Rise of New Faiths Jolts Old Order to Red Alert
Tolerance tested in many nations by a surge of religions, some violent
IN the last years of the 20th century, the rights of religious groups in industrialized societies will likely come under ever-sharper scrutiny, prompted by a growing list of violent tragedies - most recently a group murder-suicide last month in a French forest, a nerve-gas attack last March in a Tokyo subway, and a 1993 siege at a compound in Waco, Texas.Skip to next paragraph
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For self-styled anti-sect groups, such incidents prove that new religious minorities can be a danger to society and should be curbed.
But human rights activists and many religious experts say that such campaigns tar diverse groups with the same brush, increase public misunderstanding, and may even trigger violent confrontations.
Even use of the label ''sect'' can be a device to discredit new ideas in religion, medicine, or culture, they say.
The term ''sects'' traditionally referred to offshoots of established religious groups. But in French, and increasingly in English as well, the term also carries the connotation of fanaticism. European sociologists favor the less pejorative term ''new religious minorities.''
''The designation of a wide range of groups as sects is a bid to disqualify those groups from society,'' says Jean Bauberot, director of the Sociology of Religions group with France's National Center of Scientific Research. It ''expresses a tendency to impose social norms as if they were absolutely evident, or as if they hadn't varied over the course of history,'' he adds.
The Salvation Army, for example, was denounced in the 19th century as an antisocial sect that manipulated minds and exploited pocketbooks. But it now has a positive social image, he notes.
Thousands of religious minorities have sprung up around the world since the mid-1970s, aided by the globalization of markets and communications networks. As India's gurus made their way to Middle America, so American-grown New Age groups sunk roots in European and Asian cities and towns.
In response, groups that say they have been harmed by sects are launching recruiting campaigns of their own. Many are establishing data bases on the activities of religious minorities as well as lobbying governments to crack down on groups that they say threaten public order.
The latest round of this conflict is playing out in France, where the legislature is gearing up for a debate next month on how to hold ''dangerous'' religious minorities accountable for crimes against their own members and the state. Critics say the move could become a ''witch hunt.''
On Jan. 10, a French legislative commission rejected calls for new ''anti-sect'' laws, but urged stricter enforcement of existing laws as they might relate to religious minorities. These laws include: fiscal fraud, extortion, false advertising, the illegal exercise of medicine, nonassistance to a person in danger, and protection of minors. The commission also called for establishing a state agency to monitor the development of sects and provide information for anti-sect campaigns in the news media and the schools.
The commission interviewed 20 sources, who were not identified, before releasing its conclusions in a report. Since 1982, the number of sect members in France has increased by 60 percent, to some 160,000 people, the report said. Sympathizers, numbering 100,000, have increased by 100 percent over the same period.
The discovery on Dec. 23, 1995, of what appeared to be the second mass suicide in as many years by members of the Swiss-based Solar Temple group fed calls for stronger state measures. Sixteen group members, including three children, were found dead in a forest near Grenoble in eastern France. In October 1994, bodies of 53 Solar Templars were found in Switzerland and Canada. Both cases are under investigation.
The French news media took a broad anti-sect line in their coverage of the December 1995 tragedy. The conservative daily Le Figaro called for ''breaking sects in the name of the law,'' and the left-of-center Le Monde daily called for an ''organized riposte'' against sects in an editorial headlined ''The impossible tolerance.''
The Union of Associations for the Defense of Families and the Individual, which comprises some 22 local anti-sect groups, claims credit for the tone of the press and of the National Assembly's report. ''What came out in this report is what we've been demanding for years,'' said UNADFI president Jeanine Tavernier in an interview. ''Waco served as a lesson for us; then, with the Solar Templars, the problem was suddenly at our door.
''We're well in advance of other national anti-sect groups because we are funded by the French government,'' she added. ''In France, we now have truly privileged access to the government, the police, and the press.''
In October 1994, the security branch of the French national police force completed a study that classified some 172 sects in France by the degree of danger they posed to the individual and to society. Of special concern are ''healing sects'' which, according to the report, are experiencing ''exponential growth'' in France. A healing sect is defined as any that ''professes a mode of healing not recognized by current medical science.''