Sects Warning As New Religious Groups Burgeon

Turkish Weekly/July 9, 2009

The religious landscape in Switzerland is changing constantly, with traditional churches losing ground to new spiritual movements.

While globalisation is a factor in the change, the economic crisis may also be playing a role as people look for a system of beliefs to help them deal with the problems they face.

And whereas many people in Switzerland are apparently concerned about the rise of Islam, researchers are warning that the danger posed by new sects and cults is being ignored.

Sects experts estimate there are around 1,000 esoteric, Christian and new religious groups operating in Switzerland alongside the mainstream churches. Around 200 of these pose problems through their methods of recruitment and operation.

"The diversity is perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Swiss religious landscape at the moment," said Brigitte Knobel , director of the Geneva-based intercantonal Information Center on Beliefs.

"Globalisation enables beliefs to circulate freely, as well as consumer goods," she told on the sidelines of the International Cultic Studies Association conference in Geneva in early July. "The other reason for the diversity is that people now feel more free to choose the religion they want."

There are no statistics to back up the new trends as the last census was in 2000 and provided figures only on membership of the main religious groups in Switzerland.

But the experts say that as the number of new spiritual groups grows, so does the demand for information - both from those concerned about a family member who has joined a sect and from those seeking to know more before committing themselves to a religious group. « People in a difficult situation are open to any religious message. » Georg Schmid, Relinfo

Climate of fear

Tages-Anzeiger journalist Hugo Stamm has been researching and writing about sects and cults for the past 30 years, and is seen as the leading Swiss expert in the field.

"The economic crisis and swine flu are contributing to the fact that sects and cults are currently on the rise. They make capital out of fear," he wrote in a newspaper commentary.

Stamm told he is receiving more calls and emails than usual from concerned members of the public - around 20 every week.

Retired Reformed Church minister Georg Schmid runs the Relinfo centre providing information on religions, churches and sects. He has also noticed a slight increase in enquiries recently and currently deals with around 200 requests for information every month.

Schmid says more and more very small groups are springing up, often revolving round a spiritual leader or healer. "Healing ministries are a big trend at the moment - both esoteric and Christian. Whoever can heal is seen as being right," he said.

"A lot of what is said about us is just not true, biased or misinterpreted," said Jürg Stettler, spokesman for the Church of Scientology, Switzerland.

Exploiting weakness

People's need for help can be so great that they sometimes suspend their critical judgment, Schmid believes. "Their weakness can be exploited. People in a difficult situation are open to any religious message."

It is young adults, those going through a midlife crisis and the elderly who are most vulnerable, he says.

"I had a long conversation with a very sensible woman who met a man - we would call him a sect guru - who exuded charm and the impression he could solve any problem. She didn't have serious problems but was middle aged and felt she hadn't found the right path yet," he said.

"He came along radiating love and understanding and knowledge and this critical woman let herself fall under his influence for a couple of years. He mistreated her, took her money and exploited her." Dangers

Both Schmid and Stamm believe that people underestimate the dangers that sects and cults pose - partly because these groups currently have a lower profile in the media.

Schmid quotes the example of Scientology . He says that in the past Scientologists were aggressive in their tactics, handing out flyers and urging passers by to purchase books or undergo a personality test. These tactics were so controversial that Schmid and other journalists wrote many articles on the subject.

"Now they are very helpful. For example on Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich they have got permission for a stand. They have a small tent and do massage. That's why it's very difficult, they are now friendly people."

"But Scientology has not changed one little bit. It is still about taking money from people. As soon as you are a member, you lose your freedom. Young people are no longer aware of the dangers."

Jürg Stettler, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology, says his religion has been unjustly criticised. "Every church has problems at the beginning. One hundred and fifty years ago the Salvation Army was considered the most dangerous sect in Switzerland and there was huge opposition to it."

"A lot of what is said about us is just not true or biased or misinterpreted. I would say in some cases it's just bad will. Certain people try to position us very negatively."

For his part, Schmid says sects only become news in Switzerland when something bad happens. "The number of enquiries would increase dramatically if we had another sect drama. But of course we hope we don't."

The last major drama in Switzerland involving a cult happened 15 years ago when 48 members of the Order of the Solar Temple were found dead at two locations in western Switzerland. The victims - most of whom had been shot dead - included several children.

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