Universities are fertile grounds for cults, officials say

CNews, The Canadian Press/November 3, 1998
By Hollie Shaw

Every day, Ti Chung's family sets a place for her at the dinner table, a reminder of the quiet, hardworking daughter they lost. Twenty-eight-year-old Ti isn't dead, but the former business student with laughing eyes is definitely missing.

Three years ago, Ti joined a cult.

To her parents' horror, it happened to her in a most unlikely place: the verdant grounds of Simon Fraser University. The Burnaby, B.C., school is one of many post-secondary institutions across the country plagued by religious fanatics who recruit new members on campus, a problem that's gone on for decades. Although it seems abominable, it's perfectly legal.

"If a student gets voluntarily involved with one of these groups, there's nothing you can do," said Len Paris, community safety co-ordinator at the University of Toronto, which has had a problem with on-campus cult recruiting for more than 30 years. "Unless they are harassing certain people over a period of time or blocking a school entrance, there's nothing illegal in it."

The school's student affairs department tried a new tactic this year, mounting a poster campaign to increase student awareness. Under the bold-faced words isolate, dominate and intimidate is a cautionary message: Aggressive Religious Recruiting is a Reality at U of T.

Cult recruiters usually target students who are on campus by themselves and might seem a bit shy. One or two members will approach a student and invite him to a party or a Christian study group, said Rev. Bob Ogden, campus chaplain at Simon Fraser University.

"The group gets very quickly to its rather aberrant doctrines," Ogden said. "It has very little to do with the Bible and has more to do with mind control."

Ti's father, Chao-Min Chung, sits in pained silence as he recalls a time when his daughter joined a student Christian group. Happy at first that his daughter had made new friends, he began to worry as Ti spent more and more time away from home at group Bible study sessions. One day, he confronted her about her plummeting grades. "That night, she was gone," Chung said.

Universities are fertile ground for cult-recruiters. Many students are away from home for the first time, often for their first experience in a big city. Others don't have a close relationship with their parents. "Ostensibly this new group is warm and friendly and loving and family, so it has an attraction," Ogden said.

Along with the love comes manipulation. Cults control their recruits' use of time and money and try to isolate them from other friends, encouraging them to live in homes with other cult members. They tell them their natural family is evil, their new family good.

"People say, why don't you go to the police? But this is not a police matter," Ogden said with a sigh. "Most of these students are of age. It's not like they get kidnapped in the classical sense. They choose to live elsewhere. It's not a crime."

At first, the Chung family was allowed to see Ti on Sundays for an hour. Her whereabouts were kept secret. But when the family brought in a well-known cult deprogrammer, she cut off contact with them. "She told me, 'Daddy, I cannot talk to you,'" Chung recalled.

That was four months ago. "They tell her: If you continue to talk to your family, your relationship with God cannot go forward."

Clutching a photo of his daughter, tears rolled down his cheeks. "I want my daughter back," he choked. "It's not a family without her."

Sundera Lisle, 22, said she's been approached several times by religious recruiters during her three years as a student at U of T. But she's wary of their intensely cheery approach. "They're usually total freaks," Lisle said. "They don't stop smiling."

Ogden said international students, particularly those who know little English, are among the most vulnerable. "They're told 'Come to our free English classes.'"

Experts say the best way to distinguish between a cult and a legitimate religious group is by asking questions. Cult members often avoid direct queries about their beliefs or defer them to an unspecified later period, when the recruit is supposed to attain a near-mystic state of understanding.

They also differ from conventional religions in their extremism. Often, members express a polarized us-versus-them mentality. Despite a quasi-Christian image, many follow the teachings of a leader who claims a special, exalted status for himself.

The most heart-rending psychological manipulation occurs when a member tries to leave a cult, Ogden said, as members often "love-bomb" the doubter. "They just surround them with care and attention, with implied threats that if you leave this group, there's no hope for you."

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