The Council Of Europe's Report on Sects and New Religious Movements

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Report on Sects and NRMs
Opinion on Sects and NRMs
Official Report on Sects and NRMs
More About Scientology
Recommendation on Sects and NRMs
Interim Reply by the Committee of Ministers

The Council of Europe is an international organization bringing together 21 democratic countries of Western Europe, including 12 Common Market countries. Its headquarters are in Strasbourg, France. The Council was founded in 1949 to work for closer European unity, to protect democracy and human rights, and to improve living conditions. To do this, it organizes cooperation between European governments and parliamentarians in a wide variety of fields. Only the purely military aspects of defense are excluded.

The Council of Europe works through a Committee of Ministers, representing the governments, and a Parliamentary Assembly, representing national parliaments. These are assisted by an international secretariat of 80 officials, headed by a Secretary General who is elected for a five-year term. The Council's budget is provided by member governments. The Committee of Ministers is the Council of Europe's decision-making body. It consists of the 21 member states' Foreign Ministers, who hold the chairmanship in turn. They meet in Strasbourg twice a year while their Deputies (Permanent Representatives) meet for about a week each month.

The Committee of Ministers decides on the Council's policy, adopts the intergovernmental work program, and approves the organization's budget. It also determines what action should be taken on proposals it receives from the Parliamentary Assembly or from its own committees of experts. Its main decisions take the form either of recommendations to governments to follow common courses of action or of European conventions and agreements which are binding on the states that ratify them.

The Parliamentary Assembly's 170 representatives, appointed by the national parliaments from among their own members, meet in Strasbourg three times a year. The President of the Assembly is elected for a one-year renewable term.

The Parliamentary Assembly makes proposals to the Committee of Ministers, debates general policy, and acts as the "conscience of Europe."

The Assembly's proposals to the Committee of Ministers are finalized at its public plenary sessions after preparatory work by its committees. Its debates cover general policy matters and European affairs as a whole. Major international issues are often discussed with the participation of leading politicians from other parts of the world.

The Assembly regularly holds public hearings on important topical issues such as violence in the media, genetic engineering, or vivisection. All the main political movements are represented in the Assembly, which is thus a fair cross-section of European public opinion. The sections below include:

  1. The report prepared for the Parliamentary Assembly by Sir John Hunt (November 29, 1991)
  2. The opinion of Mr. de Puig of Spain (January 20, 1992)
  3. Speeches and summarized speeches by various members (February 5, 1992)
  4. The Final Recommendations adopted by the Assembly (February 5,1992)
  5. An interim reply by the Committee of Ministers

Report on Sects and New Religious Movements

By Sir John Hunt, United Kingdom, Conservative


The activities of certain sects disrupt public order.

Is there a need for legislation to curb the freedom of sects or even prohibit them? Or, on the contrary, is there a need for a framework within which sects can pursue their activities freely, provided that these match certain objective criteria?

Proposed measures consider the introduction of legislation to require the registration of all sects and new religious movements. Provide the public -- and particularly adolescents -- with maximum information on the nature, activities, and aims of sects.

Draft Recommendation

  1. The Assembly is concerned at certain problems connected with the activities of sects and new religious movements.
  2. It has been alerted by various associations and families who consider that they have been harmed by the activities of sects.
  3. It has taken account of the invitation, given to the Council of Europe by the European Parliament in the Cottrell report, to consider this problem.
  4. It has asked all the member states to indicate what practices they follow and what the legal problems are.
  5. It considers that the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights makes major legislation on sects undesirable, since such legislation might well interfere with this fundamental right and harm traditional religions.
  6. It considers, however, that legislative and other measures should be taken in response to the problems raised by some of the activities of sects or new religious movements.
  7. To this end, the Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers call on the member states of the Council of Europe to adopt the following measures:

I. Consideration should be given to introducing legislation, if it does not already exist, which grants corporate status to all sects and new religious movements which have been registered, together with all offshoots of the mother sect;

II. Objective factual information on the nature and activities of sects and new religious movements should be widely circulated. Independent bodies should be set up to collect and circulate this information

III. To protect minors and prevent abductions and transfers abroad, member states which have not yet done so should ratify the European Convention on recognition and enforcement of decisions concerning custody of children and on restoration of custody of children (1980) and adopt legislation making it possible to implement it;

IV. Existing legislation concerning the protection of children should be more rigorously applied. Additionally, those belonging to a sect must be informed that they have a right to leave

V. Persons working for sects should be registered with social welfare bodies and guaranteed social welfare coverage, and such social welfare provision should also be available to those deciding to leave the sects.

Introductory Remarks

Should this report have been called "freedom of religion" or "sects and new religious movements"?

The two motions for recommendations which provided the report with its starting point were headed "freedom of religion," but they both concerned sects. We shall see, in fact, that the two things are closely linked.

Andre Malraux's famous phrase, "The 21st century will be spiritual, or it will be nothing," is proving prophetic. As the 21st century approaches, sects are proliferating, while the fundamentalist tendencies inherent in all religions are growing stronger. The phenomenon may not be a new one, but it is growing and spreading internationally in a way which has often brought it to the headlines. Very recently, indeed, sects were reported to be threatening the very basis of government in Latin America.

Sociologists and churchmen who have looked at the reasons for the trend have come up with two possible explanations, which complement each other:

Firstly, there is a waning of interest in and support for churches of the traditional kind, which are blamed for failing to keep pace with social trends, losing their purity, and shedding their mystery, thus leaving a yawning gap in the field of spiritual quest;

Secondly, secular alternatives to religion have not been properly considered, and this has left an ethical void.

These two explanations may be put in a nutshell by saying that sects have taken advantage of the vacuum left by waning interest in the traditional institutions, which once answered the great questions of existence.

Before we look at the problem in more depth, some preliminary points should be clarified.

The [author of this report] has deliberately chosen not to provide a list of sects, or to name and describe some of the best known. Lists of this kind can easily be found in published sources, such as the Vivien report, Sects in France:

Expressions of Moral Freedom or Means of Manipulation? prepared for the French Prime Minister in 1985. Most sects are actually found in many countries, since the phenomenon undeniably has an international dimension.

Similarly, he has chosen not to describe the activities of these sects or the abuses of which some of them are accused, which are detailed in the Cottrell report presented to the European Parliament (doc. 1-47/84).

At one stage, it was also suggested that a hearing of representatives of sects might be organized. This would have spared the Assembly the criticism leveled at Mr. Alain Vivien, namely, that he had derived his information solely from the Ministry of the Interior, anti-sect groups, and former members of sects and had not interviewed representatives of the various well-known movements. It would have also met the wishes of the sects themselves.

Various problems would, however, have arisen. It might have seemed that anti-sect movements should be heard to balance the hearing of sects. Above all, what sects should have been invited? Any choice would have been arbitrary, since there were no obvious criteria for making it: membership, public impact, controversies generated? There was a real danger of providing a platform for sects already well equipped to publicize themselves, which would have lost no time in making use of the "recognition" thus accorded them by the Council of Europe. Indeed, the Council of Europe's name is already being used by some such movements. Finally and above all, [the author of this report] thought it unlikely that a hearing of this kind would have thrown much additional light on the phenomenon. This was why two experts specializing in the question were called in: Mr. Francis Messner, lecturer at the CNRS (France) (doc. AS/Jur (41) 9), and Mr. Alan Tyrrell, Queen's Counsel at Gray's Inn and S.H. Hancox, barrister of the Inner Temple, London (doc. AS/Jur (41) 4).

The present report is based on their two reports and on replies to a questionnaire sent to all the delegations on the legal situation of sects in member states and the case-law to which they have given rise.

Aim of the Report

In light of the above and considering that he had all the information which he needed, the [author of this report] wishes to help to calm the debate and to make a number of practical proposals which, without being spectacular, should open the way to solutions.

His problem was that of deciding whether special legislation was needed to regulate the activities of sects or indeed, as some people would certainly like, to prohibit them. We shall see why this approach cannot be recommended.

What is a Sect?

The Robert French dictionary gives the following definition: "An organized group of people sharing the same doctrine within a religion," as well as a more up-to-date definition: "A group with a religious or mystical basis whose members live in a community under the psychological influence of one or more persons."

A study carried out in the Netherlands ("Overheid en nieuwe religieuse bewegingen") offers the following description:

"a group of people which has recently emerged in the spiritual field, characterized either by a leader or by religious conceptions or by a particular form of behavior as a group or by a combination of these aspects".

This study went on to distinguish three types of movement: oriental, evangelical, and syncretic.

Alain Vivien, in his report, began by emphasizing the difficulty, indeed the impossibility, of defining sects. He nonetheless drew a distinction between splinter groups of the major religions and groups or associations of a philosophical, spiritualist, or mental development type, dividing them into three categories which overlapped with those previously mentioned, namely, orientalist, syncretical, and racist.

In other words, there is no generally accepted definition of the term sect. Most sects themselves object to this designation, which has acquired pejorative connotations, and prefer the term new religious movement, or even religion. Be this as it may, and with all due respect to those who deny the existence of any connection between sects and religions, any attempt at definition makes it clear that there is indeed a link.

Is a Sect a Religion?

First of all, what is a religion?

Professor Jacques Robert, who had the task of summing up the Parmer Seminar of New Religious Movements (9-11 May 1988), did not think it possible to give a legal definition of religion, any more than of sects.

He did try, however, to list their essential components. Religion, he said, consisted of two elements: one objective: the existence of a community, a legal entity, or a collective phenomenon; the other subjective: faith.

To characterize religious belief, he selected the following criteria:

reliance on divinity, a supernatural power; possibly, therapeutic value; --the promise of happiness; --a certainty.

In legal terms, the courts see then constituent elements of religion as permanent ministers, a rite, a liturgy, and a comprehensive and supernatural explanation of the world.

The Robert French dictionary offers the following definition: "Recognition by man of a superior power or principle on which his destiny depends and to which obedience and respect are due: intellectual and moral attitude which results from that belief, in conformity with a social model which may constitute a rule of life." It must be said that some of the constituents of religion recur in any attempt to define a sect, and some people who are fond of pithy formulas even say that religions are merely sects, which have succeeded.

We shall see that national legal systems confirm this approach.

The Legal Status of Sects in Council of Europe Member States

In general, there is no special legal status for sects; they are protected by (constitutional or statutory) provisions guaranteeing freedom of conscience and religion. The separation of church and state also guarantees state neutrality towards both religions and sects, in countries such as France.

In that country, most sects take the form of nonprofit-making associations (under the Act of 1 July 1901, which normally exempts them from any form of supervision). This means that they are not subject to taxation.

Switzerland does not normally accord them the status of public law corporations. Iceland makes it a condition that associations must be registered before they can enjoy rights. There are at present 12 registered religious associations.

In the United Kingdom, religious associations may set up tax-exempt charitable trusts if they match one of the classifications defined by law. The public authorities support an organization called INFORM, which was set up to provide objective information on the true identity and nature of sects.

In Finland, sects or new religious movements are free to act once they have been registered as religious communities. Their articles of association are examined to ensure conformity with the law.

There is no special status in Belgium. Associations may exist in various legal forms: public interest bodies or nonprofit-making societies, for example.

The Spanish Parliament adopted a report on sects in February 1989, in which it made a number of recommendations to the government. Its recommendations are that the authorities should:

  • Monitor compliance with law
  • Supervise application of the statutes of organizations applying for registration
  • Study and adopt any amendments needed to the legal system, especially as regards nonprofit bodies and charities, in order to facilitate supervision of their financial and fiscal affairs
  • Circulate information to magistrates, judges, and tax authorities on violations of individual liberties
  • Provide specialized information concerning the prevention and reporting of offenses committed by sects
  • Draw up and apply very strict criteria for granting subsidies, particularly to rehabilitation centers
  • Appoint guardians for minors, especially those abandoned by parents who have joined sects which may prevent them from fully exercising their parental authority and providing their children with the necessary care
  • Ratify international agreements on the abduction of minors and generally disseminate information on sects.
  • The other member states refer to freedom of religion or to freedom of conscience and worship.

Restrictions on the Activities of Sects in Council of Europe Member States, and Sanctions Applied

The delegations' answers to the questionnaire paint a fairly uniform picture:

Generally, there are no special restrictions on the activities of sects, which are protected by the principles of freedom of conscience and religion. Potential restrictions are thus the same as those, which apply to that freedom.

Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein make compliance with public policy (ordre public) a condition. Public decency and/or morals must be respected in Belgium,

Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

Some countries impose other conditions:

Switzerland indicates that public policy (ordre public) covers security, tranquility, public health and morals, and good faith in business transactions; and that the restrictions needed to protect public policy apply to spoken and written propaganda, hawking or peddling and collections. Some forms of religious therapy are forbidden.

Conformity with the law is a condition in Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and Norway. Presumably, this also applies even in countries which have not expressly said so.

In Cyprus, all religions whose teaching or rites are not secret may operate freely.

In Spain, the severest sanction is being declared unlawful; banning is provided for in Finland and Switzerland.

Case-Law on Sects

The delegations' replies indicate that there is very little case law on sects.

Portugal points out, for example, that there can be no case law on the activities of sects, in view of the declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religious or other convictions.

It does, however, speak of proceedings at present under way concerning the refusal of certain Jehovah's Witnesses to perform military service or, in some cases, alternative community service.

Norway speaks of accusations brought against the Church of Scientology, whose recruiting and funding methods are criticized. Spain speaks of several cases, such as unlawful proselytism, duress, threats, offenses against individual freedom and safety, fraud, tax evasion, currency fraud, and employment offenses.

The United Kingdom speaks above all of disputes concerning tax exemptions granted to charitable associations.

The courts in France have had to deal with complaints both from sects themselves and from individuals -- relatives of members or former members -- complaining of certain aspects of their activities.

Sects or their members base their complaints either on defamation or the exercise of freedom of religion.

Defamation is alleged when information on sects is published (see, for example, the judgment of 10 November 1982 of the Paris Regional Court, quoted in Les Petites Affiches of 27 April 1988). Some sects conceal their true activities or aims behind a cultural, philosophical, or other facade, and accordingly regard any information on their true activities as defamatory, In the case referred to, the court, having compared the documents issued by the sect itself with the claims made in the article complained of, concluded that those claims were true.

This brings us to one of the elements that distinguish a sect from a religion. While a religion implies free, informed consent on the part of those who join it, people joining certain sects may be free when they join it, but are not informed, and, once they are informed, they are usually no longer free.

As the father of one victim bitterly remarked, sects usually succeed because they advance undercover.

Another ground for complaints by members of sects concerns the exercise of freedom of religion. Thus, the European Commission on Human Rights has had to deal with several cases concerning the practice of religion by sects or some of their members. (See, inter alia: Case 7805/77, 5 May 1979, Vol. XXII, p. 244; Case 2299/64, Vol. VIII, p. 324; Case 7705/76; Case 8282/78 of July 14 1980, D.R. 21, p. 109.) All these complaints were declared unfounded, since they concerned specific practices beyond the reach of law and were thus covered by paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This paragraph provides for restrictions on freedom of religion, provided that these restrictions are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health, or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

And here we come to the nub of the whole problem of sects, namely, the fact that they lie at the point where the balance between freedom (either individual or collective) and public order is upset.

The concept of public order is extremely hard to define this being a highly subjective and variable notion, on which states enjoy considerable discretion.

This leads us to start thinking about sects as minorities. We must not forget that the main religions are legitimized in individual states by being mass religions (they were once state religions, and still are in some countries) and that the religious observances which they generate are imposed on the minority as a cultural phenomenon.

Should There Be Special Laws or Regulations on Sects?

Most of the activities of which certain sects are accused constitute common law offenses. And when manifest offenses are repeated, a sect can be banned.

Even so, there are certain difficulties, which should not be overlooked. In the case of minors, for example, children of sect members, where the problem of initiating proceedings to protect them arises, two measures are advisable:

  • Firstly, states which have not yet done so should be urged to ratify the European Convention on custody of children;
  • Secondly, public prosecutors' departments should be given authority to institute judicial proceedings, whenever this is not already possible.

The problem of a possible legal vacuum arises particularly in the case of adult "victims" of sects. This would seem harder to solve, since it involves questions of individual freedom and ethics.

Should there be regulations on "dangerous" sects as such? How to distinguish between them? Should the risk be taken of interfering with the freedom of conscience or religion of a large number of people for the sake of protecting a minority?

Surely the solution should be to prevent rather than cure? Preventing would primarily mean informing the public for, as we have seen, sects are mainly dangerous because people know so little about them.


To permit genuine monitoring of their activities:

  • Sects should be obliged to register, indicating all their offshoots, and a priori supervision should be possible on the basis of their statutes
  • It should be possible to give the status of religious or cultural associations to all movements whose aims satisfy the relevant statutory criteria
  • Information on the nature and activities of sects should be provided, particularly for adolescents. Independent bodies could be given the task of collecting and circulating this information
  • To protect minors and prevent abductions and transfers abroad, the member states should ratify the European Convention on recognition and enforcement of decisions concerning custody of children and on restoration of custody of children (1980; STE 105) and adopt legislation giving it effect
  • To protect members who work for sects, often without pay, the authorities should ensure that they are registered and enjoy social welfare protection, such as health insurance, unemployment insurance (upon leaving the sect), pension scheme contributions, etc.

Reporting committee: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.

Budgetary implications for the Assembly: None.

Reference to committee: Doc. 5737 and 5767, Reference No. 1568 of 1 July 1987.

Draft recommendation: unanimously adopted by the committee on 13 November 1991.

Members of the committee:

Lord Kirkhill (Chairman), Mr. Altug (Vice-Chairman), Mrs. Ekman (Vice-Chairwoman), MM. Akcali, Amaral, Arnalds, Bindig, Brincat, Collette, Colombo, Columberg, De Decker,

Espersen, Esteves, Fodor, Fuhrmann, Ghalanos, Gundersen, Stig Gustafsson, Hyland, Jansson, Karcsay, Mrs. Lentz-Cornette, MM. Meimarakis, Negri, Nunez, Oehry, Petitpierre (Alternate: Mrs. Haller),

Pontillon, Posluch, Rodota, Rokofyllos, Ruiz (Alternate: Cuatrecasas),von Schmude (Alternate: Zierer), Schwimmer, Sir Dudley Smith, Mrs. Soutendijk van Appeldoorn, Mrs. Staels-Dompas, MM. Stoffelen,

Vogel, Ward, Worms.

Secretaries of the committee: Mr. Plate and Ms. Coin.

Opinion on Sects and New Religious Movements (author: Mr. de Puig, Spain, Socialist)


The following comments have been drafted on the basis of the report by Mr. Hunt, the documentation he presents, the earlier studies by Mr. Jeambrun, and the highly informative and thoughtful contributions of the experts Mr. Hancox and Mr. Messner.

This material is sufficient for this opinion which in turn is inspired largely by the discussions which have taken place in the Spanish Parliament on the question of sects, and which have been repeatedly referred to by the above-cited reporters and experts since they constitute an exceptional example of parliamentary debate on the subject in question.

Sects, Education, and Culture

We are clearly dealing with a complex phenomenon. Initially, the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights raised the matter from the point of view of the problem of so-called religious sects. Eventually, the focus of the issue became freedom of religion. Since it is only possible to come close to the reality of abuses by sects on the democratic basis of religious freedom, it seems certain that we are discussing a fundamentally cultural right.

The matter is of interest to the Committee on Culture and Education not so much for its criminal or legal and constitutional aspects but for its negative impact on society as an abnormal social and cultural trend. It is of particular interest because of what can be done, in the field of education and culture, to prevent firstly the violation of the right to religious freedom and secondly the perversion of that right when, in some sects, it threatens the equilibrium and autonomy of the member and results in the destruction of his free and creative relationship with his family or his professional or social entourage. It is precisely because we must defend complete intellectual and moral freedom and because we understand membership [in] or association with a religious group to be an enriching experience, and an opportunity for personal fulfillment and creativity, that we must fight against any form of integration into a group that involves alienation, brainwashing, suppression of the personality, or personal subjection, even though these may be performed in a context of religious mysticism and transcendental faith.

Activities that can openly be described as criminal (illegal proselytism, kidnapping, fraud, sexual abuse, coercion and threats, physical punishment, attacks on the freedom and safety of people in general -- the most frequent offenses of the so-called "destructive sects") are intolerable, but just as intolerable are the educational, cultural, and social repercussions of these activities on members' children and relatives. There is a cultural and social dimension to the problem that should concern us as much as, indeed more than, the lawbreaking involved.

Religious Freedom

It appears proven that the phenomenon of sects leads to lawbreaking and in some cases to destructive consequences. However, not all sects are criminal or destructive. Besides, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires respect for freedom of religion and the right to manifest that religion in public or private, in worship, teaching, practice, or observance. We must therefore be careful not to commit injustices. We cannot, for example, consider that any group with nontraditional beliefs is a sect with all the negative connotations it implies nor can we incriminate a group as such or its beliefs -- except in very specific cases -- but only its criminal activities and with due evidence in each case.

We therefore have to declare that it is not advisable to recommend that governments issue specific legislation on sects, which could infringe upon such rights as freedom of conscience or religion. While the moving demands of victims of criminal acts committed by sects are humanely understandable, they are neither legally nor democratically justifiable since rights and freedoms cannot be protected by suppressing or limiting other rights and freedoms. We are confronted with the need to strike a balance between the protection of individual rights and freedoms and the protection of the public rights and freedoms of religion, association, expression, and so on, which are also absolutely fundamental.

The aim therefore is to prevent the possibility of an association or a religion being used as a cover for a criminal activity. In other words, it is a matter of implementing the law -- which exists already in all countries in the form of the criminal code -- rather than banning the existence of religious or cultural groups, even if their beliefs or ideas are unusual. To be perfectly clear, this means that each citizen must be free to change direction or radically change his beliefs, but without pressure and without infringement of his psychological and physical integrity; he must also be free to join a group of any ideological or religious persuasion, but at the same time he must be free to remain in it or leave it at any moment. This means that in a democracy the freedom of all religious, cultural, or other groups must be respected, as long as they do not threaten the personal integrity of their members, nor their personal, professional, and cultural relationships, nor, of course, the security of their property or their rights as workers. These offenses have already been defined by legislation.


The solution of the problem of sects does not lie in legislation. The problem of sects which commit offenses exists, but so do the laws which punish these offenses. What is needed is a greater awareness, preventive measures, and the collective responsibility of society. Greater vigilance will of course be necessary, but the most effective action, in the medium-term and long-term, is education in this field, general information, creative and free association between young people, friendships between the people and groups concerned, and cultural growth with an enhanced capacity for thought and critical analysis.

We are against specific legislation and in favor of vigilance and the monitoring of this new and growing problem. We believe that the public authorities must step up their supervision of any associations suspected of being "destructive sects" by subjecting them to closer inspection and by setting up administrative and police mechanisms permitting continuous observation and inquiries.

I agree with the conclusion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights that major legislation on sects is undesirable, but I think there is a certain naivete in advocating the registration of sects on the basis of which they might be monitored. In the first place there is no legal definition of a sect. Therefore, there can be no register of destructive or harmful sects.

None of them would register. What could be done would be to toughen the legislation governing associations by imposing more restrictive minimum requirements, and to monitor their activities through registers of religious, cultural, therapeutic, or other similar bodies under which form sects often masquerade.

With regard to information on sects, there are two aspects involved. There is general information, which must be given by the public authorities, and dissemination of that information through the media, which are probably in the best position for alerting the public to the problem. On the other hand there is a need, especially in the predominantly secular societies of Western Europe, but by no means exclusively in such societies, to provide a basis for value judgments. Informing adolescents about sects and new religious movements must be an integral part of the general education system and cannot simply be left to independent bodies. This problem must be put before young people and children when they learn about ethics and personal and social rights in religious freedom, in other words, at school.

I agree with Mr. Hunt's conclusion on the problem of the transfer of children abroad, but I should like to add that much can be done in the field of international cooperation to monitor sects more effectively and to obtain information and divulge it. The necessary international agreements to this effect should therefore be concluded.

Lastly, it seems evident to me that the members working for sects and exploited by them should be protected. The problem is knowing how and when a person is "working for a sect" and is "employed" by that sect. This is not easy. In all cases, the general employment and tax legislation of each country should be applied.

Reporting committee: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights (Doc. 6535).

Committee for opinion: Committee on Culture and Education.

Budgetary implications for the Assembly: None.

Reference: Doc. 5737, Reference No. 1568 of 1 July 1987.

Opinion: Approved by the committee on 6 December 1991.

Secretaries to the committee: MM. Grayson and Ary.

Official Report on Sects and New Religious Movements

(Speeches and Summarized Speeches by Various Members)

Sir John Hunt (United Kingdom) (author of the report for the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights): I am pleased to have the opportunity to present my report on behalf of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. As members of the committee will know, the report has had an exceptionally long gestation period. I am relieved, therefore, that is has been allotted a place in today's order of business. I am pleased about that because I believe that the Assembly is the forum in which the anxieties and apprehensions of so many people about the activities of cults and sects should be fully aired and debated.

As we all know, we are about to debate a highly emotive subject. Feelings run high on both sides of the argument, but nowhere higher than among the parents of children and young people who have been enticed into various groups and have subsequently become alienated from their families and home environment.

There is no doubt that the proliferation of these sects during the past 25 or 30 years has been a most disturbing phenomenon in Europe and elsewhere. In the introductory section of my report I have tried to analyze the reasons for it. Among those reasons is the waning interest in what one might call the established, traditional churches. As a result, the sects have moved in to fill the vacuum, as it were, by appealing in a subtle and sometimes sinister way to impressionable and idealistic young people. There is clear evidence that many sects set out deliberately to enlist the more vulnerable members of the younger generation. They recruit on campuses among those who are feeling distressed with college life and examinations. They recruit on the streets among those who are homeless or who are facing difficulties in their family relationships.

Initially, the sects offer security and stability to those who are upset in whatever way. Sometimes they are emotionally disturbed; sometimes they are separated from their families. Unfortunately, the initial welcoming period can often be followed by a period of indoctrination, leading to the sort of alienation from families and friends that causes so much unhappiness and distress. It is difficult for us to quantify the extent of this distress, but an organization known as Family Action Information and Rescue, which operates in the United Kingdom, reports that last year it received 1,700 letters and 1,200 telephone calls in respect of different cults and fringe groups. If we multiply those figures by the number of member countries within the Council of Europe, I think we shall begin to appreciate the size and scale of the problem.

In the second paragraph of my report I have provided some reasonably neutral definitions of a sect. I have tried so far as I can to be fair in these matters. A somewhat less impartial description has come from the Cult Information Centre. It defines cults as organizations that "use deceptive and psychologically manipulative techniques to recruit unsuspecting people."Of course, sects vary in their techniques and practices. Some are less dangerous than others, but some are extremely dangerous.

A distinguished consultant psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Tyldan, practices in my Bromley constituency in the United Kingdom. She has warned in letter to one of my constituents of some of the dangers of these cults. I shall read a short part of her letter. She writes:

In some cults children and even babies are subjected to sexual practices at an early age which are abhorrent to practically every culture. In other cults, the excessively rigid moral code can be applied so strictly that the normal development of sexuality is warped and hampered. The literature of several cults prescribes a strict discipline imposed by harsh means, abhorrent to anybody. An example of this is "rodding," where a rod is given to the mother to punish her baby for crying.


In other groups the dangers come from a different kind of exploitation. The Church of Scientology, for example, has developed its promotional activities with great skill and success. A local vicar in the East Grinstead area where the church has its headquarters is reported to have said: "It's not a church, it's a front for charging people a lot of money for something it cannot deliver." When one looks at its magazines, as I did the other day, one sees that the charges are extremely high. An extraordinary array of books and cassettes on the teaching of the now-deceased guru Mr. L. Ron Hubbard is advertised. They range from what is called "the way to happiness extension course" for a mere L25 to "the Philadelphia doctorate course lectures" for no less than L2,500.

Last summer some members of this Assembly were privileged to receive a foretaste of the "way to happiness" teachings of the said Mr. Hubbard. They were sent an expensively bound deluxe edition of what was described as "a very popular non-religious common sense guide." Unfortunately, one did not come to me, but I have managed to obtain a copy. The sayings of Mr. Hubbard are certainly basic. I have extracted just three gems for the debate.

The first reads:

Happiness. True joy and happiness are valuable. If one does not survive, no joy and no happiness are obtainable.

The second reads:

Eat properly. People who do not eat properly are not of much help to you or themselves. They tend to have a low energy level.

That one really touched my heart.

The third one states:

Preserve your teeth. If one brushed one's teeth after every meal, it has been said that one would not suffer tooth decay.

That is hilarious but, incredibly, people are apparently drawn into that organization by trite and puerile quotes of that kind. Some will say that if people are naive and foolish enough to be persuaded by that kind of juvenile rubbish, that is their own business. To some extent I go along with that, but at the same time one has always to watch for the motives of these people. Why are they trying to attract young people and others into their ranks? We have a duty to watch and monitor these groups and where necessary -- it is not always necessary -- to warn parents and young people about the groups' methods and motives.

I am grateful to Mr. de Puig for the opinion that he has presented on behalf of the Committee on Culture and Education and for the helpful amendments that he has tabled. He rightly refers to the need for greater vigilance and also presses the need for education. He says: "Informing adolescents about sects and new religious movements must be an integral part of the general education system." I warmly endorse that.

As members of the committee will know, during its preparation and in discussions of the report, I carefully considered the use of legislation to deal with this problem. I came to the conclusion, however, endorsed by the committee, that the introduction of major legislation would conflict with the freedom of conscience and of religion which is guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Instead of legislation, I suggest that we require the registration of all sects and new religious movements so that we can monitor their activities. Coupled with that, we should set up independent bodies to circulate objective information, particularly to schools and colleges, so that parents, teachers, and young people can be fully and accurately informed. Having done that, it is then up to each individual tomake his or her own judgment and decision in the light of the information made available. It seems to me that any genuine sects will have nothing to fear from this monitoring exercise and the undesirable activities of the more dubious groups should, it is to be hoped, be curbed and restrained by the existence of the monitoring machinery.

In conclusion, I concede that my solutions are not dramatic or radical. I fear that they may disappoint those who were looking for harsher action against cults and sects, but I believe that they are a realistic response to the deep concerns that have been expressed in all our countries by so many parents, teachers, and youth workers. On that basis, I commend my report to the Assembly.

Mr. de Puig (Spain) (Reporter to the Committee on Culture and Education) presented the opinion of the Committee on Culture and Education on sects and new religious movements (Doc. 6546). He said that many of the activities of these sects were completely unacceptable. His committee had studied the reports from Sir John Hunt's committee very carefully. There was a difficult choice to make between trying to prevent sects having a negative effect on individuals and society and the defense of religious freedom. Although it would be extremely difficult and might not be desirable to outlaw sects, many of their activities were simply criminal and could be combated by the existing forces of law and order. Examples of crimes perpetrated by sects were brainwashing, economic exploitation, and enslavement of their members. The Committee on Culture and Education endorsed the report, but proposed amendments to take stock of the cultural, as well as the legal, perspective.

Mr. Worms (France) said that he wished to put on record his total support for the report. It was an admirably objective document. The religious and secular aspects of society needed to be kept clearly apart. All religions should advocate respect for human rights.

Mr. Muller (Germany) said that recent decades had witnessed a decline of religious values in the West whilst Islamic fundamentalism had gone from strength to strength. The traditional churches in Europe had failed their congregations by ignoring basic moral issues. Instead, worship in churches more often resembled sociology seminars. Religious houses had allowed themselves to become politicized. Parents had not offered true guidance to their children who were therefore obliged to turn to avant-garde religious sects for spiritual nourishment. Those bodies destroyed individualism and substituted indoctrination for teaching. Young people needed access to factual and unbiased information when dealing with religious groups. Groups which had hitherto promoted Marxist beliefs had moved into the realm of esoteric religious creeds. There were worrying signs of a growth in unorthodox religious practices. In Germany evidence had been found of mutilated animal corpses, the aftermath of Black Masses.

Mr. Stoffelen (Netherlands) congratulated the [report's authors] for their excellent work. Freedom of religious choice was a basic human right enshrined in Article 9 of the Convention of Human Rights. There was a danger of condemning out of hand emerging religious movements, and labeling them with such pejorative epithets as "sects." Nevertheless, the Church should operate within the law.

Mr. Rowe (United Kingdom): Thank you, Mr. President. I am particularly pleased to follow my friend Peter Stoffelen on this matter. I entirely agree with much of what he said although I wonder whether I would draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not in quite the same place. The problem with the subject so excellently covered by Sir John's report is that, by definition, it is "my church" and "your sect." We tend to judge others by a different standard from that which we apply to ourselves. One general rule for people considering this matter is to ask whether the founders or gurus of a sect are rich. If they are, it is almost certainly unsound. One of the striking features of the religions that have endured is that their founders were poor and had sympathy with the poor. The problem which the committee was asked to consider is consumer-led. Or perhaps it is even more a problem of the consumer's family. Families become anxious when one of their members gets caught up in some sect of which they disapprove. As the report says: "While a religion implies free, informed consent on the part of those who join it, people joining certain sects may be free when they join it, but are not informed, and, once they are informed, they are usually no longer free." That is an important point.

As all the speakers so far have said, the public law must be the principal touchstone. Human rights legislation is meaningless if it does not prevent exploitation, whether of sect members or sect staff. Being a member of a sect cannot of itself be an excuse for lawbreaking without being subject to the consequences of that lawbreaking.

There is always a possible conflict between human rights and the rights of the family and the individual. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that Christ himself said: "I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law and a man's foes will be those of his own household." However one interprets that, it is clear that those who find a focus for their loyalty outside the family will not always be particularly popular with the family, and we should be erring if we made it too easy for families to impose their particular form of obligation on family members who have taken an open decision not to conform.

Therefore, another touchstone must be openness rather than stealth. The report is right about that. We should know as much as possible. Those whose deeds are evil love the dark. Sects which are not prepared to come out into the open are judged as highly suspect by their own action. Therefore, I welcome the report's emphasis on information. I am worried about registration. The report itself said that the committee did not seek evidence from some sects because it was concerned that in so doing it might give the authority of the Council of Europe to those sects. Demanding registration would put the committee into exactly that difficulty again.

The protection against exploitation or empty sectarianism must be the development of our spiritual dimension. Mr. Muller was right. Lech Walesa yesterday, Irina Ratuschinskaya frequently, and many others have pointed to the spiritual barrenness of our capitalist society. That has particularly struck those whose fate has provided them with the tools to break down the Communist empire.

We do not develop our justification for our currently successful ideology. The glacial ice that froze so much in Eastern Europe has frozen the argument in Western Europe and we are in danger of resting our defense of democratic capitalism mainly on its material success. This, which is barren in itself, requires continuing growth and material advance for its credibility and by itself it will fail.

In coming years, we must address the inequalities inside and outside our continent. We must wrestle with environmental destruction, huge population flows, international water shortage, the rapid increase in the deprived urban underclass, and with many other global hazards. If we cannot develop our spiritual philosophy to meet the hunger of the millions who look for a solid foundation on which to stand, we shall be borne away on the tide of racism, nationalism, or even religious strife.

Mr. Espersen (Denmark): I see from the report that this question was referred to the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights in 1987. That shows how difficult the problem is and that it is very difficult to solve. Many varied considerations have been made and many wise thoughts have been expressed. Many solutions have also been attempted, but on behalf of the Danish delegation, I must say that we do not believe that legislation can solve the problem. Information and education are good roads on which to embark, but there should not be specific legislation.

More About Scientology

The Church of Scientology has been given as an example of a sect. That shows the difficulty of defining a sect. I do not believe that it is a sect because, even if we consider the definitions referred to by Sir John Hunt, the Church of Scientology does not fall within those definitions. It is not based on any kind of religion. It does not work in a spiritual field. It works in a field, but not a spiritual one. It has no mystical basis. It is a cool, cynical, manipulating business and nothing else.

As the Church of Scientology falls without the definition of a sect, it would not fall within the legislation for which we are asking. Therefore, a dangerous association would not be touched by the legislation. The problem is very big and we believe that, unfortunately, it is impossible to find legislation to cover it.

Some sects, like the Church of Scientology to which I have referred, abuse young people and use people with various problems such as drug problems or mental problems. They abuse such people, but call themselves sects and act as though they are based on religion. However, they are based simply on the desire to make money. I am afraid that we cannot get rid of such associations with specific legislation on religious sects.

Fraud and sexual abuse are already punishable in all our countries. Gross abuse of weaknesses is also punishable. We believe that we should ensure that our authorities use those laws, which are not used to the extent to which they should be used. The sects I would like to see disappear should not fall within specific legislation of a religious nature. Most of them already fall under the penal code, which should be used against them. Thank you, Mr. President.

Mr. Moya (Spain) welcomed the consensus in the debate. The problems posed by sects were genuine and increasing, but they were also complex. The report was right to discuss social preventive measures as well as legal solutions, and to draw attention to the individual's right to freedom, but also to the undesirable consequences of exercising that freedom. The approach of the report had been balanced and nonsectarian and he welcomed it.

Mr. de Puig (Spain) (Reporter to the Committee on Culture and Education) thanked the participants in the debate, all of whom had supported the report. He said that the lesson he had drawn from the debate was that it was very difficult to deal with the problem of sects, as in many cases they were abusing existing freedoms which were guaranteed by law, but were not actually breaking the law. The problem needed to be looked at from the point of view of respect for human rights.

The problems raised by sects could not be solved by intolerance. In that context, it was encouraging to know that a committee of the Assembly was looking at the problem of religious tolerance, and would be holding a symposium on that subject in Jerusalem the following month. Sir John Hunt (United Kingdom) (Reporter to the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights): We have had a brief but very useful debate. I am most grateful to all those who have spoken. I thank Mr. de Puig for what he has just said, for his personal support, and for the support of his committee. Of course, Spain has set an example to many other countries in Europe on ways in which to tackle the growing problems of sects and cults.

Two speakers, Mr. Worms and Mr. Moya, said that it was difficult to find the right balance, but I am glad that they feel we have got it about right in the report. Mr. Muller picked up the point in my report about the decline of traditional churches and classical religion. He said quite rightly that many cults have come into being to meet the craving among young people for new dependencies, but he went on also rightly to say that, having met that craving, they then proceed in many cases to abuse it. That led him to the conclusion, which I certainly endorse, that the state must supervise the activities of those groups -- hence my recommendation for a register.

Mr. Stoffelen spoke about the freedom of religion and tolerance, which I wholly endorse, and the right to choose. Of course, we all support that. We also have the right to choose our doctor. When we do so, however, we expect the government to ensure that that person is not a bogus practitioner. In that sense, there must be some supervision. I assure Mr. Stoffelen that there is absolutely no question of a witch-hunt against those groups. All that we are seeking is to ensure that bad practices are exposed and publicized so that the public in general, and young people and parents in particular, can be warned about them.

My colleague Andrew Rowe proposed a very interesting rule of thumb when judging sects. He said that we should ask, "Are the founders rich?" I certainly commend that test to any young people thinking of enlisting in those cults whose names I shall not mention. There are many whose founders have become very rich indeed as a result of recruiting young people and their subsequent activities. I am sorry that my colleague had doubts about registration. There are precedents for that. I understand that Spain, Finland, and Iceland have enacted such legislation, and it is essential if society is to carry out its watchdog role in dealing with those groups.

Mr. Espersen made an interesting speech. He recognized that it was a difficult problem. He felt that the Church of Scientology, which he described as a "cool, cynical, manipulating business," might fall outside the scope of registration. That is not my understanding. I should be interested to know the experience of the other European countries to which I have referred and which have brought in a scheme of registration. I should like to know whether they have felt able to deal with the Church of Scientology if it operates in their countries. However, that is a matter that we can look at again.

The main message that has come from the debate is the need for greater openness -- the need for more information. The way to get it is the dissemination of information to schools and colleges and by having debates such as this. For that reason, I am very grateful to all those who have participated, and I am most grateful for the almost unanimous support that my report has received.

Lord Kirkhill (United Kingdom) (Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights):

I rise briefly to make just two or three comments. I pay public tribute to Sir John Hunt, whose task [of preparing a report] on this issue was complex and difficult. As Mr. Espersen mentioned, the very fact that it has taken a long time for the report to be formulated is proof indeed that, in its early days, there were many conflicting views within the committee.

The report was produced against the background that it is almost impossible to define a sect and that many people believe that the public law of countries of the Council of Europe is sufficient protection against abuse. Nevertheless there is genuine concern, which many speakers have touched upon and which Sir John has set out most clearly. The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights considers that in the main Sir John has been able successfully to reconcile what was almost the unreconcilable, given the many competing views and amendments. The report is consistent and thoughtful and the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights commends it for the attention of the Assembly.

The President (Translation): That brings the debate to an end. The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has presented in Doc. 6535 a draft recommendation, to which two amendments have been tabled.

If the Assembly agrees, we will take Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 together. Amendment No. 1 presented by Mr. de Puig on behalf of the Committee on Culture and Education,

In the draft recommendation, paragraph 6, before the words "legislative and other measures" insert the words: "educational as well as."

Amendment No. 2 presented by Mr. de Puig on behalf of the Committee on Culture and Education,

In the draft recommendation, paragraph 7, replace sub-paragraph (ii) with the following two new sub-paragraphs to be inserted before sub-paragraph (i): The basic educational curriculum should include objective factual information concerning established religions and their major variants, concerning the principles of comparative religion, and concerning ethics and personal and social rights;

Supplementary information of a similar nature, and in particular on the nature and activities of sects and new religions movements, should also be widely circulated to the general public. Independent bodies should be set up to collect and circulate this information.

Mr. de Puig (Spain) (author of the report to the Committee on Culture and Education) said that the two amendments were linked. They added references to the importance of education, both through the formal educational systems of all countries, and through the wide dissemination of information about the activities of sects. Lord Kirkhill (United Kingdom) (Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights): I can say on behalf of my committee that it accepts the amendments. The President (Translation): I shall now put the amendments to vote by a show of hands.

A vote was then taken by a show of hands. The amendment was unanimously agreed to. The President (Translation): We will now proceed to vote on the draft recommendation contained in Doc. 6535, as amended. A vote by roll call is not requested. The Assembly will therefore vote by a show of hands.

A vote was taken by a show of hands.

The draft recommendation in Doc. 6535, as amended, was adopted.

The President congratulated the [author of the report] and the committee on their work, which would add to the prestige of the Assembly.

Recommendation 1178 (1992)*on Sects and New Religious Movements

  1. The Assembly is concerned at certain problems connected with the activities of sects and new religious movements.
  2. It has been alerted by various associations and families who consider that they have been harmed by the activities of sects.
  3. It has taken account of the invitation, given to the Council of Europe by the European Parliament in the Cottrell report, to consider this problem.
  4. It has asked all the member states to indicate what practices they follow and what the legal problems are.
  5. It considers that the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights makes major legislation on sects undesirable, since such legislation might well interfere with this fundamental right and harm traditional religions.
  6. It considers, however, that educational as well as legislative and other measures should be taken in response to the problems raised by some of the activities of sects or new religious movements.
  7. To this end, the Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers call on the member states of the Council of Europe to adopt the following measures:

I. The basic educational curriculum should include objective factual information concerning established religions and their major variants, concerning the principles of comparative religion, and concerning ethics and personal and social rights

II. Supplementary information of a similar nature, and in particular on the nature and activities of sects and new religious movements, should also be widely circulated to the general public. Independent bodies should be set up to collect and circulate this information;

III. Consideration should be given to introducing legislation, if it does not already exist, which grants corporate status to all sects and new religious movements which have been registered, together with all offshoots of the mother sect;

IV. To protect minors and prevent abductions and transfers

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