CULTS IN EUROPE
Directorate-General for Research
People's Europe Series
Summary of the report of the French National Assembly Committee of Inquiry on Cults - adopted unanimously by the committee in December 1995.
All studies on 'cults' recognize that it is difficult to define the term 'cults' because the phenomenon is difficult to identify.
(1) The concept of a 'cult' is unknown in French law
This absence of a legal definition is a consequence of the French concept of secularity, as the Declaration of Human Rights and the French Constitution guarantee that all citizens are equal before the law regardless of origin, race or religion, while respecting all beliefs and the neutrality of the State.
The principle of neutrality of the State means that the State does not interfere in religious beliefs, subject to restrictions concerned with respect for public order.
(2) The concept adopted by the Committee of Inquiry
The difficulty of defining the concept of a cult led the Committee of Inquiry to adopt a package of criteria of 'potential for danger', while being aware that each of these criteria is debatable.
The criteria are those used by the 'Renseignements généraux' (1) in their analysis of the 'cult phenomenon'.
The criteria are:
- mental destabilization;
- exorbitant financial demands;
- compulsory severing of links with the original social environment;
- attacks on physical integrity;
- recruitment of children;
- more or less anti-social ideas;
- public order disturbances;
- the number of incidents involving the courts;
- possible diversion of traditional economic cycles;
- attempts to infiltrate public authorities.
Any attempt at a global assessment of the 'cult phenomenon' comes up against a number of difficulties in connection with:
- the imprecise nature of the concept;
- the type of activities;
- the link with the cult (devotees, sympathisers, camp followers, etc.);
- the impact of unquantifiable criteria such as the cult's international ramifications, its financial circumstances, its infiltration strategy, etc.
According to the French 'Renseignements Généraux', the number of movements counted which meet one of the criteria of potential danger indicated above is 172 for main organizations and 800 including branches. The number of devotees - very difficult to quantify - varies around 160 000, the number of sympathisers around 100 000.
(3) New trends appearing over the last ten years
- Growth in the number of cults and the number of cult members; it is extremely difficult to give precise figures for this development; various factors, however, suggest that this expansion is continuing (financial commitments, need for remedies for affliction, etc.);
- Proliferation of branches and entirely new organizations;
- Changes in the population:
- Since 1968: young, middle-class people of both sexes;
- Before 1968: adults from relatively poor environments, mostly female;
- The pyramid model of power within cults has become more marked;
- The ideas put forward by the new cults largely feature individual self-improvement;
- Increased potential for danger:
Until the early 1970s, warnings against cults issued primarily from the churches, but the excesses of some organizations have helped to bring about a radical change in the way they are perceived. There is evidence for this phenomenon in the creation of protection associations and a relatively large number of court cases. The serious criminal activities of some cults (attacks, mass suicides and assassinations) has shaken public opinion.
(4) Identifying dangerous practices
- Offences in connection with physical attacks on people: abuse, beating and wounding, detention, failure to assist a person in danger or illegal practice of medicine;
- Violation of certain family obligations, particularly of parents who are members of cults with regard to their children;
- Defamation, slander or violation of privacy;
- Tax fraud, swindling, trickery, abuse of confidence;
- Violations of labour law and social security.
It is impossible to say whether these dangers have increased over the past ten years.
(5) The need for a pragmatic response
French law provides various means to counteract the various deviations of certain 'cult movements'. The conclusion has to be drawn, however, that these means are only rarely employed.
A radical reform therefore does not seem desirable. To be effective, the instrument to combat the dangers of cults should include three elements:
- better understanding of cults and dissemination of this knowledge by creating a cult observatory;
- stricter application of existing law;
- reinforcement of certain elements of the existing law, particularly by studying the deterrent effect of sanctions and whether it is appropriate to increase them, by reviewing the law on defamation, by increasing protection for expert witnesses in court and making it possible for victims' defence associations to bring civil actions.
(6) Increased international cooperation
Increased international and Community cooperation is essential:
- because many dangerous cults have an international dimension;
- because cults which are prosecuted in one country often decide to transfer their operations abroad (particularly in connection with the illegal practice of medicine, violations of labour law and social security contributions, etc.).
The Committee of Inquiry regrets that the European Union seems to be taking no action in this area.
It proposes that intergovernmental cooperation be introduced, based on an exchange of information, particularly through a databank; that control measures be coordinated, taking account of differences in judicial systems; that searches for people wanted by the courts or by the administration and searches for missing persons be conducted.
Numbers of devotees of cults in 1995
|Name of the Cult||Devotees
|Universal Alliance||2 000|
|Christian Community||80 000|
|Church of Christ, Scientist||480 000|
|Neo-Apostolic Church||7 187 000|
|Universal Church of God||100 000|
|The Family (formerly Children of God)||12 000|
|Mahikari-Sukyo Mahikari||500 000|
|TM Transcendental Meditation||3 500 000|
|Moonies or Association of the Holy Spirit for World Unification||180 000|
|Mormons or Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints||8 406 985|
|The Grail Movement||9 000|
|The Raelian Movement||20 000|
|Scientology||11 000 000|
|Sokka Gakkai+Nichiren Soshu||17 000 000|
Source: UNADFI, France
(1) From about 40 general information officers spread throughout France, the Interior Ministry gathers information on the establishment of cults, their members and their activities.
© European Parliament: 03/1997