientology may open a floodgate of controversies. But it is also true that in this field the landmark case in Italy is the Supreme Court (i.e., the Corte di Cassazione, in fact the Supreme Court in Italy in matters of law, while the Constitutional Court is the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution) decision of October 8, 1997, which annulled for the second time a Milan appeal decision that regarded Scientology as not religious. This 1997 decision led to a third Milan decision, which on October 7, 2000, finally declared Scientology a religion. What is important here, in my opinion, is not whether the judges had their facts about Scientology right. Some may doubt that this was the case, and the debate does not belong to the subject matter of this presentation. Rather, what is relevant is the judges’ general comments about the advantages of broader definitions of religion.

The Supreme Court regarded the theistic definition of religion used by the Milan courts against Scientology, which defines religion as the organization of a relationship between the human beings and a personal God, as “unacceptable” and “a mistake” because it was “based only on the paradigm of Biblical religions.” As such, the Supreme Court noted, the definition would exclude inter alia Buddhism, which “certainly does not affirm the existence of a Supreme Being and, as a consequence, does not propose a direct relation of the human being with Him.” Yet, few in Italy would doubt that Buddhism is a religion.

It is true, the Supreme Court observed, that “the self-definition of a group as religious is not enough in order to recognize it as a genuine religion.” But although self-definition may not be crucial, neither is the prevailing opinion among the general population or in the media. The appeal to the “common opinion” in order to decide whether or not a group is a religion, a criterion used in the past by the Supreme Court itself, should be, according to the 1997 decision, qualified. The relevant common opinion, according to the Supreme Court, is “the opinion of the scholars” rather than the “public opinion.” Media, in particular, were regarded as not particularly relevant. The public opinion, the Court said, is normally hostile to religious minorities; additionally, it is quite difficult to ascertain, while the opinion prevailing in the community of scholars is at least easier to know. And most scholars, according to the Supreme Court, seem to prefer a definition of religion broad enough to include Scientology. This definition recognizes as a religion any group organized in order to spread and ritually celebrate answers to the fundamental questions about the nature of human life and death, answers that are not purely scientific but involve nondemonstrable beliefs about some sort of supernatural agency.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court addressed the objection that texts by L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986), the founder of Scientology, and by some early Italian leaders seem to imply that Scientology’s basic aim is to make money. Such texts’ interest in money appears indeed, according to the Supreme Court, as “excessive,” but a similar excessive interest in money is often found in Catholic and other movements that nobody would regard as nonreligious. The Supreme Court observed that, even if one should take at face value the “crude” comment included in a technical bulletin of Scientology that “the only reason why LRH [L. Ron Hubbard] established the Church was in order to sell and deliver Dianetics and Scientology,” this would not necessarily mean, accordingly, that Scientology is not a religion. What is, in fact, the ultimate aim of “selling Dianetics and Scientology”? There is no evidence, the Supreme Court suggested, that such “sales” are organized only to assure the personal welfare of the leaders. If they are intended as a proselytizing tool, then making money is only an intermediate aim. The ultimate aim is “proselytization,” and this aim “could hardly be more typical of a religion,” even if “according to the strategy of the founder [Hubbard], new converts are sought and organized through the ‘sale and delivery’ of Dianetics and Scientology.”

Another interesting objection the Supreme Court discussed is that Scientology is not a religion since there was evidence in the Milan case itself that a number of Scientologists were guilty of “fraudulent sales techniques,” or that they abused particularly weak customers when “selling” Dianetics or Scientology. These illegal activities, the Supreme Court commented, should be punished; but the presence of “deviant activities” is not the criterion for establishing whether or not a group is religious. A group may both engage in a certain number of illegal activities, which are not protected by provisions on religious liberty and should be prohibited and sanctioned, and maintain a basic religious identity.

Summing up, the Supreme Court decision of 1997 established five fundamental principles about defining religion under Italian law. First: There is no fixed definition of religion, since the very notion of religion is subject to historical evolution and change. Second: Religion may exist without a belief in a personal God. Third: Neither the self-definition by the movement concerned, nor the public opinion influenced by the media should have significant relevance. Fourth: A movement may exhibit a truly excessive interest in extorting money from its followers and still maintain a fundamentally religious nature. Fifth: Leaders of a movement may be guilty of sustained criminal offenses, for which they should be prosecuted without being allowed to claim religious liberty as a defense; but these criminal offenses do not take away the religious nature of the group when this has been recognized according to general criteria. We should not be afraid, the Supreme Court implied, that recognition of certain movements as religious will be a license for them to commit common crimes. Contrary to a perception circulated in the media, a movement may be both religious and guilty of sustained criminal activities. Religions do not always “do good.”

Both in my capacity as an institutional advocate of religious liberty and as a social scientist, I believe that these principles may be useful internationally.

Ultimately, of course, these debates have no final or true solution. In 1996, sociologist Larry Greil famously stated that

religion [is] not (...) a characteristic which inheres in certain phenomena, but (...) a cultural resource over which competing interest groups may vie. From this perspective, religion is not an entity but a claim made by certain groups and—in some cases—contested by others to the right of privileges associated in a given society with the religious label.

Definitions of religion are not essentialist truths, but tools for pursuing certain social aims. The Italian Supreme Court stated that religious liberty is best served by broad definitions of religion. Those definitions may involve risks, too. These risks are the price to pay for the benefit of living in a free society, which recognizes religious liberty as the cornerstone of most other liberties.
About the Author

Massimo Introvigne, JD, is a professor of Sociology of religion at the Pontifical Salesian University, Turin; a partner in one of Italy’s largest law firms; and a member of the Religions division of the Italian Association of Sociology. He is the author of more than thirty books and one hundred articles in international journals on the sociology and history of religious movements, and has been the chief editor of the award-winning Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy (2001; third edition: 2013). He is the head of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions). In 2012 he was appointed Chairperson, Observatory of Religious Liberty established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rome, Italy.