Awareness of the phenomenon in Belgium


André Frédéric (Belgium)

Federal deputy of the Chamber of Representatives of Belgium/Chairman of the   Working Group charged with ensuring the follow-up of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Board of Inquiry on “Cults/Sects”


The approach taken by the Belgian public authorities towards sects has, for a long time, been very cautious. Indeed, a stance had to be taken on the matter, and it had to be one that would involve two basic ideas: on the one hand, freedom of expression and association and, on the other , freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as guaranteed by the Belgian Constitution, and in particular by article 19:


“Freedom of worship, public practice of the latter, as well as freedom to demonstrate one’s opinions on all matters, are guaranteed, except for the repression of offences committed when using this freedom.”


The major tragedy of Vercors, for which the OTS (Ordre du Temple Solaire/Order of the Solar Temple – an esoteric group) was responsible, and its handling by the media will, for the first time, provoke a reaction by the public authorities in our country.


It was following these events, in 1996, that Belgium finally set up a parliamentary enquiry commission – with the powers of an investigating judge – whose aim was to develop a policy with a view to combating the illegal practices of cults and the danger they represent for society and people in general, and children in particular.


Why am I interested in harmful sectarian organisations? Because one cannot fail to feel implicated by the development of numerous organisations which, today and every day, jeopardise the physical and/or psychological health of our fellow citizens. And this is not only in Canada, France or Switzerland by the Order of the Solar Temple, or in Japan by the Aum sect. In our country, this phenomenon has reached a significant scale. Questionable shady organisations can be found close by, on our very doorstep. It is the development of Sukyo Mahikari in my region which first caught my attention. Sukyo Mahikari runs a prosperous business, in the heights of Verviers, in a temple that flouts all the rules of town planning. We should, however, also mention the Maharishi movement established at Trois Bornes, on the border of Holland, Germany and Belgium, in a hotel situated in Holland. More specifically, they plan to build a housing estate of around one hundred homes in Nil-St-Vincent, in the Brabant Wallon, another symbolic place, since it is in the geographical centre ofBelgium. We must also mention Father Samuel, known all too well to the media and courts of law, but also all the other names that have now become commonplace: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology and even the Pentecostals, whose main interest is not merely the salvation of souls. The aim here is not to denounce these names, these organisations, sometimes far more secretive than they lead one to believe, but to show, by thorough work, that people and individuals are actually endangered: endangered physically, mentally, financially, etc.. Without going as far perhaps as the extreme tragedy of  group suicides (murders?) as those of  the Order of the Solar Temple(OTS), every day, men, women and children are ruined through their beliefs, and under these conditions, a free and democratic State cannot simply ignore what is happening. Our country has learnt lessons from its parliamentary enquiry and has taken positive initiatives. On a European level, Belgium is often cited as an example, along with France, for its effective fight against harmful sectarian organisations. The most tangible achievement has certainly been the setting up of CIAOSN[1] (Centre d’Information et d’Avis sur les Organisations Sectaires Nuisibles – Information and Advice Centre about Harmful Sectarian Organisations), an independent centre linked to the SPF Justice (Service Public Fédéral Justice – Federal Public Service of Justice), whose members, appointed by the Chamber of Representatives, report to Parliament. This executive tool receives requests, informs public authorities, studies the development of sects/cults, and informs the public, thereby ensuring effective preventative work.


Our legal system has also been given extra means: throughout the country, the federal police have set up units baptised “terrorism and sects”, and each department has its own magistrate of reference to flush out the deeds committed by harmful sectarian organisations, deeds which too often are difficult to identify when they are committed out of context.


Cults/Sects adapt to the development of society. I have therefore had the great privilege of presiding over a parliamentary working party aiming to measure the development of harmful sectarian organisations in Belgium and was struck by one piece of evidence: we are faced with an impressive diversification in the sphere of activity of cults.


Just how and why have they geared up, today taking over areas concerning spirituality, well-being, health, education, personal development and even, yet more perniciously, working in the humanitarian field?


A quick glance back at the history of religions, immediately shows us the increasing loss of influence of traditional religions at the heart of so-called modern societies. For centuries, sects based themselves on the accepted image of good and evil, an over-simplification between saved souls and souls which will perish, by using the old Jewish-Christian images of the Apocalypse. Those who believe will be raised up. The others, the sinners, will be damned. It is by playing on this ancestral fear that cults/sects have controlled men throughout history. This guaranteed an excellent commercial basis, particularly in less developed regions.  But for several decades and following the decline of religions, or more precisely of religious observance, new exploitable niches have opened up. Several explanations are plausible but doubtless, the main reason lies in the increasing divide between the Churches and the faithful.


Let us take the specific example of Catholicism, with the recent extreme stances of Pope Benedict XVI in relation, particularly, to euthanasia and the case of Eluana in Italy, the rehabilitation of excommunicated bishops like Mgr Williamson who is openly negationist, not to mention the Vatican’s position with regard homosexuals. In short, there is a time-lag between Rome and 21st Century society, and it is this fact that opens up these niches into which gurus and other less charitable organisations have stepped.  These openings have been created and widened by a sociological evolution that mainly started after May 1968. We have gone from a collectivist society where the common interest prevailed, where each person invested for the good of all, to what I would call “the Tapie years” (after a French businessman and MEP, Bernard Tapie), to a purely egoistical, even egocentric society, where only the interest of the individual prevails, even if it means taking the place of one’s neighbour by gouging out his eyes. This individualistic society has created new needs but also new weaknesses like distress, in a world living at 200 miles an hour, society’s drop-outs, made vulnerable and pushed towards a new form of pseudo-spirituality. This distress becomes a fertile compost for  recruitment and all the business underlying certain organisations which promise wonders but which in fact are nothing more than illusion.


Thus, we have evolved from the dualism of good and evil in the Middle Ages, to the saving of souls or damnation with the Apocalypse as the focal point, into overconsumption and the search for individual well-being of our post-1968 societies, we have seen an emergence of pseudo-therapists who teach their ideas to a completely disorientated, receptive public wanting only thing: to be guided by fine words, unaware in their credulity that they will alter their minds and empty their wallets.


It is very difficult to know the exact number of cults/sects and, even more so, the numbers of their followers, as several obstacles stand in the way of quantitatively measuring this phenomenon.


First of all it is characterised by a great mobility: groups are formed every day, others disappear, yet others are re-formed under new names. It is equally difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when a group, which has been non sectarian, can change and become a harmful cult/sect. Often, it is only when a complaint is lodged that we even discover that it exists.

The various branches or societies revolving around a cult/sect make their identification even more difficult.


Finally, it is almost impossible to assess the number of members of cults, because it is not easy to distinguish the user of services proposed by a cult from a follower involved in the organisation. Moreover, the cults themselves are not always in a position to precisely quantify the number of their members.


As far as the number of followers is concerned, the 1996 Enquiry Commission was unable to give a precise quantification. Nevertheless, it estimated that there are several tens of thousands of people directly concerned by this phenomenon in our country. As for the number of organisations, this same Commission actually studied 189 organisations at the time.


In fact, the Commission did not draw up a “list of sects/cults”. It  established a list of movements mentioned during the auditions of witnesses or disclosed by a public service (the police, for example).


In September 2006, I therefore studied, with my working party, the follow-up on of my predecessors’ recommendations.


From the hearings organised, it emerged that the activities of sectarian organisations have not diminished in our country although they have sometimes become less visible. Sectarian organisations are moving forward today in an increasingly secretive way.


To be more precise, we must stress that, since 1999, the Information and Advice Centre about Harmful Sectarian Organisations has examined the activities of more than 600 groups, of which only 94 had been mentioned during the work of the Parliamentary Enquiry Commission. Even if it is only a question of the number of files opened by the Centre following requests by the public and authorities (and not of some list or other of harmful sectarian organisations), this figure, to say the least, is a good reason for concern. The cultist scene is truly in constant evolution!


As well as the continuation of the activities of a certain number of large, well-known organisations (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, etc.), we can also see the growth of small organisations with changing names, sometimes splinter groups or emanating from larger organisations, which act in a more diffuse manner and because of this are more difficult to spot.


Cultic practices can equally be the occurrence of isolated individuals who usurp the title of healers or psychotherapists.


The groups (Pentecostals, Evangelicals) descended from North American Protestantism occupy an important place now on the Belgian sectarian scene.


A first means of large-scale diversification id to take advantage of disasters


Thus, in New York, at the time of the 11th September terrorist attacks, or in Toulouse, around the AZF factory explosion, Scientologists tried to replace the psychiatrists, their enemies, and use the deep distress of the victims for their own development. Yet,  nearer to home, at the time of the terrorist attacks in the London underground and also at the time of the of Ghislenghien disaster in Belgium. Through volunteer work, they recruit. The presence of Scientology volunteers in hospitals and identification centres for the victims of the tsunami disasters have also increased.


Second sector: personal development and professional training.


When talking about a harmful sectarian organisation working in the field of personal development or professional training, it goes without saying that one calls to mind the ideas of certain organisations.


The majority of companies offering such training are, of course, above suspicion. But we should alert citizens that an increasing number of organisations or small sectarian groups have a professed goal which is that a person should thrive and means of well being. Consequently, they suggest numerous unconventional practices, often not scientifically tested. The area of personal development, training courses of psychic preparation, relaxation sessions, coaching, yoga or other similar practices can thus constitute, when practised by unscrupulous individuals, activities which are auspicious for cultic tendencies.


It would furthermore appear that certain sectarian organisations specialise in professional training, often through the expedient of companies with a different name, and present various (pseudo-)training and personal development courses for businesses. It is a matter, at one and the same time, of a disguised recruitment technique and a means of investing in the economic world.


Scientology is certainly the most influential sect in the sphere of human resource management. The cult sees, in the dissemination of these methods, a means of establishing its influence in the very heart of the economic world. The reference to Scientology does not always appear clearly at first and there are many businesses which have been seduced by the commercial savoir-faire of the Scientologists. A savoir-faire which has proved itself in the field of social control.


An extremely important line: the youth sector


One of the preferred fields of action of some harmful sectarian organisations is the family and children in particular. It is a way for gurus to perniciously manipulate their believers, taking advantage of the lack of judgement of children or adolescents. It is one of the most questionable and most dangerous aspects of this diversification of the movements.


The sphere of maternity and early childhood are also highly rated targets of sectarian organisations. It is said that some, like Raël, do not hesitate to suggest techniques of reproductive cloning to sterile couples.


Beyond questioning the scientific feasibility of the operation, one must obviously ask oneself about the ethics, not to mention the media aspects, as Raël uses the media for his existence and prosperity…


As for the Scientology business, in our country it runs numerous appeals to the population, politicians and journalists. A well-orchestrated campaign aims to persuade public opinion that the Church is “a Church like any other, recognised in countries all over the world, like the United States”. It wants to distribute leaflets on the damage caused by drugs and hopes to have an effect on schools without distributing directly to adolescents. What also appear frightening are the ideas elaborated in the leaflets which for several months have been distributed at school exits: the promotion of Human Rights!


A final field of development: health and “healing” sectarian organisations


Beyond the techniques of personal development, “healing” cultic organisations (e.g. Sukyo Mahikari), which talk about unconventional medicine, invest heavily in the field of alternative therapeutic practices which are not proven scientifically. In fact, the field of health has become an area of favoured action and a formidable recruitment weapon for an increasing number of cultic organisations. These organisations prioritise people who are physically and/or psychologically vulnerable, who, not always finding the hoped for help in conventional medicine, are looking for new treatments, which are supposedly more effective.


If recourse to healing by prayer, meditation, laying on of hands or other similar practices does not necessarily exclude access to medicine, some groups nevertheless work to persuade their followers of the impossibility of benefiting from the divine healing power if they continue to follow, in parallel, conventional therapies. They advise them, indeed insist, that they should not consult a doctor outside the group, even in cases of serious illnesses, and even if this course of action could endanger their lives. Some gurus, often without any medical qualifications, present treatments, including for the most serious illnesses whose beneficial effects have not been scientifically checked or, even worse, “therapies” which have been shown to be dangerous and/or fraudulent. These practices are clearly a matter of the illegal practice of medicine.


Quid of our criminal code?


In this regard, some practitioners consider that the Belgian criminal armoury is, to a large extent, sufficient to curb harmful sectarian practices. It is true that several legal tools exist but, personally, I consider that we will only be able to fight effectively against these organisations when, like France, we have had the political courage to add the “idea of abuse of  exploitation of the vulnerable” to our criminal code. I shall come back to this point.


What texts do we therefore have available to us?


Dissolution of the ASBL (Association Sans But Lucratif – Non-Profit-Making Organisation)


It is important to be able to deal with the sectarian organisation as a moral entity and not only with one or other individual who is a member of it. The institution of criminal responsibility of moral entities (law of 4 May 1999, published in the Moniteur belge (Belgian official journal) on 22nd June 1999) can be considered an indispensable part, not only in the fight against organised crime, but also against harmful sectarian organisations.

Article 5 of the criminal code specifies that “any moral person is responsible in law for infractions which are intrinsically linked to the realisation of an aim or the defence of its interests”.


Confiscation of goods


Since 2002, the possibilities of legal seizure and confiscation have been expanded. This new clause is part of an approach towards serious or organised crime, hinged on exploitation. It aims to develop a better performing system, thereby enabling better detection of the gains obtained from this type of crime and substantially increases the possibility of confiscating them.


Witness protection


This law could prove useful when taking into account the pressures and dangers of reprisals to which some ex-followers are subjected. There therefore exists the possibility for these people to witness either partially or totally anonymously.


 The illegal practice of medicine


Only doctors or other health professionals are competent to practice medicine. If actions falling within the realm of medical practice are performed by an unauthorised person, this is the illegal practice of medicine, which can be punished by criminal law.


Things must go further


I believe that for our criminal code to be truly effective,  requires adding to. In fact, at present, our legislation does not allow for repression of an attack on the psychological integrity of the individual.


As the report of the Parliamentary Enquiry Commission and, afterwards, the Observatory of Sects recommended, it seems to me essential to add to our armoury a new clause in our criminal code aiming at suppressing the abuse of vulnerable people[2].

As a reminder, France is the first European country to have adopted a law aiming to reinforce prevention but also suppression with regard to sectarian groups. At the time of the agreed examination of witnesses by the working party on the sects in the Belgian Chamber, the French Member of Parliament, Vuilque, had stressed the preventative and educational role of the About-Picard law. In July 2005, the first sentence based on this law was recorded. Thus, the appeal court of Rennes identified a guru as responsible for having abused of the ignorance and vulnerability of four people, one of whom committed suicide.


If it is important to strengthen our legislative armoury in order to allow judges to condemn the criminal schemes of sectarian type movements. It is equally as important, however, to be careful not to challenge the fundamental principles of freedom of expression, freedom of belief and of association, fundamentals of our State of Law.


Threats, intimidation and moral pressure perpetrated intentionally on vulnerable people in order to make them do something, will be punishable by law. And, of course, that does not only apply to cults/sects!

[1]  CIAOSN: Centre d’information et d’avis sur les organisations sectaires nuisibles (Centre for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organisations)

[2] I have therefore drafted, together with my colleague Yvan MAYEUR, a private bill (Doc. parl. Chamber, 2007-2008, n° 52-0493/001) which provides for the setting up as an offence, the mental destabilisation of people and the abuse of vulnerable people. This bill had already been drafted under previous legislation (Doc. Parl., Chamber, 2006-2007, n° 51-2935/001), but unfortunately there was not time to reach a successful conclusion. Moreover it had been started again in the form of a bill lodged by the minister of Justice at the time, Madame Laurette Onkelinx, a bill which again, there was not time to successfully conclude. This is why the initial bill was presented once again at the start of the new legislation, i.e. in December 2007.