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Christian Bruenner
University of Graz, Austria

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

I will only talk about the situation in western Europe, particularly in the European Union. I have to exclude the eastern and southeastern counties from my analysis. I will focus on the cult phenomenon, or rather the anticult movement, because, especially in western Europe, the wind of anticult movements jeopardizes religious freedom. In some countries it is violating this right already.

I will start with the member states of the European Union. Their constitutional traditions attach more or less importance to freedom of religion, conscience, and belief, and of association and assembly. The basic right to religious freedom can be restricted by legislative authorities either not at all, as in Sweden, or only under limited conditions, as in Germany or Austria.

In a draft of a report on cults in the European Union, some official information is given concerning the extent of cults in the member states. I have a few comments on the list. There is a wide range among the member states. At one end you find Greece, whose constitution contains a provision that outlaws proselytism on behalf of any religion other than the Greek Orthodox Church. At the other end you have Sweden, with very liberal legislation as far as religious communities are concerned.

In general one can say that in Protestant countries such as in Scandinavia or the Netherlands, freedom of religion ranks very high. Therefore, restrictions on religious groups of any kind are perceived as infringement of freedom of religion. Catholic countries such as France, Belgium, and Austria have introduced anticult policies and anticult legislation. In the Netherlands, Hari Krishna is recognized as a religious group. In Germany and Austria it is treated as a dangerous sect. Unfortunately, Austria plays a leading role in anticult policy and legislation.

The Council of Europe has forty members. Among them are numerous eastern and southeastern European countries, including Russia.

I would like to draw your attention to Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights. Points three to eight are documents within the framework of the European Union. Focus your attention on point seven. A draft report of the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs of the European Parliament on cults in the European Union was published in December last year.

This draft report includes the suggested motion for a resolution to restrict cults. I hope that in the future procedures to pass the report, no further suggestions of this nature will enter the document. This might be possible, because conservative parties of the European Parliament claim this draft is too liberal.

In last year’s resolutions of the European Parliament, several types of behavior of religious communities are seen as problematic. Some of the types are very unclear, like the use of psycho techniques. The German Parliament Interim Report on Sects and Psycho-tech Groups is also fairly skeptical about the relevance of so-called psycho techniques. Some of the types of behavior are not really valid.

One example is separating people from their family, social, and professional environment because the focus on the spiritual dimension, retreats, meditation and contemplation may be part of the convictions and practices of a certain religious group.

By the way, if you become a member of certain Catholic orders you also are highly separated from your family and environment. In connection with certain cults, some activities are frequently denounced as clearly criminal, like sexual abuse of children, money laundering, tax evasion, and so on.

In what ways have agencies already begun to restrict undesirable activities in Western Europe? First, you will find strategies to raise public awareness and for information and explanation on a national and international level. There many informational and explanatory campaigns go on, partly organized by political and state institutions, partly by private and church institutions. There are quite a few political initiatives trying to tackle the problem. In Germany, France and Austria, there are initiatives to found national or Europe-wide data banks on sects and destructive cults. Austria has a draft of an act by the Ministry of Family Affairs dealing with the founding of a bureau for sect inquiries.

Secondly, it is often pointed out that it would be desirable, in addition to information and education, to provide specific counseling and help to people wanting to leave cults and their families.

The third way is state control. Professor Littell yesterday mentioned the German office to protect the constitution. In Austria, this is done by the state security police and the police. For instance, the police department of Vienna has a section for fighting sect nuisances.

The fourth way is legal instruments to tackle the problem. In the draft of the report of the European Union, it was generally conceded that each national legal system had sufficient instruments to tackle the illegal activities of cults. The idea of specific anticult legislation was, at least so far, rejected.

Let me now turn to the situation in Austria. The right of religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution. The European Convention of Human Rights and its Article Nine, which guarantees religious freedom, is part of our constitution. I would like to draw your attention to Article Two of the first supplementary protocol through the European Convention of Human Rights. Article Two gives parents the right to ensure the education of their children in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

On the other hand, we have two acts in Austria dealing with religious community, one from 1874 and the other from 1997. The recent act is one of the most problematic results of the anticult movement in Europe. The two acts establish three levels of recognition. The first and highest is state-recognized churches and religious communities, of which there are 12. This recognition provides a public, legal status with some privileges like tax exemption, government funding, or teaching religion in public schools. A state-recognized church has to have at least 16,000 members and it must have existed in Austria for at least 20 years.

The second lower level, a confessional community, is accorded recognition that provides a private legal status. But that legal status may be denied to religious communities by the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs if it deems that society will be adversely affected by recognition of the group or that psychological methods are used improperly to disseminate religious beliefs. Legal status may be denied in the interest of public security, public order, health, or morality.

The third level are religious communities without legal status. For instance, they do not have the right to hold public religious practices. Only the individual has the right of public or private practice of faith, religion, and confession. Besides this act on confessional communities last year, some consequences of anticult movements already have occurred that I classify as highly problematic because they infringe on the rule of law or the human right of religious freedom, or the rights of parents.

I can give some examples. One judgment of the Country Court of Vienna deprived parental rights because the mother is a member of Scientology. There are some proposals by politicians that members of anti-constitutional sects cannot become civil servants. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have tried for more than 10 years to be a state-recognized church, without success.

When we discuss the state of religious freedom and the impact of anticult movements on religious freedom, we have to take into account the different backgrounds in the various countries. Elements of the background are, for instance, the history of the relationship between the state and religious communities and the understanding of democracy. For instance, democracy may be understood in a defensive role, fighting its enemies, and may therefore issue a declaration or restriction of their rights, as in the German democracy. If democracy is identified with majority decision, and if it is in some way state or main-religion oriented, as in Austria, an anticult policy and legislation will probably be introduced even if such policy and legislation interfere with religious freedom.

One example of a majority decision-oriented understanding of democracy is the small local community of Steria, which has a few hundred inhabitants. They were invited officially to support the local council and mayor’s activity against the establishment of a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in this community by signing a petition.

In conclusion, I would just like to focus on a few points:

  • Religion, especially in a secularized society, is always critical of its state and society. This is even more true for religious minorities. They threaten established philosophies of life, world outlooks, values, churches, conventions, etc., by their philosophies of life and values. They often have a radical spiritual orientation toward life with far-reaching cultural implications that differ widely from the conventional culture. Such antagonism reinforces anticult movements and anticult policy and legislation.
  • In executing a policy of controlling the growth of religious minorities, state officials decide whether a community is religious or not, which types of behavior and activity are seen as problematic, and so on. But general laws, such as criminal law, consumer protection law, and laws against tax evasion, that exist in the states of western Europe are usually sufficient to fight criminality and misuses within religious movements. Therefore, we should question the constitutionality of a policy of controlling the growth of religious minorities in accordance with international legal conventions such as the European Convention of Human Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

In cases where there is doubt regarding the strangeness or legality of a religious group, we should orient our thinking and decisions in favor of the right of religious freedom, which is not only an individual but also a collective human right.