20 January 1992

Doc. 6546

S6546.

1403-15/1/92-3-E

O P I N I O N

on sects and new religious movements

(Rapporteur: Mr DE PUIG, Spain, Socialist)


Introduction

The following comments have been drafted on the basis of the report by Mr Hunt, the documentation he presents, the earlier studies by Mr Jeambrun, and the highly informative and thoughtful contributions of the experts Mr Hancox and Mr Messner.

This material is sufficient for this opinion which in turn is inspired largely by the discussions which have taken place in the Spanish Parliament on the question of sects, and which have been repeatedly referred to by the above-cited rapporteurs and experts since they constitute an exceptional example of parliamentary debate on the subject in question.

Sects, education and culture

We are clearly dealing with a complex phenomenon. Initially, the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights raised the matter from the point of view of the problem of so-called religious sects. Eventually, the focus of the issue became freedom of religion. Since it is only possible to come close to the reality of abuses by sects on the democratic basis of religious freedom, it seems certain that we are discussing a fundamentally cultural right.

The matter is of interest to the Committee on Culture and Education not so much for its criminal or legal and constitutional aspects but for its negative impact on society as an abnormal social and cultural trend. It is of particular interest because of what can be done, in the field of education and culture, to prevent firstly the violation of the right to religious freedom and secondly the perversion of that right when, in some sects, it threatens the equilibrium and autonomy of the member and results in the destruction of his free and creative relationship with his family or his professional or social entourage. It is precisely because we must defend complete intellectual and moral freedom and because we understand membership of or association with a religious group to be an enriching experience, and an opportunity for personal fulfilment and creativity, that we must fight against any form of integration into a group that involves alienation, brainwashing, suppression of the personality or personal subjection, even though these may be performed in a context of religious mysticism and transcendental faith.

Activities that can openly be described as criminal (illegal proselytism, kidnapping, fraud, sexual abuse, coercion and threats, physical punishment, attacks on the freedom and safety of people in general - the most frequent offences of the so-called "destructive sects") are intolerable, but just as intolerable are the educational, cultural and social repercussions of these activities on members' children and relatives. There is a cultural and social dimension to the problem that should concern us as much, indeed more, than the law-breaking involved.

Religious freedom

It appears proven that the phenomenon of sects leads to law-breaking and in some cases to destructive consequences. However, not all sects are criminal or destructive. Besides, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires respect for freedom of religion and the right to manifest that religion in public or private, in worship, teaching, practice or observance.

We must therefore be careful not to commit injustices. We cannot, for example, consider that any group with non-traditional beliefs is a sect with all the negative connotations it implies nor can we incriminate a group as such or its beliefs - except in very specific cases - but only its criminal activities and with due evidence in each case.

We therefore have to declare that it is not advisable to recommend that governments issue specific legislation on sects which could infringe upon such rights as freedom of conscience or religion. While the moving demands of victims of criminal acts committed by sects are humanely understandable, they are neither legally nor democratically justifiable since rights and freedoms cannot be protected by suppressing or limiting other rights and freedoms. We are confronted with the need to strike a balance between the protection of individual rights and freedoms and the protection of the public rights and freedoms of religion, association, expression and so on, which are also absolutely fundamental.

The aim therefore is to prevent the possibility of an association or a religion being used as a cover for a criminal activity. In other words, it is a matter of implementing the law - which exists already in all countries in the form of the criminal code - rather than banning the existence of religious or cultural groups, even if their beliefs or ideas are unusual. To be perfectly clear, this means that each citizen must be free to change direction or radically change his beliefs, but without pressure and without infringement of his psychological and physical integrity; he must also be free to join a group of any ideological or religious persuasion, but at the same time he must be free to remain in it or leave it at any moment. This means that in a democracy the freedom of all religious, cultural or other groups must be respected, as long as they do not threaten the personal integrity of their members, nor their personal, professional and cultural relationships, nor, of course, the security of their property or their rights as workers. These offences have already been defined by legislation.

Conclusions

The solution of the problem of sects does not lie in legislation. The problem of sects which commit offences exists, but so do the laws which punish these offences. What is needed is a greater awareness, preventive measures and the collective responsibility of society. Greater vigilance will of course be necessary, but the most effective action, in the medium-term and long-term, is education in this field, general information, creative and free association between young people, friendships between the people and groups concerned, and cultural growth with an enhanced capacity for thought and critical analysis.

We are against specific legislation and in favour of vigilance and the monitoring of this new and growing problem. We believe that the public authorities must step up their supervision of any associations suspected of being "destructive sects" by subjecting them to closer inspection and by setting up administrative and police mechanisms permitting continuous observation and enquiries.

I agree with the conclusion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights that major legislation on sects is undesirable, but I think there is a certain naivety in advocating the registration of sects on the basis of which they might be monitored. In the first place there is no legal definition of a sect. Therefore, there can be no register of destructive or harmful sects. None of them would register. What could be done would be to toughen the legislation governing associations by imposing more restrictive minimum requirements, and to monitor their activities through registers of religious, cultural, therapeutic or other similar bodies under which form sects often masquerade.

With regard to information on sects, there are two aspects involved. There is general information, which must be given by the public authorities, and dissemination of that information through the media, which are probably in the best position for alerting the public to the problem. On the other hand there is a need, especially in the predominantly secular societies of Western Europe, but by no means exclusively in such societies, to provide a basis for value judgements. Informing adolescents about sects and new religious movements must be an integral part of the general education system and cannot simply be left to independent bodies. This problem must be put before young people and children when they learn about ethics and personal and social rights in religious freedom, in other words at school.

I agree with Mr Hunt's conclusion on the problem of the transfer of children abroad, but I should like to add that much can be done in the field of international co-operation to monitor sects more effectively and to obtain information and divulge it. The necessary international agreements to this effect should therefore be concluded.

Lastly, it seems evident to me that the members working for sects and exploited by them should be protected. The problem is knowing how and when a person is "working for a sect" and is "employed" by that sect. This is not easy. In all cases, the general employment and tax legislation of each country should be applied.

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Reporting committee: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights

(Doc. 6535).

Committee for opinion: Committee on Culture and Education.

Budgetary implications for the Assembly: None.

Reference: Doc. 5737, Reference No. 1568 of 1 July 1987.

Opinion: Approved by the committee on 6 December 1991.

Secretaries to the committee: MM. Grayson and Ary.