Preventing Cultic Deviations in Europe

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006

Preventing Cultic/Sectarian Deviations in Europe: Policies That Differ

Henri de Cordes


In Europe, the human rights issue is not perceived as a priority in terms of harmonization, in spite the subscription by Member States of the Council of Europe to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The freedom of thought, conscience and religion, in particular, is too intimately linked to the history and the culture of each of these countries to be harmonized in a common policy vis-a-vis the dangers which threaten this freedom. Examination of the practices of the major European countries reveals some trends regarding prevention of (cultic) sectarian deviations; on one level, there is a refusal to recognize the problem; while on another level, certain states speak of a fight against these deviations; whereas in between, the option of vigilance is preferred.

The European Institutions

European human-rights policy is characterized by the existence of two institutions: 1) the Council of Europe, which encompasses the forty-six member states that signed the European Convention for the Protection of Humans Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1950 and 2) the European Union (EU), which is heiress to the European Economic Community created by the Treaty of Rome of 1957. While the Council of Europe mainly exerts its influence in the field of human-rights protection, the EU’s focus includes respect for human rights together with the social, economic, and cultural policies entrusted to the EU by the member states.

The defence of human rights is one of the founding principles of the EU. After having adopted the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the EU reiterated in the preamble to its constitutional treaty a declaration of human rights that essentially respects the principles stated in the 1950 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.

The Council of Europe

Article 9 of the European Convention affirms the right of every person to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes, in particular, freedom to change his or her religion or belief. Article 9 provides explicitly that the freedom to express one’s religion or beliefs can be subject to legal restrictions insofar as these restrictions are necessary “for public safety, protection of the order, health, or public morals, or with the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” Further protection is ensured by article 17 — Prohibition of Abuse of Rights:

…nothing in this Convention may be interpreted as implying for any State, group, or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of the rights and freedoms set forth herein or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the Convention.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which consists of representatives of the national parliaments of the member states, was brought to examine the question of the freedom of religion in connection with public authorities:

In 1984, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in this regard.

In 1992, the Parliamentary Assembly voted on the Hunt Report, a recommendation regarding sects and new religious movements. The European Parliament agreed, in particular, that it was in favour of “information [...] on the nature and activities of sects and new religious movements [that] should also be widely circulated to the general public. Independent bodies should be set up to collect and circulate this information….”

In 1999, in its recommendation 1396 entitled Religion & Democracy, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe states that

It is not up to politicians to decide on religious matters. As for religions, they must not try to take the place of democracy or grasp political power; they must respect the definition of human rights, contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, and the rule of law.

Also in 1999, in its recommendation 1412, Illegal Activities of Sects, the Assembly called on the governments of member states, where necessary, to set up or support independent national or regional information centres on groups of a religious, esoteric, or spiritual nature. Furthermore, the Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers

1. Provide, where necessary, for specific action to set up information centres on groups of a religious, esoteric, or spiritual nature in the countries of central and eastern Europe in its aid to programmes for those countries; and

2. Set up a European observatory on groups of a religious, esoteric, or spiritual nature to make it easier for national centres to exchange information.

Although, because of budgetary limitations, the Committee of Ministers did not respond to the request to create a European observatory, recommendation 1412 can be regarded as the foundation upon which European policies concerning the fight against sectarian deviations are developed.

The European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights, located in Strasbourg, is an international institution whose judges control how the signatories of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights apply its provisions.

Even if the Court cannot reform a decision of a national jurisdiction, the influence of its jurisprudence is important for the national magistrates who, in some states, must directly apply the provisions of the Convention.

The judgments of the Court remind the states of their role in the field of human rights. Thus, in a 2001 judgment, the Court of Strasbourg recalled “that the States have the capacity to control if a movement or an association continues, at allegedly religious ends, harmful activities to the population or the public safety.” In addition, in 2003, the Court stressed “the role of the State as a neutral and impartial organizer of the exercise of the various religions, worships, and beliefs” and stated “that this role contributes to ensure the law and order, religious peace, and tolerance in a democratic society.”

The European Union and the European Parliament

In 1984, the European Parliament examined motions for a resolution aimed at addressing the illegal activities of the Moonies. The resolution Parliament adopted in May 1984 defined thirteen criteria for use in the analysis of the activities of the “organizations working under cover of religious freedom”; these criteria focused on the respect of various individual rights, such as the education of children, recruitment, financial requirements, and medical care.

In 1996, after the 1994 and 1995 mass murders and suicides of members of the Solar Temple Order, the Parliament adopted a resolution regarding sects in Europe. This resolution requested in particular that the member states not automatically grant to groups the status of religious organizations (which ensures tax advantages and a certain legal protection), and to consider the possibility of depriving sects of this status if they are devoted to clandestine or criminal activities,

These resolutions always limit themselves to recommendations to the member states, each of which then has full power to decide on the policy to be carried out.

Examples of National Policies Regarding the Fight Against Sectarian Deviations

In the absence of a common European policy aimed at sectarian deviations, each member state defines its own policy according to the perception of the sectarian problem. That perception depends primarily upon the relations between the state and one or more established religions. In other words, on the cultural and sociological levels, this perception is generally conditioned by the degree of separation between the respective state and religion.

Vatican City

As a state without a population except for its civil servants—or, rather, a state whose population on which it exerts its authority is located mainly outside its territory—the Vatican is not a European state. In this instance, the question is not one of separation of church and state because the state forms a part of the church, and the Head of State of the Vatican is also the head of the Roman Catholic Church. In his function of supreme authority of a religion, the Sovereign Pontiff should at least denounce the sectarian deviations, starting with those arising from within the Roman Catholic community. In practice, however, the particular statute of personal prelature given to Opus Dei constitutes an opposite signal. In spite of strong criticisms from many Roman Catholics about the elitist and self-sufficient character of the movement—for example, followers are strongly encouraged to receive the sacraments from the priests of Opus Dei—or the return to medieval practices such as flagellation and the wearing of the cilice, in 1992 the Vatican proceeded to the beatification and, ten years later, the canonization of the Opus Dei founder. In addition to its privileged status, which places Opus Dei under the direct authority of the Pope, the organization relies on the canonization of its founder to refute criticisms. As far as Opus Dei is concerned, priority is given to orthodoxy rather than to orthopraxis. The very nature of the bonds between Opus Dei and the Vatican, within which there is no church-state separation, is at the origin of the power stakes that motivate some followers of Opus Dei. If all roads lead to Rome, one surely is the direct way: El Camino.

The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom presents the trait of having the same person—the Queen—at the head of the civil authorities, and of a mainstream religion with the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Even if nowadays these functions are mainly symbolic, they translate nevertheless to a vision of a society that admits that a church can be separated from the state. One can consider that if the bond between the Crown and the Church of England has remained until now, it is precisely because of the rupture of the nation’s dependence on Rome in 1534, which made the Head of the State the “defender of the faith,” fidei defensor. Nevertheless, the status of state religion did not prevent the development and coexistence of other religions in England. If, for some English citizens, joining a religion can be perceived as a public matter, for others, doing so concerns only one’s freedom of conscience. Is this distinction a consequence of the great visibility of the religious issue in the person of the Head of the State? In any event, the United Kingdom is characterized by an apprehension about interfering with the individual choices of its citizens. This characteristic is why Great Britain has no specific policy in the field of sectarian deviations.

However, in 1999, a multisecular institution, the Charity Commission, which plays a role in granting tax advantages for recognized associations, decided on the question of whether Scientology fit the definition of a religion. The Commission did not grant to Scientology the charitable classification, stating that

Scientology is not a religion for the purposes of English charity law. That religion for the purposes of charity law constitutes belief in a supreme being and worship of that being. That it is accepted that Scientology believes in a supreme being. However, the core practices of Scientology, being auditing and training, do not constitute worship as they do not display the essential characteristic of reverence or veneration for a supreme being.

Had the Commission recognized a religious character to Scientology, quod non, that recognition would have boundaries. That a national authority has recognized the religious character of a group must be appreciated in its limited effect: on the one hand, within the limits of jurisdiction ratione loci and, on the other hand, within limits of the determined field—for example tax—in which this recognition was granted.

To answer the questions relating to the sectarian phenomenon, British authorities, and in particular the Home Office, rely on the expertise of an NGO (nongovernmental organization) recognized as a charity. This authority is the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, or INFORM, which was founded in 1988 by Professor Eileen Barker.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands was created notably on the basis of a long national tradition of religious tolerance. For centuries, the Netherlands was a refuge and safe haven for many people persecuted for their beliefs. The nation’s tendency to privilege, private life, and intimacy was remarkably illustrated by generations of Dutch painters of the 17th and 18th centuries. Since 1983, the Constitution of the Netherlands no longer mentions the “religious communities,” even if, in practice, some churches continue to receive public subsidies. One can thus speak of an official separation of the church and the state in the Netherlands.

One base of Dutch society is the model of the polders (de poldermodel). According to this principle, when a problem arises, a dialogue, in a spirit of tolerance, must be established. Eventually, the problem disappears. The authorities also apply this principle with respect to the issue of cults.

One must go back to the beginning of the 1980s to find a parliamentary document that deals with these questions. In 1983 and 1984, a sub commission on cults of the commission of the Public Health of the Second Chamber of the States General—the House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament—issued a report, “The Authorities and the New Religious Movements.” This report was a parliamentary document as well as a Ph.D. thesis in law. The author, Tobias Witteveen, concludes his research by saying

…in general, new religious movements are no real threat to mental public health. The relations authorities—religion ... is dominated by two principles; i.e., the separation of Church and State and the freedom of religion. Both principles are not absolute in the sense that on the one hand there would be question of a strict separation of Church and State and on the other hand of an unlimited freedom to practice religion.

With regard to the freedom of religion, he adds, “…nevertheless, an appeal to this basic right cannot be a form of justification for any form of conduct. Manifesting a religion is limited by the general rule of law. Moreover, it can be restricted by special rules.”

On the basis of this assertion, one could have expected that proposals for special rules would have been put forward by the author, but this was not Doctor Witteveen’s objective:

The allegation that new religious movements use coercion when recruiting and then subject members to forms of conditioning has not been confirmed by our study. ... No proof has come up either that new religious movements would have a serious pathogenic impact on their members... Therefore, in our view, there is no call for protective measures; e.g., regulation of recruitment. Indeed, it would be difficult to make such regulation compatible with the freedom of religion. Neither is there much demand for special information activities.

Did the poldermodel influence the study of Mr. Witteveen, or did he conform to the social consensus on new religious movements to achieve his Ph.D.? These questions would be without interest if the Witteveen report were just an academic work, but it also guided the Dutch authorities in their attitude toward sectarian organizations—namely, the policy of having no policy.

The French Republic

In France, the Head of the State counts among his responsibilities the defence of the founding principles of the republic, the first of which is laicity, or secularity. During 2005, which commemorates the centenary of the “Law concerning the separation of the Church and the State,” many debates have demonstrated at which point laicity (secularism) “à la française” was a national specificity.

The law of 1905 is the result of a process started in 1789, at the conclusion of the Ancien Regime, which saw the end of the privileges of the clergy and the nationalization of the estates of the Catholic Church. After a period during which the priests had to pronounce an oath of fidelity to the civil authority, the Emperor Napoleon I pacified the relations between the state and the Catholic Church in 1801 by signing the Concordat, the legal settlement that guaranteed the freedom of worship. Afterward, France experienced a century of anticlericalism nourished in particular by the fact that the Catholic Church maintained an important social influence through the schools and the hospitals, which it controlled. In 1905, the law on secularity was essential to affirming that the republic ensured the freedom of conscience and recognized no religion (culte in French). For the past century, the French political community has dedicated itself to the defence of the principle of secularity. The contemporary approach of the French authorities with regard to sectarian deviations is closely linked to these historical events.

Since the Vivien report, written at the request of the Prime Minister, was issued in 1983, and through the presence of the current Interdepartmental Mission of Vigilance and Fight against the Sectarian Deviations, or MIVILUDES, one observes a determination of the French government to protect its citizens and its institutions from the activities of sectarian organizations. At the political level, this policy has been supported by parliamentary inquiries, one in 1995 and the other in 1999, which focused on sects’ finances.

Following the Observatory on Sects created in 1995 and the Interdepartmental Mission of Fight against the Sects, or MILS, chaired by Alain Vivien from 1998 to 2002, MIVILUDES, which depends on the services of the Prime Minister, is in charge “[of] observing and analysing the phenomenon of the movements in sectarian matter whose actions are menacing human rights and fundamental freedoms or constitute a threat to public order or are against the laws and regulation.”

Responsibility also falls on the Mission “to inform the members of [the] public of the risks, and if necessary the dangers, to which the sectarian deviations expose him and to facilitate the implementation of actions of assistance to the victims of these deviations.” The interdepartmental structure makes it possible to reach all the government departments and to make them aware of the issue of sectarian deviations. the president of the Study Group on Sects of the French National Assembly, the socialist Deputy Philippe Vuilque, described the difference in approach between MILS and MIVILUDES in an interview: “…the Raffarin government estimated that the former interdepartmental Mission of [the] fight against the sects (MILS) had done too much. It wished to appease the debate and to standardize the relations between the French government, the authorities, and the sectarian organizations.”

In the days before the end of the mandate of Mr. Langlais as president of the MIVILUDES and the resignation of the prime minister, the latter addressed a circular to the ministers and prefects that specified the action of the government in the field of sectarian deviations:

The action taken by the government is dictated by the concern of reconciling the fight against the actions of certain groups, which exploit subjection, physical or psychological, in which their members are placed in respect to public freedoms and the principle of laicity. The experiment showed that an approach that included the authorities describing as “sect” [cult] such-and-such group, and that basing their action on this label alone would not make it possible to ensure this conciliation effectively and would not give a firm legal basis to the initiatives taken. Also it was decided, rather than to include certain groups in the index, to exert a particular vigilance on any organization that appears to exert a dangerous influence on the personal freedom of its members, in order to be ready to identify and repress any activity likely to receive a criminal qualification or, more generally, that seems contrary to the laws and regulation.

Central and Eastern European Countries

After more than forty years of domination by regimes inspired by soviet Marxism, several countries rediscovered freedom in 1989. After having to undergo oppression, persecutions, and the repression of religious practice, several countries of Eastern Europe—e.g., Romania and Hungary— adopted very, even too, generous legislation in the field of religious freedom. These laws were inspired by the countries’ fear of reproducing the former system or of being accused of discrimination with regard to certain groups. Several countries have thus established simplified administrative procedures of registration.[1] The registered organizations tend to take advantage of this administrative situation to affirm that they are a recognized religion. Whatever the name given to these procedures—e.g., recognition, registration—the question remains: What follow-up and control of these recognized or registered associations exist? Is there a procedure for forfeiture or withdrawal of the recognition or registration and, if so, under what conditions? In the short term, one can expect that countries that have chosen a lax legislation will have to reinforce their legal systems to counter the abuses that inevitably will occur.

The Swiss Confederation

In Switzerland, religious issues do not belong to the federal but rather to the cantonal level. Therefore, the Swiss could not develop an overall policy without the agreement of all the twenty-six cantons. Nevertheless, four cantons—Geneva, Vaud, Valais, Ticino—joined together in 2001 to create a foundation whose objective is to carry out research and to provide information “on the beliefs” to the public and the administrations. The federal council supported this approach, but the impossibility of creating a public institution forced these cantons to create the private foundation under control of the cantonal authorities concerned. Article 2 of the statutes of the Intercantonal Centre of Information on Beliefs, or C.I.C., specifies the objective of the Centre:

The purpose of the foundation is, in particular with the objective of prevention, to collect and disseminate in an independent and neutral manner information on the nature, the beliefs, and the activities of religious, spiritual, or esoteric groupings, the companies or organizations depending on them, as well as sectarian deviations.

Sectarian deviations are defined as “illicit acts made in the name of or under cover of a belief, whatever it is.”

The Kingdom of Belgium

Belgian initiatives in the prevention of and fight against the harmful sectarian organizations are relatively recent. Indeed, it was after the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee of 1996–1997 was formed that a law was adopted in 1998 that created an Information and Advice Centre on harmful sectarian organizations. The same law also instituted an administrative agency to coordinate the fight against harmful sectarian organizations. The origin of this law included reassessing the concept of harmful sectarian organization defined by the inquiry committee, to determine the law’s field of application. The term harmful sectarian organization indicates “any group having or claiming to have a philosophical or religious vocation, which, in its organization or its practice, commits illegal damaging activities, harms the individuals or the society, or endangers human dignity.” This definition was adopted again the same year to define, among the competences of the civilian intelligence agency, an activity that does or could threaten the interior safety of the state.

Only one year after the adoption of the law, the Chamber of Representatives appointed the first members of the Information Centre. In September 2000, the Centre became fully operational—for example, by placing at the disposal of the public a specialized library. Beyond this mission of disseminating public information, the Centre, defined by the law as an independent public institution or non departmental public body, has competency to provide advice for public authorities. The first advice this organization gave, at the request of the Foreign Minister, was related to FECRIS. It has also given advice in response to requests by magistrates. The law imposes that the advice be made public except when the Centre, by providing sufficient argument, decides otherwise.

Toward a Common European Policy on Sectarian Deviations

Even if the majority of European states aim to guarantee to their citizens freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, the means each state implements to prevent and fight against the abuses committed in the name or under cover of this freedom differ significantly from one country to another. In the quoted examples, one can note the variations among information centres in their public interventions: public subsidies of a nongovernmental association in the United Kingdom, the creation by the authorities of a private foundation in Switzerland, an independent Information centre instituted near a ministry in Belgium, an interdepartmental structure that depends on the Prime Minister in France. By comparing these four institutions, one finds certain common points. For three of them, the commitment of a strong personality led to the success of the institution: Professor Barker for INFORM, the former Minister Vivien for MILS, and the lawyer Bellanger for the C.I.C. If one takes into account the independence of the information centres, the British, Swiss, and Belgian examples comply with recommendation 1412 of the parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Beyond these common points, the essential difference lies in the statute that distinguishes public institutions from private initiatives. In spite of these differences, the dialogue and a bilateral collaboration have been established, and information is exchanged. Occasional multilateral meetings make it possible to share national experiences. One cannot, however, speak about a common policy. In his answer to a journalist’s question “Is there a specific European project to fight against the sects?” the French Deputy Philippe Vuilque declared, “Europe does not make a big thing against the sects. There is an embryo of collective thought on the subject... But a true common policy entirely remains to be conceived.” The former president of the MIVILUDES, Jean-Louis Langlais, answered the same question: “No. It would be necessary to bring closer philosophies, legal concepts, and administrative systems very different from one country to another. The French concept of ‘sectarian deviations’ could be transposed.”

An evolution toward the prevention of sectarian deviations is indeed desirable because this concept has the advantage of targeting the risk of particular behaviours rather than pointing to the groups themselves. Is it necessary to plead for a common model or structure at the European level? A priori, no, unless it were the institution of a “European observatory on the groups of a religious, esoteric, or spiritual nature,” as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommended in 1999.

[1] In addition to its registration system for religious organisations, in 1997 Slovakia established an Institute for State-Church Relations (U.V.S.C.), an interdisciplinary research institute on religions and religions groups.