Warn your children before you lose them; Parents alerted over unsafe sects; Parents warned to be aware as cult targets Ulster

Sunday Mirror/July 5, 1998
By Jilly Beattie And Amanda Doherty


Cults across the world
"They turned my little Jemma into a monster"
Disciples persuaded to pay for salvation
"The control techniques used were unbelievable"
Cults court disillusioned

Ulster is being targetted by a terrifying cult and parents are being told to safeguard their children or prepare to lose them. The International Church of Christ is sending a team of recruiting agents north from Dublin in time for the universities' September intake.

The church says it is a charity, but Ayman Akshar, who has helped hundreds of cult victims, says the ICC is one of the most dangerous groups in the western world.

"The International Church of Christ works under about 20 other names throughout the world. The ICC, the Scientologists and the Unification Church are the three most powerful groups I know of," he said.

"I have worked with people who have been involved with these groups for the last 12 years and the power they wield is incredible and frightening. People of all ages and backgrounds are sucked into the ICC very easily because of the subtle methods used by the members to recruit them.

"The usual ploy is to ask an individual if they would like to attend a bible study session - or ask them what their faith means to them. They strike up a friendly conversation and one thing leads to another.

"It all sounds very worthwhile and innocent - but it is the first step in what can become a terrifying and life-long nightmare. It can take as little as a week to get a person fully involved with the ICC and all it stands for.

"But the consequences are dire. Just recently there have been two suicides involved with the group - one in London and one in America - that's how serious this is. Now the group is moving to Belfast at the end of next month to target the new students in the universities in Northern Ireland.

He claimed that they: "tend to pick on one person at a time and pull them away from their familiar surroundings. "They take a softly-softly approach, but the end result is that recruits are told their families and friends don't love them, don't respect them and that unless they stay with the ICC they will go to Hell."

According to Akshar: "The ICC god is money. Members hand over incredible amounts of cash and cheques which is why they have an annual income of 2.7 million pounds.

"These people are destructive. They prey on people's emotions, finances, vulnerablilities, fears and hopes and they destroy the real person inside. The mind control they use is very clever and a lot of people, especially women, are susceptible to their moves.

"For example, I know from personal experience that they will take a girl and tell her that her body should be a temple, but that she is insulting god because she is a little overweight."Then they say that if her mother loved her she would have made her slim down a little. But her mother let her get fat so her mother doesn't love her at all.

"She will be told that her mother is her enemy. And that her mother has turned her into a person who has no respect for God, no self-control, no discipline and that if she wants to be close to God she will have to lose weight. "Then she is told the only people who can help her are her real friends at the ICC."

He claimed that the members are kept constantly tired so that they are too confused to question the ICC and its motives.

"They have to start devotions at 5am and, while trying to study and, or keep down a job, they have to bring two new possible recruits to the weekly Wednesday meetings. If they fail to do this they are lambasted and made to feel the weight of guilt from the whole church. As time goes on, the members get more tired and worn down, but they keep working hard and grinding themselves into the ground. "But they are not praised for their work, they are told they are lazy and insulting God.

"By this stage the recruits have been pulled away from the people who really love them - their friends and families - so they have no one to turn to who will talk sense to them. "They are told everyone on the outside of the organisation is deluded and will try to keep them from God.

"They are told their parents are evil and will go to Hell and will try to kidnap them," he said, and added: "They are told that people like me, people who help counsel cult members, are evil and will lock them in a room if they come into contact with me."

Church leader Nick Izaaks, who was sent to Dublin from London two years ago to help increase membership, spends his days seeking new recruits. He manages the Dublin branch of the ICC with his wife Zarah. They are paid out of church funds which come from members' wages. He said: "I run the church. They pay my wages. Our members give 10 per cent of their wages as a tithe, he said, adding: "We believe in God. Anyone who is not a Christian is going to Hell.""

The International Church of Christ claims to believe in following only the Bible and no creeds of men.

A common saying amongst members is: "We speak where the Bible speaks, and keep silent where it is silent.""

Cults across the world

The Moonies are the most famous worldwide cult in society today. But others such as the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, and the Heaven's Gate group, have gained notoriety because of their teachings, philospohy and the macabre deaths of numerous members.

Other recent movements, including Scientologists, The International Church of Christ, The Unification Church and Hare Krishna, have been branded as dangerous cults.

Students unions and welfare officers throughout Ireland are now on the lookout for cults infiltrating their campus facilities.

Cult critics describe the groups as typically having the following characteristics:

  • authoritarianism
  • no individual thought
  • manipulation
  • strong discipline
  • family atmosphere
  • exclusivity
  • secrecy and paranoia
  • heavy commitment
  • communal living
  • financial pressure

They also claim the attraction to a cult can be found in one or more of the following:

  • Cults are rarely doctrinal
  • They offer solutions
  • They initially meet needs
  • They offer a missionary zeal
  • They are often intellectual
  • They offer a new lifestyle
  • They fill a gap left by people's unfulfilled expectations in other Churches.

"They turned my little Jemma into a monster"

Jemma joined the International Church of Christ two years ago and is still heavily involved.

Her mother, Anne, said: "I was pleased when Jemma told me she had been invited to a bible study meeting because I thought she would make nice friends. But it has been the most awful experience our family has ever been through. This church is destroying people - bending their minds and making them sick."

"Jemma had never been great at mixing with people so I thought it was a good idea - but nothing could have prepared me for what happened to her. It took the ICC just one week to suck her in and control her mind. Two years on we're waiting to wake up from this nightmare.

"These days Jemma is exhausted, bulimic, conniving and highly emotional. She has changed from a pleasant, ordinary girl into a monster."She has no one I would describe as a proper friend and her involvement in the ICC has made us all miserable. Our hearts are broken. But we are holding out - she is getting weaker. We are going to beat these people from the ICC - they will not ruin us and we will not lose our daughter to them forever."

Jemma comes from a middle class, Presbyterian farming family in Ireland's midlands. Her seven older bothers and sisters all have degrees and good jobs.

Jemma too is in a position of great responsibility and knows her connection with the ICC could mean the end to her career.

But she spends her days in a state of exhaustion, lurching from one crisis to the next, always putting her church and its members before everything else including her own health.

She gets up at 5am, spends two hours in devoted prayer then tries recruiting new members before she goes to work. Her responsibility to the ICC picks up pace again at 4.30pm immediately after work when she walks the streets of Dublin trying to recruit more new members. She generally stops recruiting around 10.30pm.

Every day is regularly interspersed with "encouraging" phone calls from her 'brother and sisters' in the group, with a final call from ICC leader, Nick Issaks, at 11pm.

"She is only 23, but we believe she is being encouraged to marry another member of the group. It's making her miserable but she hasn't broken away from the group yet.

"She acts very strangely the whole time, she is very evasive and tells lies and half-truths to her family. She feels sorry for us and says that we're all going to Hell unless we join her in the ICC. But as far as I'm concerned it's a cult and what it has done to Jemma is evil - there's no other way to describe it. Her life is in tatters - I just hope we can hold out longer than she can to help her through the other end.

"The leaders try to marry the members off to each other to keep the society as tight and secure as possible and to prevent outside elements infiltrating their minds. Jemma hasn't admitted this to us but we listen in to her conversations as much as possible and that's what has come out.

"In a way she has turned her family into sneaks - we pry on her phone calls, we search her handbag, sneak a look into her cheque book to see where her money is going. It's awful. But these people have convinced Jemma to give them so much money.

"She earns about 17,000 pounds a year. Her rent in her ICC communal house in Dublin is just 24 pounds per week. She doesn't drink, she doesn't smoke, yet she has absolutely no money to her name - she cannot even afford to go to the dentist.

"She gives vast amounts of money to the church - I know because her sisters have gone through her cheque book stubs. "Each ICC member is asked to donate a tithe of at least one tenth of their income to the church - but Jemma gives much more, working extra hours to give more money away to these people.

"She is a mess, but I think she is slowly becoming disillusioned with her association with the group because of the tremendous stress they put her under. She is at breaking point. In a horrible way we are waiting for her to crack.

"The newer members have mentors who look after them and guide them. Jemma's mentor recruited her in Grafton Street, Dublin, two years ago. The mentors spend a lot of time with a new recruit. And Gemma's convinced her that she needed to lose weight. Now she's bulimic - bingeing and making herself sick all the time.

"We've tried to talk sense into her but the barriers are up and she just keeps telling us that we're going to Hell. The cult counsellor we took her to has told us to stand back and let the group crucify itself in front of her. He says they put so much pressure on the young recruits they normally crack after about two years.

"We fear she will have to go through a breakdown first. If that's what it takes we will help her through it. I would say to every parent in the area - beware of this group or prepareto lose your children.""

Disciples persuaded to pay for salvation

Dublin civil servant John was attracted to the Church of Scientology by the promise that it would improve his life forever. Two years later, the 33-year-old had withdrawn from his family, was aggressive and had handed over several thousand pounds to the organisation.

Scientology was founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard and claims to improve people's lives through science. The principles used are Dianetics which were created by Hubbard as a mixture of religious imagery, philosphy and science.

Recruits are persuaded to take numerous courses priced between 100 and 1,000 pounds to help them on to the path of 'enlightenment'. Scientologists have cultivated wealthy celebrities and star member include John Travolta, Demi Moore and Tom Cruise.

John said: "I was recruited into Scientology by a friend. I really believed that the Scientologists' founder, L. Ron Hubbard had conducted research into the mind which could improve my life. I didn't think I was joining a religious movement. I thought I was joining a group which used scientific research to increase a person's IQ.

"We were told this could improve our careers and relationships with other people. The process used is called Dianetic Auditing and by the time I had a few sessions I wasn't able to make a critical decision about Scientology. The sessions were trance-inducing and taught me not to question anything I was told about the organisation.

"No-one questioned their beliefs or what they were doing, they even had their own language.

"I started having doubts about the organsiation when I felt under tremendous pressure to hand over my money. Salvation may be free in other churches but not in Scientology. Everything has its price. I paid anything from 20 pounds up to 1,000 pounds for a course to enlighten me.

"My family became worried because my personality had changed. I moved away from everyone who was not involved in Scientology. I withdrew from my family and when they tried to talk to me I became aggressive. I eventually listened to what my parents told me and got out. I was very lucky but I also felt betrayed, angry and a bit stupid for believing everything. I'm still getting information sent to me through the post."

Graeme Wilson, Public Affairs Director of the Church of Scientology, said it was unfair to expect him to respond to John's claims.

He added: "We don't attack other people's religions. The term cult implies a closed group but you could not get a more open group than ours. Our method of financial support has also been deemed by religious experts to be a very fair system as the person donates money directly for religious services received.

"The control techniques used were unbelievable"

Orla Eagan joined the ICC two years ago - but left them despite their desperate efforts to hold onto her. Her mother Francis still cries every time she talks of her daughter's terrifying conversion.

Francis of Galway said: "I would say Orla wasn't the typical sort of person these cults recruit. She was very lively, outgoing and full of self-confidence. "But it turned out she was targeted the same as everyone else and she got pulled in.

"She was only 18 and at Trinity College studying French and Histroy of Art. "She told me she she had been invited to a Bible study class and I immediately became suspicious because a friend had warned me about cults in Dublin preying on new students. I warned her to be careful and make sure she kept her head. But she slipped into the group without really realising what had happened. It was so gradual she hardly noticed.

"But they started questioning her on her beliefs and told her she was a sinner and could only be saved by believing "the truth" - in other words what they preached. She was expected to get up at five for hours of prayers, then recruit at least two new recruits every week. If she didn't she was made to feel guilty and was told she wasn't a good Christian.

"She was only a student with very little money, but she handed a lot of what she earned to the church. The more money she gave or bills she paid in communal houses, the better she was looked upon by the rest of the church.

"But Orla started to question them and they made life awful for her. They tried their best to make her see their point of view through what I would only describe as psychological torture.

"I held out as long as I could, constantly talking to Orla about these people and telling her how they intended to make her feel this way in order to have more power over her. I was relieved when she had to go to France for a year to study. But there are ICC churches all over the world and she went to their meetings there too.

"But she was not as involved and started seeing more of life outside the church and wondering if what the ICC stood for was good. I was thrilled she started seeing this church for what it really was and I felt she had been saved from these people.

"But when she returned to Dublin they really started playing heavy games - the mind control techniques they used were incredible and she started to get pulled under again."It was like watching her drown in guilt - it was desperate.

"I managed to get her to a consellor who dealt with cults and he eventually was able to pull her way from these people. Now she lives in a different country from the rest of her family but I am happier because I know she is free of these people.

"I just hope they don't find her again."

Cults court disillusioned

Youth worker Michael Wardlow says people turn to cults when they feel let down by the mainstream churches. He has spent 25 years working with victims of cults and alternative religious organisations in Northern Ireland.

He said: "It is vital to know what a cult is. Some groups describe the Catholic Church as a cult. But I believe cults are groups which started off with their roots in orthodox religions but became twisted along the way. They can be described as a pick and mix of religious beliefs.

"Cults can be separated into a number of groups. There are the Christian cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons which are steadily increasing in number in the Province.

"Then there are the Eastern meditation groups such as the Bah"s. The third group would be the self-realisation ones such as Krishna Consciousness, or the Hare Krishna. The fourth group is the New Age organisations, which believe in spiritualism, astrology and wicca - witchcraft.

"Another group is therapy cults - people go away on self-help weekends to beat stress.

"In society, cults are defined as a group of people under one authoritarian figure. A lot of the groups have questionable practices such as tithing, which involves each church member handing over part of their salaries.

"Cults don't allow their members to think for themselves

"Young people in particular are becoming attracted to cults because they are offering them something which they are not getting from the mainstream churches. Young people are attracted to those who are loving, welcoming and understanding. Cult leaders offer all those qualities and mainstream churches don't at present.

"The churches have not responded to changes in society. This has allowed cults to become so popular. But the cults have brought some tragic results."

David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians and some of his followers died in a fire which ended the siege at their compound in Waco, Texas in 1993.

"And last year 39 members of the Californian Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide after being inspired by the Hale-Bopp comet. They believed that their souls would be picked up by a UFO."

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