Fight to free family from religious cult

South Manchester Express (UK)/October 17, 1996

An anguished father is fighting to free his family from a Didsbury-based religious cult which he says has "brainwashed" his wife.

John Ashton, 36, has not seen his wife, Nikki, and their two children since May, when he believes they fell victim to the "mind controlling" techniques of a religious sect known as the Manchester Christian Church.

Devastated John said his wife underwent a complete personality change after she was lured away by the cult's "love-bombing" tactics.

She took all three of their children away with her but Daniel, 15, ran away from the cult and returned to his father, leaving Samantha, 11, and Ben, four, with their mum.

Now John wants to warn other people to steer clear of the cult - also known as the Church of Christ - which wins the trust of lonely and vulnerable people by showering them with affection and boosting their confidence.

"I am very concerned for the safety of my wife and children," he said. "I never get to see my children and I can't find out where they are."

"I feel Nikki is not the same person any more. I have spoken to her on the phone but she kept preaching the scriptures and the gospel," he said. "She has a personal 'discipler' with her constantly and is not allowed to make a move without their okay. She is very vulnerable. These people are exerting mind control over her. People have to be warned. I believe they are very dangerous."

Paul (not his real name), a post-graduate student at Manchester University, said his girlfriend had also changed dramatically after she became involved in the 180-member cult.

Also a student, she was baptised in May and has since broken off all contact with him after he refused to join the church. "I knew they were not right and I was reluctant to join," he explained. "I did go to a few meetings to appease her but it didn't work. I thought they were harming her psychologically and I tried to tell her but she wouldn't listen. She changed so rapidly and then cut off contact with me very abruptly."

Paul said his girlfriend was expected to hand over ten percent of her income every week, which she was told would go to "the poor".

"At one meeting, everyone was supposed to make a 'special contribution' supposedly for poor people in India," he said. "My girlfriend was asked to make 15 times her regular contribution or a minimum of 250 pounds. She was a student so she didn't have much money."

But Malcolm Cox, who runs the Manchester branch of the cult from his Didsbury home, said John and Paul were only blaming the church because they were upset that their relationships had broken down.

"These accusations are not true. We are a church which operates like most churches, except that most of our members give a higher level of commitment," he said.

"If you believe in having a relationship with God, it is going yo change you and it will result in a change of lifestyle that can sometimes appear rather dramatic. People make the decision to take that commitment on board themselves," he said. "Everything we do is in the open. People in our church join because they want to and leave if they want to."

Ayman Akshar, a former leader of the cult's London branch, who is now an anti-cult campaigner, said the Church of Christ uses sophisticated psychological techniques to gain control over its members.

"They use a method of aggressive psychological coercion. When they meet you they will be overly friendly, they will praise and encourage you and play on your ego," he said.

"Once they get your phone number or address they harrass you until you go to a meeting. Before you know it you have been baptised and your ability to make decisions for yourself has been totally eroded."

Mr Akshar added: "They cause marriages to break up, financial hardship, some people even become mentally ill or attempt suicide. Students stop achieving and people's jobs are in jeopardy because they spend so much time with the cult."

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