Cults in eastern Europe targets for intolerance

The News-Sentinel/January 1, 1994
By David Briggs

Ft. Wayne, Indiana -- Unification Church groups in the Baltics are offering language lessons to attract converts, while Hare Krishnas reportedly now have more members in Hungary than the United States.

New religious movements and sects have established footholds in eastern Europe, but their influence may be measured more in terms of the backlash they have engendered than converts won.

Traditional religious groups that suffered under communist oppression are trying to solidify their privileged position in the new era of religious freedom. Although conservative Christian missionaries are reporting the greatest success in converting eastern Europeans, it is religious sects and cults who are easy targets for groups lobbying for laws to limit religious freedom in several eastern European countries, according to two scholars who have traveled throughout the region.

"The visibility and fear is put on the new religious movements, who are really statistically insignificantly," said Eileen Barker [once funded by Rev. Moon's Unification Church] of the London School of Economics. "Nobody gets any bad points for attacking cults. They're really fair game."

Barker and J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., addressed a recent seminar of the American Academy of Religion on new religious movements.

Groups from the Church of Scientology to Hare Krishnas are trying to take advantage of the new religious freedom to spread their teachings throughout eastern Europe, they said in interviews.

In a recent trip, Barker observed that several groups are offering people ways to succeed in capitalist ventures as a means of attracting new members.

For example, she said, Church of Scientology offers communication courses, and Unification Church groups offer language lessons and trips to the West to potential converts in Russia and the Baltics.

But while there are no hard numbers, researchers say, new religious movements seem to be having little success.

Some eastern Europeans are taking advantage of the classes offered and then are returning to their traditional religious homes. And critics of many new religious movements, helped by anti-cult organizations from the West, have left many eastern Europeans forewarned, Barker said.

"On the whole, they're not particularly interested," Barker said. "They know the cults are bad, and that's got through to them."

The groups that are successful are evangelical Christian organization who are flooding eastern Europe with missionaries. Researches report massive revivals; large churches being built; and some evangelists, in a strategy used successfully in the United States, taking to the airwaves.

Some 40 million Bibles have been distributed in Russia alone, Melton said. Among the groups doing well, there may be as many as tens of thousands of Pentecostals in eastern Europe, he said. Baptists also have been quite successful.

In another sign of the times, 3,000 Russians became Jehovah's Witnesses in a mass baptism.

But the flood of foreign missionaries is not sitting well with religious groups who struggled to survive during the years of socialist rule. Many groups emerged weak, disorganized and badly financed; they argue that members should not be stolen from them by better-financed groups from outside.

"We should have the first chance of regaining our faithful" is the claim made by faiths native to the region, Barker said.

In Russia, Russian Orthodox leaders have been trying to restore the church's traditional role as one of the main pillars of society. Patriarch Alexy II, head of the church, administered the oath of office when Boris Yelstin was sworn in an Russia's first president in June 1991, and it has become common practice for the patriarch to bless major political events, including praying for success at U.S. - Russian summits.

The "turf war" is evident in part in legislation that would limit religious freedom. Such legislation is in various stages of consideration in Armenia, Russia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

In Hungary, legislation is being considered to change the religious registration laws to limit the proportionment of state taxes for religion to groups that have been in the country for a certain length of time.

"There's not only resentment, but there's money at stake," Melton said.

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