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.
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.''
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.''
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.''