Rise of New Faiths Jolts Old Order to Red Alert
Tolerance tested in many nations by a surge of religions, some violent
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In a TV interview after the report's release, commission member Eric Dolige said, ''All sects are like a drug: The more you taste, the more likely you are to move toward the dangerous ones.''Skip to next paragraph
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Many French academic experts criticize the alarmist tone of media coverage of this issue. They add that historians, sociologists, and anthropologists who study religious groups were not invited to testify before the commission, even though their research is financed by the French government.
''The news coverage of this issue has been lamentable,'' says Regis Dericquebourg, a sociologist at the University of Lille, who has been studying religious minorities since 1975. ''What I regret for France is that the ideology of anti-sect groups has completely triumphed.''
''The issue of how to cover religious minorities is a special problem for today's news media because so few journalists have a competence in religion,'' says Roland Campiche, a professor of religious sociology at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and author of a new book on media coverage of religious minorities, ''When Sects Terrify.'' ''Many religious minorities have been stigmatized by the term sect, and that's dangerous from the point of view of religious freedom.''
''In countries with a strong democratic tradition, we will find solutions that won't undermine the rights of man,'' he adds. ''In Latin America, the attitude toward Pentecostals is tending toward persecution. In Japan, the United States imposed religious liberty after the war [World War II], and it is not clear if greater police control will not be the new Japanese answer.''
Since 1980, the European Parliament based in Strasbourg, France, has debated the need for stronger legislation to curb religious minorities, but concluded that the risks to individual liberty would be too great. Nonetheless, individual European states are considering national measures to restrict the activities of sects.
The longest ongoing conflict on this issue is the battle between the German government and the Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology. The latest volley came on Jan. 10, when a German minister called on government intelligence agencies to put Scientology under the same surveillance as terrorist organizations.
'Contrary to public order'
Other nations are grappling with the competing claims of religious freedom and public order. Singapore has banned three religious groups, the Unification Church, the Christian Conference of Asia, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, for activities deemed ''contrary to public order, public health, or morality.'' Next month, another 47 similar cases will be tried in Singapore.
Prompted by the March 20, 1995, nerve-gas attack in Tokyo's subways, Japan's government last year expanded central government oversight of religious groups. The government is also using a cold-war-era antisubversives law to disband Aum Shinri Kyo, the religious group accused of the gas attack and other crimes. There is little sympathy for Aum in Japan, but critics have accused the government of resorting to measures that could be used to stifle religious and political expression.
At the same time, the main opposition party's links to Soka Gakkai, a large and politically sophisticated lay Buddhist organization, are proving a significant political liability. Many Japanese say they are worried about religious leaders having too much political influence.
Legislators are right to be concerned about terrorism, and some of the most unpredictable and threatening terrorist groups come from religious minorities, says Bruce Hoffmann of the Center for Terrorism at Glasgow's Andrews University.
''The biggest terrorist threat is no longer from traditional terrorists, but from religious sects,'' he says. ''[Palestinian terrorist] Abu Nidal may think in terms of killing 20 or 30 people. Religious sects are far less competent, but often have much grander ambitions.
''Many sects are perfectly nonviolent,'' he adds. ''It's very wrong to label all of them as dangerous.''
The British charity INFORM, or Information Network Focuses on Religious Movements, was set up in 1989 with government funding to encourage public understanding of new religious minorities.
''The Waco, Texas, event need never have happened if the American government had talked and listened to people who knew something about apocalyptic sects,'' says INFORM spokesman Tony McCutcheon. ''But the pressure generated by the news media, especially the urge to do something fast, proved too great.
''The French are leading the way'' with a new anti-sect strategy, he adds. ''But are they leading the way in the right direction? Any time a society regulates its people too closely, you take away something very precious.''