The Swiss conductor Michel Tabachnik was charged with criminal conspiracy in connection with the Order of the Solar Temple this April in France: 71 of its members had died in four so-called collective suicides from 1994 to 1997. The case focused attention on groups which claim to be religious sects, but are instead engaged in money-making activities. France is now ushering in legislation that will allow the courts to dissolve such movements. The US administration is, however, trying to ensure their impunity on grounds of religious freedom and supports various cults which peddle forms of new-right and neo-conservative ideology in the name of anti-communism.
Religious cults used be regarded merely as a social phenomenon but in the last decade they have become a major security problem. The world was shaken by the Solar Temple massacres in 1994 and 1995, the Aum Shinri Kyo gas attack in the Tokyo subway in March 1995 and the Heaven's Gate mass suicide in Los Angeles four years later. France, Germany, Belgium and Spain, have all strengthened legislation in response to parliamentary reports on the dangers of cults that coerce and manipulate their followers.
Official organisations have been set up throughout Europe to monitor the spread of cults. In 1996 France passed legislation to protect the psychologically vulnerable, and the Jospin government established an Interministerial Mission to Combat Sects, headed by Alain Vivien. [On 31 May France's national assembly deputies almost unanimously endorsed a bill allowing courts to order the immediate dissolution of any movement regarded as a cult whose members are found guilty of such existing offences as fraud, abuse of confidence, the illegal practise of medicine or wrongful advertising. The bill must now by approved by the senate.] In Germany, the main struggle has been with the Church of Scientology: after a police investigation in 1997 the Federal government warned the public of its dangers and the state of Bavaria banned Scientologists from the civil service.
With Europe hardening its position, observers expected a counter-attack from international cults, some of which have assets of several hundred million francs in France alone. The attack came from the United States (1). On 27 January 1997 Washington officially condemned German measures against Scientology. A few days later the State Department's Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour (BDHRL) (2) published its country reports on human rights practices for 1996: Germany came under fierce attack, joining China on the list of states violating religious freedom.
The BDHRL report came just at the right time to support the Scientologists' campaign against Germany, which consisted of demonstrations, ads in the international press and a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. The State Department issued a communiqué to calm things down, explaining that although it was critical of Germany, it did not endorse the Scientology campaign. That was the least the German authorities were entitled to expect. Congress then passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998.
It then established the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (Uscirf), which has a representative in every US embassy, and the Office of International Religious Freedom within the State Department itself. The office is headed by an ambassador-at-large, assisted by five State Department staff. The first ambassador was Robert A Seiple, a former marine who is fond of repeating that "human rights are universal because they are granted by God" (3). In an interview given to a Florida newspaper, he explained how his faith sustained him during 300 combat missions as a marines officer in the Vietnam war (4).
But Seiple was not chosen for his qualities as a soldier-monk. For 11 years he headed the ultra-conservative World Vision Inc, the world's largest evangelical organisation. World Vision subsidises thousands of projects in both hemispheres, and millions of people throughout Latin America and Asia are affiliated to it (5). The first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, released by the BDHRL in September 1999 (6), accused France, Germany, Austria and Belgium of violating religious freedom. The 1995 report of the French parliamentary committee of inquiry was portrayed as blind persecution and the French deputies were accused of practising religious segregation by drawing up a list of innocent associations, persecuted not for illegal activities but for their religious beliefs.
On 22 March 1999 French policy was fiercely criticised at a seminar held in Vienna by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (Odhir) (7) under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). US diplomats and congressmen repeated and expanded on the State Department's accusations, and a diplomatic incident was only narrowly avoided. The scene was repeated in Washington at a hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (8), where three witnesses had dreadful tales to tell: France was reverting to the practices of the Vichy regime, the prime minister had been indoctrinated by anti-religious movements, believers had been exposed to public opprobrium and were losing their jobs, and children were being removed from their parents' custody.
The commissioners' official report, released in June 1999, waxed eloquent about the danger to fundamental freedoms in Europe (9). It accused the French government of using its tax department as the armed branch of a latter-day Inquisition. In response, the interministerial mission and the French foreign ministry explained that investigations into the structure and financial flows of the Scientology organisation had shown it to be a commercial organisation generating enormous profits. In these circumstances the fines and penalties were fully justified.
They also explained that the Assembly's report had been drawn up with the help of legal experts, academics, specialised police officers and associations officially recognised as being of public benefit. Although the 180 organisations named in the report claimed to be religious, close examination had revealed their totalitarian nature and the coercive methods they used on their followers. The vast majority had already been sentenced by the courts.
The French authorities also tried to correct some misconceptions. They pointed out, for example, that France was accused of refusing to recognise certain minority groups as religions, whereas the 1905 act on the separation of church and state prevented it from granting official recognition to any religion.
But dialogue proved fruitless. The report published on 9 September 1999 contained an even more vehement attack on the European countries. On 8 December foreign minister Hubert Védrine protested to Madeleine Albright: "Your administration's unwarranted criticism of French government action at a time of ongoing dialogue between our senior officials has cast a deep shadow over the discussions."
This put an end to diplomatic exchanges on the subject - and they have yet to resume. The State Department's latest report, released on 2 March 2001, acknowledges the positive aspects of the 1901 and 1905 acts and corrects a number of errors, though without admitting it. However, it still remains highly accusatory.
Neither American history nor the US constitution fully explain the country's stubborn support for the groups in question. The Office of International Religious Freedom is a subordinate body of the BDHRL, which is itself attached to the State Department; the Commission for Religious Freedom was set up in Washington by members of Congress; and Uscirf reports directly to the White House. Its executive director, Steven T McFarland, says his commission is mainly intended to act as a watch dog: its job is to ensure that the other commissions are working along the right lines.
Elsewhere, a commission set up to monitor the work of other commissions monitoring religious freedom would probably be described as a relic of the Soviet apparatus. McFarland admits he has not read the French National Assembly's report. He can neither read nor speak French, he explains. Nor has he read the reports of the interministerial mission, the communiqués issued by the French foreign ministry, or the information notes published by the French embassy in Washington. In fact, none of the officials of the American commissions I was able to contact had read any of these documents in the original or in translation. McFarland shrugs this off. For him, the information he receives from US intelligence agencies and the US embassy in Paris, as well as academics and NGOs complaining of intolerance by the French government, is sufficiently reliable.
When shown copies of telexes from the US embassy in Madrid (10), proving the BDHRL had intervened to stall a Spanish magistrate's investigation of Scientology, McFarland declined to comment. Obviously the members of the intelligence services who brief the US commissions cannot be identified. But when the French National Assembly held a colloquium on psychological manipulation, the US embassy, though not invited, sent two of its staff, accompanied by a French Scientology official.
The testimony gathered by these commissions is also open to question. The man appointed by the OCSE to chair the meeting in Vienna in March 1999 was none other than Massimo Introvigne, an Italian self-styled sociologist and founder of the Centre for the Study of New Religions (Cesnur). Cesnur is a Catholic fundamentalist organisation with close links to the Brazilian neo-fascist cult Tradition Family Property. Introvigne is a frequent contributor to Scientology publications and testified in favour of the cult in Lyons in the case brought against its leaders by investigating magistrate Georges Fenech (11).
French lawyer Alain Garay, a defence counsel for Jehovah's Witnesses who fights their tax battles, was also invited to Vienna and Washington. He too is a frequent contributor to Scientology publications. Another key figure is Willy Fautré, chairman of a Belgian organisation called Human Rights Without Frontiers. (The name does not mean it is recognised by the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues).
For many years Fautré was a correspondent for News Network International, a large American evangelical, anti-abortionist and fiercely anti-communist press and lobbying group. He is also a member of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), whose reports have been abundantly quoted by the American commissions. The IHF's Greek correspondent has contributed to Scientology publications and its Moscow delegation has published a book jointly with the Church of Scientology.
Finally, among the major witnesses who came forward to testify to the violations of religious freedom orchestrated by the French government was pastor Louis DeMeo of the Nimes Theological Institute (NTI). The NTI is part of the Greater Grace evangelical movement, which is based in Baltimore (US). Greater Grace has over 3,000 missions in Latin America, as well as several hundred in Africa and eastern Europe. The NTI is used to train people for work in eastern Europe. Greater Grace, whose methods have been strongly criticised even in the US, is a fellow traveller of Scientology.
Stacy Brooks is president of the Lisa McPherson Trust (12), the main American organisation set up to help victims of Scientology. She was herself a Scientologist for 15 years. She was also secretary to David Miscavige, Ron Hubbard's successor and current Scientology guru. Brooks clearly recalls Reverend George Robertson, who runs Greater Grace with a rod of iron: "He's in close touch with the leaders of Scientology. When the Scientologists are loath to intervene on certain matters that might damage their image, they get Robertson to do it. He's their main mouthpiece in the evangelical movement."
The Cult Awareness Network was once the main support organisation for victims of religious cults. It was founded in the 1970s. Greater Grace and the Church of Scientology set out together to bankrupt it by lawsuits. Then they bought up its logo and license agreement in the federal bankruptcy court (13).
There is another reason for the influence of Scientology and its followers in the US. In October 1993 the all-powerful US Internal Revenue Service granted the sect full tax exemption as a bona fide religion, after doggedly refusing to do so for 25 years - a refusal that had been backed by all the American courts right up to the Supreme Court. The IRS turnabout saved the Church of Scientology tens of millions of dollars and gave it an extraordinary public relations tool by opening the doors of the American administration.
The full story behind the reversal was revealed four years later in the New York Times (14). Scientology had waged an all-out war on the tax authorities. At one time the cult and its members had more than 50 lawsuits pending against the IRS. But it did not stop at lawsuits; it also hired detectives to dig up the dirt on top IRS officials. One of them told the New York Times he had worked for Scientology for 18 months from 1990 to 1992.
From his Maryland office he had gathered information on officials who missed meetings, drank too much or had extra-marital relations. On express instructions from the IRS commissioner, the Church of Scientology was granted religious status by a special decision that circumvented the usual procedures.
But annual profits of $300m, infiltration and intimidation techniques, and recognition by the IRS are not enough for Scientology. It has other methods of consolidating its influence at the highest levels of the American state. Stephen A Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, Canada, has studied the Washington lobbying strategy of religious groups and cults in great detail.
He has shown how Scientology, like Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, mounts major public relations campaigns directed at members of Congress and the White House. Scientology organisations paid $725,000 to a public relations firm specialising in political lobbying in 1996 and 1997, plus a further $420,000 in 1998.
Scientologists in the movie business contributed over $70,000 to Hillary Clinton's Senate election campaign fund. Tom Cruise personally donated $5,000 to Al Gore's campaign. A group headed by John Travolta organised a gala dinner to raise funds for the Democrats. The tickets cost $25,000 each. One Scientology lawyer gave $20,000 to the Democrats' election campaign, while a group of 10 Californian Scientologists including Craig Jensen, corporate executive officer of Executive Software, donated a total of $7,400 to the campaign fund of Representative Benjamin A Gilman, chairm of the House International Relations Committee (16).
A series of letters between Scientology and Moon leaders published on the internet revealed that their activities in eastern Europe were jointly planned and coordinated. The Scientology-Moon coalition, supported formally or informally by other sects, is similar to the partnership between Scientology and Greater Grace. It is now receiving support from American religious fundamentalist groups. The members of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy (17), warmly recommended by the State Department, include ultra-conservative congressmen, Moonies and cult guru Sri Chinmoy. This institute has set up shop a few blocks away from the White House and openly campaigns for the rights of Scientology, the Moon sect, and other "minority religions" in Europe.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which has existed for over 20 years and given birth to tens of thousands of Protestant fundamentalist missions throughout the world, has been a zealous supporter of Reagan and Bush (father and son). This ultra-conservative, gay-bashing, anti-abortionist organisation has now joined the chorus of France's critics. According to its president, Diane L Knippers, "France is a model for other European democracies. It is imperative that it abandon its anti-religious policy and once again guarantee freedom of religion." In her eagerness to explain, however, she unwittingly reveals the nature of her concern for the assortment of heterogeneous cults whose freedom she is defending: "What makes us stand up for religious freedom today is the same thing that made us fight communism. Human society cannot prosper on a bed of lies. And atheism and communism only breed lies. Spirituality is the guarantee of civilisation, because spirituality and faith make people honest. Without honesty there can be no trade, and without trade there can be no civilisation."
This campaign for "spirituality" throughout the world is actively linked with the lobbies seeking to impose American values through globalisation. As the IRD has made clear on several occasions, globalisation is a mission inspired by the Bible. This amalgam of mysticism and imperialism is a concept to which all American fundamentalist and evangelical groups subscribe. And it is in the forefront of the minds of those who claim to be defending religious freedom. John R Bolton, for example, a member of Uscirf, was formerly vice-president of the American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research, a militant free-market group. He was one of Bush senior's chief international trade advisors. According to Nina Shea, a member of the same commission, "our main aim is to establish the new liberal order throughout the world."
The strategy of global domination, and the machinery for achieving it, were put in place in the early 1980s by the Reagan administration. The struggle has now reached its peak with the drive to globalise legislation - an attempt to put the finishing touches on globalisation of the world market. But resistance is emerging in many quarters. France, for example, has taken the lead in the fight against globalisation of education. Here, cults and media giants have a common enemy in the widespread European ideology of secularism, of which France is the historical crucible. The onslaught on France's anti-sect legislation is a direct attack on the secularism of the French state.
The religious cults have much to gain. If they can penetrate the European education system and establish schools that are free from all state control, as in the US, they will expand and consolidate their membership, since recruitment will become an integral part of the cultural and psychological development of the individuals under their influence. It would be an exaggeration to describe the cults' links with the communications industry as a common front - their actions are not part of a jointly defined strategy or directed by a unified general staff. Still, there is a striking overlap of personnel. The links between ABC, CNN, etc. and the American religious fundamentalist lobbies are no secret, and nor is their total commitment to the ruling ideology.
Daniel Ichbia, Bill Gates' first biographer, was a Scientologist. And so is Craig Jensen, one of Gates' closest collaborators. One of the main firms in the Microsoft empire, Executive Software, officially declares itself Scientologist. Big Brother is just behind the screen.
* Journalist, author of La Mafia des sectes, Filipacchi, Paris, 1996.
(1) This is not surprising, since 90% of sects are of American origin or based in the US.
(2) The BDHRL, established in 1990, has links with all the US intelligence agencies. Its official remit is to assess the degree of freedom and democracy in all countries. It reports to the government and feeds information to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
(3) Interview with the author.
(4) The Naples Daily News, 28 January 1999, quoted by Stephen A Kent in "Consultation on Religious Persecutions as a US Policy Issue", Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.
(5) See World Vision magazine, December 1991, page 14, and the Interhemispheric Resource Center's file on World Vision at http://www.pir.org/gw/ (now a dead link)
(6) The Commission's reports are available on the US State Department website at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/irf/rpt/
(7) Odihr, an office of the OSCE, was first established in 1990 as the Office for Free Elections under the Charter of Paris to monitor elections in Europe. In 1994 the Budapest Summit extended its mandate to respect for the human dimension in democratic institutions and to conflict prevention. Under the influence of US senators Dennis De Concini and Alphonse d'Amato, Odihr is particularly concerned with religious freedom issues.
(8) An independent agency of the US government charged with monitoring and encouraging compliance with the commitments of the 55 countries belonging to the OSCE.
(9) Religious Freedom in Western Europe: Religious Minorities and Growing Government Intolerance, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 8 June 1999, accessible at http://www.csce.gov/
(10) These documents are accessible at http://parishioner.org/spain.html (now a dead link)
(11) In 1996, 23 members of the Church of Scientology were brought to trial, in connection with the suicide of another member, on charges ranging from manslaughter to embezzlement. The trial was the culmination of a five-year investigation by examining magistrate Georges Fenech, who took the opportunity to expose the workings of Scientology inside and outside France.
(12) Information about this organisation http://www.lisatrust.net/ (now a dead link)
(13) See Los Angeles Times, 9 September 1999.
(14) See Douglas Frantz, "Scientology's Puzzling Journey From Tax Rebel to Tax Exempt", The New York Times, 9 March 1997.
(15) Stephen A Kent, " The French and German versus American Debate over 'New Religions', Scientology, and Human Rights", Marburg Journal of Religion, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2001, accessible at http://www.uni-marburg.de/religionswissenschaft/journal/mjr
(17) See their website at http://www.religionandpolicy.org/