Cults "target vulnerable students"

The Guardian/January 1998
By Emily Sheffield

Student unions around the country fear religious cults are targeting vulnerable new students, many of whom are away from home for the first time.

In Greater Manchester, which has nearly 70,000 students, the union has discovered plans by the Manchester Christian Church, a branch of the International Church of Christ UK (ICC), to rent a room on the campus to hold weekly meetings in October.

The controversial cult has already been accused of preying on students and there are fears the latest series of meetings held in the Deaf Centre, a campus building, have been specifically aimed at the city's students who returned last week for the start of the new term.

Anthony Noun, welfare officer for the Manchester university Students Union, said: "We are aware of cult activities close to campus and would like to alert students. Followers sometimes even drop out of their academic courses because the cult takes up all of their time and they are asked to hand over part of their income."

The ICC, which has more than 2000 members in the UK, has already been banned from campuses in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester.

The National Union of Students has sent warnings about current cult activities to all universities. Julie Neason, NUS deputy welfare officer, said: "We are concerned about cult activities and have taken the unprecedented step of sending information leaflets after hearing reports from several universities of aggressive recruiting activities."

Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, a government-approved body, says it has received many complaints about the ICC's alleged authoritarian structure and pressure on its members.

The ICC is one of the largest alternative religions in Britain alongside the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church. The Church of Scientology has allegedly been recruiting on campuses in Wales.

The ICC, which claims non-members are damned, has a ministry dedicated to students. Members are recruited on campus and asked to prove their commitment by recruiting more members.

Judith Alexander, aged 20, a third year geography student at Manchester university, was recently approached: "She was incredibly friendly so I gave her my number and address which she put in a book alongside other numbers. I went to one meeting and decided it wasn't for me. I was then continually rung by her and several members tried to come round to my house to hold prayer meetings and bible readings."

Michelle Johnson, aged 27, a voluntary worker in Manchester, and former student member of the Manchester Christian Church, said students were expected to give 10 per cent of their cincome, raise more than 250 pounds a year and give generously to the poor.

Adrian Hill, an elder of the church, said yesterday: "We encourage students to work hard. Recruitment is too strong a word. These people are just enthusiastically sharing their faith. Their enthusiasm is just thought of as cultish because others do not have the same beliefs."

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