A number of European governments appear to be taking a more neutral and balanced stance toward new religious movements, although religious freedom in Russia is in serious jeopardy.
Those were some of the conclusions of scholars at a conference, organized by the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) on September 10-12 in Torino Italy. The CESNUR meeting drew 300 participants who heard some 120 papers presented by scholars from around the world on a variety of topics.
In the opening plenary session, Massimo Introvigne, the head of CESNUR, analyzed the various reports on cults and sects that have been produced by governmental bodies in Europe in recent years. New religious movements, and not so new movements, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the evangelicals, have encountered considerable opposition in the past few years from various European governments seeking to restrict allegedly abusive “cults” and religions.
Introvigne said that these government reports fall into two categories, and that they differ significantly in terms of their degree of sophistication and attention paid to scholarship on new religious movements. The first category includes the 1996 French report, the 1997 Belgium report, and portions of the Swiss Canton of Geneva Report of 1997. These reports are basically anti-cult documents that ignore the vast scholarship on minority faiths, and instead paint with a broad negative brush all smaller and newer religions, viewing them as dangerous both to members and the state.
These documents are driving policy in these countries, with some severe repercussions for religious groups and for religious freedom. But more recent government reports (making up the second category), such as a 1998 Swiss document on Scientology and a 1998 German report, and this year’s European Parliament Report, although far from satisfactory from the view of most scholars, are much more moderate in overall tone. These documents take into account scholarship that would, for example, question making a distinction between “valid” religions and non-religions such as “sects” and “cults.”
Some important political figures who attended the gathering included the Hon. Domenico Maselli, the leading expert on religion in the ruling Democrats of the Left Party in Italy. In a dinner speech he announced new “intese” (a sort of concordant agreement establishing relationships with recognized religious groups, making them eligible for public funds, among other things) with Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Italian Buddhist Union, as well as the opening of discussions for intese with Muslim and apostolic (Pentecostal) communities in Italy.
Also, a member of the European Parliament from Naples, the Hon. Ernesto Caccavale reported on the EP debates on new religions, stating that the involvement of CESNUR and other scholars testifying at EP hearings had made a significant difference in moderating the stance of the EP on these matters. At another session, however, papers were presented on the problematic new law governing religious groups in Austria which has established several levels of religious groups, with each being treated differently by the State.
Other highlights of the conference included a session on minority and new religions in Russia. This session included analysis of what happened in Russia leading up to the dramatic change of the laws that would put more restrictions on non-Orthodox religions, and also examined some of the major legal cases involving minority faiths there.
The upshot of this session was that the sentiment fueled by anti-cult materials and personnel from the West, supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and the political structure, has carried the day in Russia, and that minority faiths may be in for a bad season.
— By James Richardson, professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada at Reno