Doc. 8383

21 April 1999

Illegal activities of sects


Committee on Culture and Education

Rapporteur: Mr Lluis Maria de Puig, Spain, Socialist Group


      In February 1992 the Parliamentary Assembly adopted Recommendation 1178 on sects and new religious movements, on the basis of a report by Sir John Hunt for the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights and an opinion which I myself presented on behalf of the Committee on Culture and Education. In that recommendation the Assembly said major legislation on sects was undesirable and proposed educational and information measures.

      A year later, in February 1993, the Assembly adopted Recommendation 1202 on religious tolerance in a democratic society, on the basis of a report which Leni Fischer presented on behalf of our committee. Once again we insisted both on the inviolability of religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of worship and on the need to attach greater importance in our school systems to knowledge of religions.

      In May 1997 Mr Nastase and others submitted a fresh motion for a recommendation on sects' activities. In particular they proposed that a European observatory on sects be set up.

      The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights report (rapporteur: Mr Nastase) on sects' illegal activities has been adopted by the committee on 29 March 1999.

      This draft opinion, which to a large extent reiterates our 1992 opinion. It also takes account of our committee’s work on religion and democracy, which resulted in the Assembly’s adopting Recommendation 1396 at the January 1999 session on the basis of a report I presented on behalf of the Committee on Culture and Education.

Sects, education and culture

      As we said in 1992, it is more sects' adverse impact on society as an abnormal sociological and cultural phenomenon that concerns us than the law-enforcement or legal and constitutional aspects. The Committee on Culture and Education's particular concern here is what can be done in the field of education and culture to prevent not only contravention of the right to religious freedom but also some sects' misuse of the right, leading to interference with people's equilibrium and independence as individuals and consequently their free and creative relationship with family, work and society.

      It is precisely because we must protect full intellectual and moral freedom, and also because we consider membership of a religious group to be spiritually enriching and an opportunity for personal fulfilment and creativity, that we must combat any form of absorption into a community which entails alienation, brainwashing, annihilation of the personality or personal subjugation, even in the context of religious mysticism or transcendental faith.

      The activities we can call illegal outright — unlawful proselytism, holding people against their will, fraud, sexual abuse, threats and violence, corporal punishment, interference with general freedom and security — which are the most common offences by “destructive” sects — cannot be tolerated, but nor can the educational, cultural and social repercussions for sect members' children, relatives and friends. There is a cultural and social aspect to the problem which should concern us as much as, if not more than, the actual breaches of the law.

      At all events, it is important to enhance the protection of children, in order in particular to exercise greater supervision of their living conditions and schooling in communities.

Freedom of religion

      Nowadays it is obvious that the sect phenomenon sometimes leads to illegalities and in some cases has destructive effects. However, not all sects are criminal or destructive. Equally, as the Assembly pointed out in Recommendation 1396 (1999), Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the individual’s right to religious freedom and to manifest religion or belief, in public or in private, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

      So we have to be careful not to cause injustices. We cannot, for example, treat all groups that have non-traditional beliefs as sects, with all the negative connotations the term implies; we can incriminate sect activities which have been proved to be illegal (and those alone) but we cannot incriminate a group as such or its beliefs — except in very special cases.

      Our position must therefore be, as it was in 1992, that states should not be recommended to introduce laws on sects which might infringe rights such as freedom of conscience or religion. Moving and humanly understandable though the demands of victims of sects' criminal activities may be, they cannot be justified from either a legal or democratic standpoint for it is impossible to protect rights and freedoms by suppressing or restricting other ones. We are faced with the need to strike a balance between protecting individual freedom and rights and protecting public rights such as freedom of religion, association or expression, which are also absolutely fundamental.

      Our aim must be to make it impossible to use an association or religion as a cover for an illegal activity. In other words, the aim must be to enforce the law — the laws which already exist in all countries, the criminal code — and not to forbid the existence of religious or cultural groups, even if their beliefs or ideas are unconventional. Everyone should be free to evolve as people or to radically change their beliefs but there must be no coercion or psychological or physical interference; they must be free to join any ideological or religious group but also to decide to leave at any time. This means that, in a democracy, it is necessary to respect the freedom of all religious, cultural, or other groups provided that they do not interfere with the personal integrity of their followers, with their emotional, cultural or work relationships, or, of course, with their property or their rights as workers. Interferences in these areas are already classed as offences.

Conclusions and amendments

      The sect problem cannot always be solved by legislation. The problem of sects which commit offences exists and, as Mr Nastase notes in his report, has even increased since 1992, but laws punishing the offences also exist. What we need is greater awareness of the problem, preventive measures and collective assumption of responsibility by society. We must, of course, be more vigilant but the best results will be achieved, in the medium and the long term, through education about sects, general information, clubs and associations that give young people scope for creative activity, a climate in which individuals and groups can relate with one another, and development, culturally, of a greater capacity for critical reflection.

      Although we reject the idea of laws dealing specifically with sects, we believe it is necessary to introduce measures for closely observing and supervising the phenomenon. We therefore believe that the public authorities must step up surveillance of all associations which show signs of being harmful sects, inspecting them more frequently and setting up administrative and police machinery allowing constant vigilance, investigations, and punishment of all illegal activities.

      I therefore still agree with the conclusion reached in 1992 and reiterated by Mr Nastase (and the Committee on Legal and Human Rights Affairs), that major legislation on sects is undesirable. What can be done is to tighten up the rules governing associations by imposing stricter minimum conditions and to monitor their activities by means of registers of all religious, cultural, therapeutic or similar institutions, which some sects use as a cover for their activities. The proposal to set up a European observatory on sects also appears to me to be a good one.

      There are two aspects to information on sects. On the one hand, there is the general information which the public authorities should provide and its dissemination by the media, which are perhaps the most suitable means of drawing the public’s attention to the problem. On the other, in the predominantly secular societies of western Europe — but not only in such societies — we need to lay the foundations for making value judgments.

Providing information on sects and new religious movements should be an integral part of the general school curriculum for adolescents and should not be exclusively the responsibility of independent bodies. At school, when talking to children and young people about ethics and personal and social rights with regard to religious freedom, teachers should raise the sect issue. Accordingly, the Assembly recommended that the Committee of Ministers invite the governments of member states to “promote education about religions and, in particular, to […] step up the teaching about religions as sets of values towards which young people must develop a discerning approach […], [to] promote the teaching in schools of the comparative history of different religions” and to “encourage the study of the history and philosophy of religions” (Recommendation 1396 (1999)).

      States have made very little progress on the problem of transfer of children abroad and there could be much more international co-operation to monitor sects more effectively, obtain information and disseminate it. There should be international agreements in the matter.

      Lastly, I must point out that, unlike Mr Nastase's explanatory memorandum, the draft recommendation presented by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights sometimes seems to take a rather indulgent attitude to sects. Given that the report focuses on the illegal activities of sects, such indulgence is inappropriate, and the Committee on Culture and Education therefore propose the following amendments:


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Reporting committee: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights (Doc. 8373)

Committee for opinion: Committee on Culture and Education

Reference to committee: Doc. 7826 and Reference 2192 of 28 May 1997

Opinion approved by the committee on 19 April 1999

Secretaries to the committee: Mr Ary, Mrs Theophilova-Permaul, Ms Kostenko