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Austrian Perspectives on Cults


November 1st 2012


Austrian Perspectives on Cults

Friedrich Griess, Gesellschaft gegen Sekten- und Kultgefahren (1) President of FECRIS (2) from 2005 to 2009

Since 1874, in Austria there exists a law about acknowledgement of religious organisations by the state. The relevant office for such an acknowledgement is the "Kultusamt" (3) located in the federal ministry of education (4). The original law does not explain any special conditions for such an acknowledgement.

Already in 1953, the Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna had established an office for information about cults and sects.(5) Its main interest at this time was to study ideological differences and not so much the harm caused to cult adherents and their families. At that time, one could often hear that "a group that uses the bible cannot be noxious".

In the Seventies of the last century, the activities of so-called "Youth Religions" increased dramatically also in Austria. At the same time the methods used by those groups to suppress and eliminate the free will of their members and the consequences of this influence upon the individuals and their families became obvious.

In 1977, an association was founded as Verein zur Wahrung der geistigen Freiheit (6) by concerned relatives and experts interested in the problem, with the assistance by state and church authorities. As a consequence of its engaged educational work an inter-ministerial working group on "Pseudoreligiose Organisationen" (7) arose which finally asked the association to set up a center for documentation and counselling.

This association with its centre at 1020 Vienna, Obere Augartenstrasse 26-28 is a non-political and nonconfessional institution in which deals with the problems of extreme religious and other problematic movements.

In 1992, this association adopted its new name Gesellschaft gegen Sekten- und Kultgefahren (GSK) which should express its aims and contents without being a reason for misunderstanding. The activity of the GSK is non-profit oriented. Its exclusive goal is to limit the damage caused by destructive cults to individuals, to their friends and families and to the community as a whole, by consulting and also by prevention. This includes:

* Assistance to relatives and friends of cult members
* Passing of information to those who are in danger of falling victim to the fascination of a cult
* Support to ex-members for their return to "normal" life and for their financial claims to the group which they had left
* Collecting and keeping records of source- and informational material
* Permanent briefing of the public authorities and information of professionals and the public about the methods, activities and goals of destructive cults. This is done by informational conferences in schools and other educational establishments and by support of media in reporting.

As one of our four children joined a cult in 1983, my wife and I became members of the GSK in 1987 and since we actively support its work.

A brochure had been published by the Austrian Government, with the title Jugendreligionen, Psychokulte, Gurubewegungen (8) by the federal ministry for education, arts and sport, and by the federal ministry for environment, youth and family, with a second edition in 1987. Subsequently, Scientology sued the two ministers, Mrs. Hilde Hawlicek and Mrs. Marilies Fleming. Though the suit was rejected by the court, the case gave so much work to the state administrations that they were not very eager, at least for a while, to make further attempts to warn against destructive cults.

In 1991, the German Bundestag held a hearing about destructive cults, with 10 experts giving information to the MPs. I passed the minutes of this hearing to various politicians in Austria. As a consequence, the then federal minister for environment, youth and family, Mrs. Ruth Feldgrill-Zankl, proposed a similar hearing to be held in the Austrian Nationalrat (9). This hearing took place on 27 January 1993, where 5 experts (psychiatrists Walter Spiel and Max Friedrich, psychologist Brigitte Rollett, all university professors, and Mrs. Friederike Valentin from the Catholic church and pastor Johannes Spitzer from the Protestant church) were consulted. As a result, the parliamentarian committee for youth and family worked out a proposal consisting of 5 points:

* Establish an inter ministerial committee to further treat the problem
* Issue a brochure on that subject
* Include the subject in adult educational programs
* Support the existing self help groups
* Revise the corresponding laws

This proposal was unanimously accepted in a plenary session of the Nationalrat in July 1994.

Subsequently, the then federal minister for environment, youth and family, Mr. Martin Bartenstein, who really became a cult expert himself, published a brochure titled "Sekten -Wissen schutzt!" with a second edition published in 1999 and a total of about 400.000 copies, and prepared two laws which were agreed by parliament in 1998:

* Creation of the "Bundesstelle fuer Sektenfragen"
* Establishment of a lower level of acknowledgement of religious associations by the state, called called "confessional association" and amendment of the law from 1874.

The leader of the Bundesstelle was and still is Mr. German Mueller who previously has been the executive director of the GSK. This office really became a brain trust of experts, though they are held to keep certain neutrality, as believed to be appropriate for a state office.

The ministry of education published a folder, titled "Gemeinschaft kann gefahrlich werden" (12) where in funny pictures, easily to be understood by youngsters, the methods of "brainwashing" by cults are explained. This folder still can be ordered at the ministry.

In Vienna, a section of the federal police was charged to watch cultic activities. Their official duty has been modified to "terrorist watching", but they still cooperate with us.

Additionally, some local governments also established regional cult consulting offices, and some public family consulting offices were trained to be able to answer inquiries about cults.

The law about "confessional associations" was mainly an attempt to postpone the decision about problematic groups who sought for acknowledgement as religions and thus not really was a permanent solution. It also is considered by some people as discriminatory.

The GSK has been subsidised by both the federal ministries mentioned above and in addition by some local governments. On 30 June 1994, the GSK became a co-founder of FECRIS.

In the late Nineties, also the media have been very cooperative so that citizens were well informed about the possible dangers caused by cults. Schools were very much interested to organise lectures for their pupils, as well as parishes for their members. I remember that in 1997 I was invited to give 50 lectures, nearly one every week.

During that time, there also was a broad cooperation between state and church employees and voluntaries. From that, a small unofficial working group still exists today, meeting about every second month.

But the 1998 US law against discrimination of religious minorities also had its influence on Austria, and the annual report of the US Department of State regularly mentions the GSK as a "controversial association". Since 2004, all subsidies for the GSK on federal level have been dropped, this transiently had caused a dramatic financial disaster if not prevented by a private sponsor.

Though the Bundesstelle provides good services for those who inquire, they do not actively alert citizens and it has to be feared that the public knowledge about the dangers of cults fades away.

Beyond the Bundesstelle, the youth and family department, actually located at the federal ministery for trade, though with its own secretary of state, Mrs. Christine Marek, has some interesting remarks in its website13 which translate to:

"Information about cults from the side of state institutions below the threshold of law violation is possible
if:
* it points to threat for psychological or physical health
* it serves for the protection of the integrity of family life
* it points to extreme financial entangling
* it hereby provides the free entrance and exit of the individual and especially if it serves the wellbeing of children and youngsters who enjoy a special protection in our
legal order."

But the ministry refuses to keep an updated copy of the brochure "Sekten - Wissen schutzt!" in its website though this would be a low cost means to inform the public. Unauthorised copies are accessible, in German14 and in English translation (15).

However, in practise authorities show little understanding for cultic influence, and courts generally tend to protect those who represent themselves as "religious minorities." I have been personally involved in a number of court cases and I could tell many strange stories about this.

Officially, the inter-ministerial committee still exists, but its activity, if there is any at all, is unknown to the public.

So far the situation in Austria. But Austria is not an isolated island; there is a strong information exchange between the German speaking countries due to the common language. An internet network, technically installed by the German Catholic priest Gerald Kluge (his name translates to "clever") connects about 180 people in state, churches and private associations, and even some participants outside this area who understand German.

In Germany, there is certain coordination on federal level by the federal ministry for family, seniors, women and youth (16) and Scientology is observed on this level by the office for the protection of the constitution. Otherwise, the protection against cults is treated separately by each Bundesland. The most active ones seem to be Nordrhein-Westfalen (17) Baden-Wurttemberg (18) (actually, they still resist the claim of Jehovah's Witnesses to be recognized as a religion), Bavaria (19) and - up to now - Hamburg (20) though the latter one recently had to reduce its activity.

But even such a large country as Germany is affected by the US position. On 25 May 2010, the president of the German Bundestag (parliament) (21) Prof. Dr. Norbert Lammert (22) was lecturing in my home city Klosterneuburg about the subject "The contribution of Germany to peace and mutual understanding of people in Europe". After that excellent lecture where the speaker several times stressed the importance of cooperation of EU member states, I had the opportunity to ask the question why cooperation of EU member states with respect to cult problems obviously is not possible. I also suggested a closer cooperation between Germany and France in this field, mentioning the law "About-Picard", and I suggested that the German bill about a psycho-marked law should be adopted on European level. In his reply, the speaker extensively and with remarkable sharpness said that the main obstacle against this cooperation is the position of the United States that even threatens countries with trade impairment if they discriminate what the US regards as "religious minorities".

In the German speaking part of Switzerland, it is more or less up to the cantons how they handle sectarian problems, but none of them has taken appropriate action.

More hopeful is a lecture, presented by Mr. Georges Fenech (23) president of Miviludes (24) at a conference of FECRIS on 17 April 2010 in London with the title Promoting a European programme of vigilance and struggle against cultic excesses (25) where the speaker stressed the necessity of cooperation on EU level and pointed to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) (26) as the right place to act. As this agency is located in Vienna, we are back to Austria that possibly has a chance to play a major role in that game.

I also refer to a pamphlet I wrote last year with the title The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and its jeopardising by totalitarian cult organisations27 where I showed theincompatibility of cultic behaviour with this Charter and made suggestions what the European Union and the governments of its member states should do about.



1 Association against the dangers of sects and cults, http://sektenberatung.at
2 Federation Europenne des Centres de Recherche et d'Information sur le Sectarisme - European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism www.fecris.org
3 www.bmukk.gv.at/ministerium/kultusamt/kultusamt_allgem.xml
4 www.bmukk.gv.at 5http://www.weltanschauungsfragen.at/home
5 www.weltanschauungsfragen.at/home
6 Society for the Preservation of Spiritual Freedom
7 Pseudo religious organizations
8 Youth religions, psycho cults, guru movements
9 the first chamber of national parliament
10 "Cults - Knowledge protects"!
11 Federal office for sectarian questions http://www.bundesstelle-sektenfragen.at
12 "Community may become dangerous"
13 www.bmwfj.gv.at/Jugend/Praevention/Seiten/sekten.aspx#staatliche_informationsarbeit
14 http://membres.multimania.fr/xenu/Sekten-Wissen-schuetzt.html
15 www.lermanet.com/cisar/germany/books/990913b.htm
16 www.bmfsfj.de/
17 www.sekten-info-nrw.de/
18 www.kultusportal-bw.de/servlet/PB/menu/1252525/index.html
19 www.blja.bayern.de/themen/jugendschutz/sekten/TextOfficesStrukturmerkmale.html
20 www.hamburg.de/ag-scientology/
21 www.bundestag.de/
22 http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norbert_Lammert
23 http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Fenech
24 http://www.miviludes.gouv.fr
25 http://griess.st1.at/gsk/fecris/london/Fenech.htm
26 http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/home/home_en.htm
27 http://griess.st1.at/gsk/fecris/Charter.htm