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Freedom of Religion as a Human Right: The Council of Europe’s Upcoming Vote on Establishing “Sect Observatories”


For Americans accustomed to the (at least theoretical) separation of church and state implicit in the First Amendment of the Constitution, it may come as a shock that many nations in the world have no such separation. Within Europe, for example, numerous nations have state and state-sponsored religious affiliations, such as Lutheranism in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, Anglicanism in England, and Presbyterianism in Scotland. And elsewhere in the world, traditions other than Christianity have legal footholds in political spheres, perhaps the most prominent examples of which are the Islamic Sunni and Shia traditions institutionalized throughout North African and Middle Eastern governments.

One interesting though paradoxical exception is France, where Roman Catholicism existed as the state religion for many centuries before the revolution in 1789. However, since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, France seems to have adopted an increasingly secular socio-political consciousness, articulated for instance in 1905 when a law was passed during the Third Republic guaranteeing the separation of church and state. And the French Constitution of the Fifth Republic (1958) quite clearly states: “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion.”

However, despite this provision and its more recent history of separating church and state, the French government sponsors and funds an organization dedicated to monitoring the activities of minority religious groups (“cults” or “sects”) it considers possibly illegal or harmful to the integrity of French society. The organization is called MIVILUDES, a French acronym for for “Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires” which in English is the Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviances.

The organization was formed by presidential decree in 2002 as an outgrowth of earlier such efforts, such as the National Assembly’s 1995 formation of the Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France. MIVILUDES’s current president is politician Serge Blisko who carries forward the group’s mission to provide information about “cultic deviances” to the media, private individuals, legislative bodies, and governmental agencies within France. It also liaises with non-profit organizations with similar missions, such as the French-based European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Cults and Sects (FECRIS), which is heavily subsidized by the state. Other French anti-cult organizations receive state funding as well, including the “Union nationale des associations de défense des familles et de l’individu” (UNADFI, or National Union of Associations for the Defense of Families and Individuals) and the “Centre contre les manipulations mentales” (CCMM, or Center Against Mind Control).

However, MIVILUDES and FECRIS have recently and controversially attempted to exert their influence beyond French borders by lending their names and anti-cult research to a bill and report submitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) based in Strasbourg. The bill is being brought forth by French MP Rudy Salles, who was appointed to MIVILUDES’ Board of Directors in October 2012. It is entitled “The Protection of Minors Against Excesses of Sects” and calls for more information to be collected on the alleged “excesses” (psychological and physical crimes) of minority religious groups against children, even going so far to call for the establishment of a “sect observatory” in each of the 47 countries represented at the Council of Europe. The Council’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has already adopted the recommendations to create a sect observatory in every country of the Council as well as one at the European-wide level. A plenary session will put the matter to a vote beginning April 7.

The move is perplexing given that the Council of Europe primarily exists to advocate for “freedom of expression and of the media, freedom of assembly, equality, and the protection of minorities,” as stated on its official website. It would therefore be contradictory for a European-wide deliberative body concerned with human rights to create sect observatories designed to monitor the religious activities of groups which it—unilaterally—finds questionable. This legislation has the potential to illegally empower such observatories to act as ad hoc tribunals reminiscent of the long-gone days of Inquisitions and witch-hunts. If so, the Salles Bill recommendations would ironically lead to human rights violations, for instance against Article 18 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (whose exact wording is included in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights):

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Even taking the Salles bill and report at face value presents a number of definitional and methodological problems for those monitoring possible human rights violations against religious organizations in Europe, including:

1. Its inconsistent and contradictory use of the term “sects,” which new religion scholars almost universally recognize as pejorative, discriminatory, outdated and—as with the term “cult”—so subjective that it becomes meaningless.

As new religions scholar Dr. J. Gordon Melton has summed up: “Cults are groups you don’t like.” A simple illustration of this point is that even within Europe, some churches and groups recognized as bona fide religions are not recognized as such in other countries—and this inconsistency applies to both mainline and new religious movements.

For example some Evangelical Christian groups are considered dangerous “cults” in parts of the world, such as Russia and Bulgaria, even though over 25% of Americans belong to such churches according to the 2007 Pew Research Survey. Another example is the Church of Scientology, which is recognized as a religion in many European countries (Spain, Sweden, and most recently the United Kingdom) but has been persecuted as a “cult” in France along with a variety of others groups including Seventh-Day Adventists, Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and Baptists.

In other words, one country’s “cult” or “sect” is often another country’s religion, displaying a subjectivity of definition that sect observatories could handily exploit as a means to label and marginalize a minority religious group in possible violation of international human rights law.

2. Its reliance on a limited and biased sample of experts from MIVILUDES and FECRIS in support of its conclusions and recommendations while ignoring opposing and mitigating viewpoints from some of the most internationally recognized new religion scholars. These include Dr. Eileen Barker (United Kingdom), Dr. J. Gordon Melton (United States), Dr. Massimo Introvigne (Italy), and Dr. Régis Dericquebourg (France), among many others.

3. Its lack of data regarding specific examples of alleged “excesses” in question with regard to minors, instead relying on generalizations that could apply to any group, whether or not “mainstream” or “traditional.”

Interestingly, Rudy Salles’ own report finds that a number of the European countries surveyed did not themselves identify the issue of minority religions and children as a point of concern. And many of the same countries identified zero allegations of mental or physical wrongdoing by members of these groups against child members. These include Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Ireland, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Finland, Latvia, Albania, Malta, and Luxembourg.

4. Its recommendation for sect observatories in Europe arguably does not meet a need, as there already exist a number of international organizations dedicated to providing objective information about new religious movements. This is in contrast to the information provided by MILIVUDES and FECRIS whose data on new religions is naturally tainted by the negative assumptions held about these groups.

One of the more prominent sources for information on new religions is the Inform Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM) at the London School of Economics, which also receives funding from the British government. Another is the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, which holds annual conferences and houses many of its publications online.

This last problem may point to a more fundamental issue that has likely already occurred to the Council of Europe’s members as the April plenary session approaches: the proposed legislation is attempting to impose a biased French-based solution on a European level where it seems neither needed nor wanted by other countries which have more progressive viewpoints on the status of new and minority religious groups. Another way of putting the point is that the Francocentric anti-cult worldview represented by Rudy Salles’ report does not reflect the Council of Europe’s broader commitments to multiculturalism, diversity, separation of church and state, and—most importantly—freedom of religious expression as a human right.

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