July 14, 1999

Western European governments
targets religious rights

___By Ira Rifkin
___Religion News Service
___STRASBOURG, France (RNS)--The Council of Europe's parliamentary body has recommended creation of a central Europe clearinghouse to keep tabs on "dangerous sects," a move one religious freedom advocate said could serve as a pretext in some nations for expanding ongoing campaigns against minority faiths--many of them imports from the United States.
___Meeting in Strasbourg, the council's 286-member Parliamentary Assembly voted unanimously by a show of hands to call for a "European Observatory" that would gather information on "groups of a religious, esoteric or spiritual nature."
___The information would be made available to the council's 41 member nations as they seek to "ensure that the activities of these groups ... are in keeping with the principles of our democratic societies."
___The recommendation also urged individual European nations to open national information centers, to add information on "important schools of thought and of religion" to school curricula and to create "non-governmental" aid organizations for "the victims" of suspect groups, "particularly in Eastern and Central Europe."
___A report submitted with the recommendation said the proposal grew out of the rise across Europe in recent years of "sects and new religions."
___The report said "the number of people joining sects is rising constantly."
___In addition, the report noted the need to head off further "serious disturbances of law and order" and "carnage" associated in recent years with groups such as Japan's Aum Shinri Kyo cult and the Order of the Solar Temple in France and Switzerland.
___The report also said a number of groups have successfully established themselves in Russia and other formerly communist nations since the fall of the Soviet Union, prompting government backlashes. Great Britain's David Atkinson --mentioning Baptist, Pentecostal and evangelical Protestant groups--said "these so-called evangelistic missions usually originate abroad, notably in the United States."
___The recommendation takes pains to stress the assembly's concerns stem from the illegal actions and not the beliefs of religious movements.
___Although activities were not defined in the recommendation, assembly members speaking before the vote cited keeping children out of government-approved schools, child labor, prostitution, eschewing "proper medical care for the ill in the name of rigid religious rules" and "taking away the rights of their victims in the name of fake spiritual values."
___The recommendation now goes to the council's Committee of Ministers for further action. The committee is comprised of the foreign ministers of the council's member nations.
___The council's resommendation comes in the wake of actions in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and elsewhere that critics say run roughshod over the legal rights of minority religious groups, most of whom are relatively new, small or foreign imports.
___Among the targeted groups are the Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses, Wicca, Hare Krishna and Seventh-day Adventists. Others include dozens of small evangelical and Pentecostal Christian churches, the Church of Scientology, a number of Hindu and Buddhist movements, the Unification Church, obscure New Age groups, Satmar Hasidic Jews, Baha'is, Mormons, the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei and even the YWCA.
___In France, a government commission issued a list of more than 170 suspect groups. In Belgium, a list of 189 groups was released.
___Among them was the Assemblies of God, a fast-growing Pentecostal denomination based in Springfield, Mo.
___Critics say the government actions fail to differentiate among the targeted groups, which vary widely in beliefs, practices and mainstream acceptance in the United States and elsewhere.
___"Everyone is being lumped together," said Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies of New Religions in Torino, Italy.
___"It's reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the United States."
___Instead, they say, the governments have cast all the groups as potentially dangerous sects in an overzealous response to the violence of Japan's Aum Shinri Kyo cult, Southern California's Heaven's Gate commune, and, in particular, the 1994-1995 mass suicides and homicides in France and Switzerland carried out by Order of the Solar Temple members.
___"Everyone is being lumped together," said Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies of New Religions in Torino, Italy. "It's reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the United States."
___Targeted groups, said Introvigne, have been subjected to media attacks, harassment, tax and other legal problems.
___U.S. government officials concerned with religious liberty issues have taken note of the situation, pointing out that domestic laws in many of the affected nations as well as international treaties are supposed to safeguard the targeted groups' religious freedoms.
___"The United States understands that there are some dangerous groups that use religion as a cover for their activities," said Robert Seiple, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom issues.
___"Our concern is these governments are framing the issue as one of sects and cults. That ignores some dangerous groups that act under political cover and includes some groups that in no way are dangerous, simply because of religious prejudice."


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