In his neat office next to a girlie cinema in Kowloon Bay, missionary Danny Ma Kwok-tung gingerly fingers a well-worn paperback and a hand-made doll sealed in a plastic pouch with three rusty nails. His caution is understandable. The toy, he believes, was used by Satanists to cast spells on their foes. The book is their bible.
Devil worshippers? In Hong Kong? According to Mr.. Ma, 50 to 100 members of the Church of Satan are in our midst. He learned of the group's presence in the SAR, he says, only after conducting an exorcism on a former member last April.
"She was invited to join by a friend who came from the US hoping to develop the group in Hong Kong," Mr. Ma says. "Sometimes she was beaten by members and sometimes when she joined their meetings [somewhere in Causeway Bay] they forded her to drink blood - animal blood, women's blood."
The only evidence Mr. Ma has of the Church of Satan's existence in Hong Kong is the 24-year-old woman's blurred memory, plus the sinister-looking doll and book she kept. But nevertheless he is convinced devil worshippers are here and concerned about the threat they pose to society.
It is not the only group he is worried about. In his office at the Hong Kong Christian Short Term Mission Training Centre - an organization that trains Christians to spread the gospel - Mr. Ma has files on 13 other new religious movements (NRMs), a loose term for the myriad beliefs that have been repackaged in various assortments over the past few generations. Some, he says, are "dangerous".
They include the sex-for-salvation Children of God (whose spin-off Family of Love operated underground for years but is now recruiting followers through its Internet web site, according to the Oriental Daily News), and the Church of Zion, which still proselytises openly and has about 1,000 members in Hong Kong Mr. Ma says, despite a police investigation during a public outcry in 1996 over its leader's promotion of hydrogen peroxide as a medical cure-all. One member died as a result of drinking the chemical believing he could cure his acute peritonitis.
Mr. Ma's relatively small library is by no means indicative of the total number of NRMs operating here. As religious groups do not have to be registered because, a GIS spokesperson says, "there is freedom of religion in Hong Kong", it is anyone's guess how many such organisations are active. While Mr. Ma estimates the number is around 30, others say this is only the tip of the iceberg.
According to a 1996 paper by Cheris Chan Shun-ching, then a teaching assistant in the Department of Sociology at Chinese University, there has been "an explosion of few cults and spiritual practices in Hong Kong in the recent two decades". Citing "hundreds of new religious and spiritual associations in Hong Kong" (most of which, she says, originated in the United States), Ms Chan lists well-known groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Unification Church and Soka Gakkai, and less prominent ones such as Sukyo Mahikari, the Shumei Church of Divine Guidance and The International Supreme Master Ching Hai Meditation Association among others.
That so little is known about some of the groups worries Emily Pang, who asks that her real name not be used so she does not compromise her freedom to study NRMs. The Contemporary Research Movement unit at Dao Fong Shan Christian centre in Sha Tin with which she is associated is equally low key. While established to serve the public, it prefers to remain in the shadows about its work, though, she says, it is assessing how to function more effectively in future.
Still, at least it is operational, unlike other concerned groups such as those set up in the 1980s by the Catholic and Christian churches. Ferdinand Lok Hung Cheong, director of the Hong Kong Central Council of Catholic Laity, says his group was established to help disseminate information about groups such as the Children of God, which originated in the US in the 1960s. Explaining the decision to wind down research into cults in Hong Kong, Mr. Lok says "Nothing's happened in the past 10 years."
Major James Ling Sik-hung, the Salvation Army's field and social service secretary, has much the same explanation for his organisation's dissolution. Established in conjunction with the Council of Christian Churches, the group, he says, no longer meets because "cults are not very active in Hong Kong these days", or at least are keeping a low profile.
But some are courting suspicion because they seem to be secretive - one of the characteristics associated with religious groups considered harmful, or even cultic. Such groups, Ms. Pang says, can also-be exclusive, manipulative, totalitarian, or psychologically or financially damaging.
Take the Hong Kong Church of Christ, which was established in 1988 as a branch of the US-based International Churches of Christ (no relation to the United Church of Christ or independent Churches of Christ). According to Mr. Ma and other cult experts, this organisation exerts a psychological hold over members and insists on a total commitment that leads to a rejection of everyone else.
They consider themselves the only true Christians, he says, adding that as members are required to attend meetings virtually every day of the week, "some quit their jobs, quit their studies". Many remain with the church, he says, fearing they could not cope on their own after having the group control every aspect of their lives, from what they read to whom they date (relationships can only be formed among devotees).
"They put pressure on you and force you to donate your money, your time," Mr. Ma adds. "Many parents have complained since their children joined this group."
Like some of the NRMs the Post contacted, the Church of Christ declined to answer any questions, as did the Unification Church of Korean leader Sun Myung Moon and the Church of Scientology, whose Central office has not returned calls.
But even those that accede to requests for information find it difficult to erase their shadowy public image.
Pointing to the Shumei Church of Divine Guidance as an "exclusive" group, Ms. Pang says, "I had a friend who walked in and said, 'I'd like to attend your church,' but was told, 'Sorry, you can't. You have to know somebody.'"
The Shumei Church which has 11 branches in Hong Kong and whose fort-like headquarters in Sai Kung has aroused suspicion since it opened in 1993 -- does not deny that it bars entry to strangers. But minister Issei Shinagawa says the security is justified, pointing to a burglary several years ago by a thief hoping to make off with the church's collection of donations - which average $1 million a month,-according to chief executive Wu Kok-kei.
Indeed, security is so tight the Post was filmed not only arriving at the complex but throughout the interview by two besuited members wearing tiny brooches revealing their junior status. Seniors wear similar, brooches but with either ruby, emerald or diamond inlays.
Members also wear an ohikari locket (costing 30,000 yen - about HK$2,000) that, they say, allows them to radiate a "divine light". According to Mr. Shinagawa, this god-sent energy not only cures physical ailments but can also be used to improve inanimate objects - defective car engines, for instance. "I used the light to reduce the nicotine in my cigarettes when I was trying to give up smoking," Mr. Shinagawa says, while showing the Post around the church's 30,000-square-foot complex, where Sichi Chan lives with about 30 other members.
Another group in Hong Kong that believes in this divine light is Sukyo Mahikari, whose office in Austin Road, Jordan, fills up at night with believers giving each other light.
Sukyo Mahikari members, too, wear an accessory they believe allows them to radiate this energy through their hands, though theirs costs the equivalent of 13,000 yen (the price includes a compulsory three-day introductory seminar in Japan or Hong Kong).
Instructor Etsuko Ukumura says the light can help cure everything from malfunctioning kidneys to malignant cancers. She adds that she once held back an attacking dog with this energy.
Mahikari and Shumei are among the handful of NRMs from Japan (home to reportedly 3,000.such groups) that have put down roots in the SAR. As an international city, Hong Kong naturally absorbs influences from both the west and other parts of Asia, says Jonathan Chan Kin-sang, a doctoral candidate at the University of Hong Kong studying the New Age Movement, and author of a five-part series of books published in 1996 on NRMs, the New Age Movement in particular.
Explaining the appeal of new religions, especially to people searching for meaning but tired of the platitudes of mainstream religion, he says, "Hong Kong people still haven't found their identity. When wealth and survival are not the main problems, they will start asking questions like 'Who am I?' 'What am I?' " But often the old, mainstream churches do not meet modern requirements. "So you need some sort of new religious group to repackage the answers, Old answers have to be redefined to give new meanings to satisfy the modern situation," he says.
Because of the economic slowdown and an increasing number of people struggling for the first time to survive however, these NRMs may themselves have to rethink their approach to "competing for clients", as Mr. Chan puts it.
Kofuku-no-Kagaku, yet another Japanese NRM, certainly has tailored its teachings to meet the times. Existing only as a loose group of about 100 members in Hong Kong, Kofuku-no-Kagaku (The Institute for Research in Human Happiness) is among the many new religions espousing apocalyptic beliefs - increasingly a subject of concern with the approach of 2000 and the appearance of millennial movements worldwide, such as the California-based Heaven's Gate and Solar Temple, both of which have hit the headlines because of the mass suicide of members in the past few years.
But the Post was told not to worry as Kofuku-no-Kagaku's 42-year-old leader, Ryuho Okawa, no longer believes disaster looms. "Until 1992 or 1993, he told such kinds of story about the end of the world," said a devotee who visited the SAR in early December to conduct seminars. "But gradually he's changed strategy. The current strategy is that we should believe in a bright future."
This new tack also incorporates more commercial interests. "Mr. Okawa is producing teachings for people in the business field," the member says, declining to be named "Business people have a key to produce a new civilization. Now is the turning point [for them] from a spiritual point of view."
Secretive on some matters (the follower refused to disclose where Mr. Okawa lives in Japan) Kofuku-no-Kagaku nonetheless reveals much of its beliefs in its books, many of which have been bestsellers in Japan, including The Laws Of The Sun, which was available at Daimaru department store in Causeway Bay before it closed on Thursday. In Buddha Speaks, Mr. Okawa, a self-professed reincarnation of Buddha, describes past life forms on Venus as resembling a cross between an animal and a flower- a lily-shaped organism on legs and covered with leaves.
Perhaps unfairly, his organisation is often compared with Aum Shinri Kyo (the Japanese cult that launched a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 to realise the founder's apocalyptic prophecies, killing 12 people and injuring thousands) because both sprang forth around the same time and both attracted young devotees, although Aum Shinri Kyo appealed mostly to social misfits while Kofuku-no-Kagaku is a magnet for puppies.
Acknowledging there is a dearth of data in Hong Kong on NRMs, Japanese religious groups included (though he keeps a file on the much-maligned Soka Gakkai), Mr. Ma says: "We have little information because they often keep their practice to themselves. The public normally does not have knowledge about them until something goes wrong."
While he believes a tragedy on the scale of the Aum Shinri Kyo gassing is unlikely in Hong Kong ("because Hong Kong people are more rational") he argues society needs to be better informed. This could be achieved through the establishment of a specialist group, he says, to tackle queries about NRMs --an idea that draws a mixed reaction from theologians and religious leaders.
"We proposed a government-sponsored group to answer questions on NRMs three years ago," Mr. Ma says, explaining that the body would include not only leaders from different mainstream religions but also lawmakers, journalists, members of the police force - anyone with a special interest in the subject. But he himself admits the idea would be difficult to implement. "The Government would be hesitant to interfere with religious affairs," he says, "and it's a hard job to distinguish cults from normal religions."
Adds Joseph Kaung Tai-wai, a lecturer in the Department of Theology at Chinese University: "Hong Kong is a free and open society that affirms religious freedom. It is not the role of government to scrutinise or control religious movements - unless they break the law."
But by the same token, he says, "Hong Kong is a tolerant society, I don't see the need for religious movements to do anything in secret."
Mr. Ma concurs. While pressing religious groups to be more open, however, he also urges seekers to use their heads. "As the world becomes more chaotic, people will want to find a religion that gives them peace," he says. "But they should use their rationale to analyze the group . . . They need to be more careful."