NEWS STORY: European Christians confront growing appeal of `cults,’ sects

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

GRAZ, Austria _ The activities of evangelical Christian groups and”cults”were very much on the minds of traditional European Christians assembled here this week to forge a united front on religious issues in the post-Cold War era.

As Orthodox Church clergy remain bogged down in leadership struggles and Catholic prelates try to reassert the pope’s primacy among the faithful,”new religious movements,”as they are called, are gaining steam across Europe and threaten to turn the tables on the established churches.

Germany’s recent decision to put the Church of Scientology under surveillance _ claiming it is a business and not a religion _ is just one example of how Europeans are grappling with the growing appeal of non-traditional groups, some of which are led by messianic figures or embrace doomsday scenarios.

Many of the groups _ including Scientology and some evangelical ministries _ are imports to Europe from the United States.”Sects are increasingly competing with Orthodoxy in Bulgaria,”Dimitrina Merdianowa, a professor of religion at Sofia University, said Tuesday (June 24).”The only way out of this trend is the revitalization of the Orthodox Church to address modern societal concerns.” Many of the religious leaders attending the Second European Ecumenical Assembly _ sponsored by the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European (Catholic) Bishops’ Conferences _ say they distinguish between non-traditional”Christian movements,”such as Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and”cults,”which they consider far more insidious and often having nothing to do with true religion.

Most of the leaders at the assembly also say they believe a positive relationship is possible with non-traditional Christians as long as they accept the Trinity _ the orthodox Christian belief that God is comprised of the Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit.”They don’t have to cross every `t’ and dot every `i’ but there is a body of belief that we have to embrace,”said the Rev. George Carey, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.”The situation in Europe and the world at large is characterized by religious pluralism. We can’t turn back the clock,”added Erich Geldbach, a German Baptist theologian.

Still, many leaders are clearly anxious about the rising appeal of evangelicals in Europe and the diminishing power of the Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestantism.”The challenge of these new religious movements is (to strengthen) our own renewal … more than in the past,”Carey said at an assembly forum on the subject, which drew a standing-room-only crowd of delegates and other participants.

Merdianowa delivered a more ominous warning, saying the growing appeal of evangelical groups and”cults”could”shatter the (traditional) churches themselves.” While Carey noted the”Christian landscape of Europe has been criss-crossed by missionaries for centuries,”most European countries are struggling with how they can protect their religious heritage and remain faithful to democratic freedoms.

State churches in Europe are common, bestowing considerable monetary advantages and protection from”foreign”churches seeking to gain converts.

In Austria and Germany, where Catholicism is the state church, workers pay a state tax to support church institutions. In Bulgaria, Russia and other Slavic countries, Orthodoxy enjoys perquisites from the state as a result of its rarefied status.

The powerful Russian Orthodox Church is so concerned with the rising appeal of new religious movements that Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has given final approval to legislation that would bar religions not recognized by the government from owning property, publishing religious books or manufacturing religious objects until they have operated with official acknowledgment for 15 years.

In addition to the Russian Orthodox Church, the law would recognize Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as legitimate religions able to function without impediment. The law asserts that these four faiths are traditional to Russia, while other religions, including a host of Protestant groups that have operated in Russia for decades, are not.

Russia’s upper house of parliament must still consider the bill, and it is unclear whether President Boris Yeltsin will sign the legislation into law.

Other European governments, including France, Germany and Switzerland, have already imposed restrictions on new religious movements. Austria is considering laws that would define sects and determine rights of recognition.

Many of these laws do not distinguish between non-traditional Christian groups and organizations widely dismissed as”cults.” The growing appeal of evangelical and non-traditional Christian groups are an annoyance to traditional European religious leaders. But they are far more concerned about what they consider a more pernicious threat to their churches _ cults that celebrate individualism, mysticism, or are organized around a single charismatic leader.

No event shocked and awakened traditional European religious leaders to the presence of such groups more than the mass suicides in 1994 and 1995 of 69 followers of the Swiss Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Canada.

In Germany, the government has opened an investigation into the activities of the Church of Scientology, claiming it is not a legitimate church but a cult bent on gaining power and wealth.”Freedom of religion is not a license for doing anything,”said Paul Zulehner, a theologian at Vienna University.”That’s why the German parliament is investigating the Scientologists. They have every right to.” But traditional religious leaders are of mixed minds on how to deal with the growing attraction of non-traditional religious groups and cults.

The difference of opinion may account for the striking omission of any mention of cults or sects in the assembly document, which is intended as a blueprint for European churches in the future. The document will be voted on by the full assembly of 700 delegates Saturday (June 28), the final full day of the seven-day conference.”I see flashing red lights in many of these questions,”said Helmut Obst, an Austrian theologian and professor at Martin Luther University.”There is a certain hysteria connected to the definition of sects. There are risks to freedom that we must consider.” Obst added,”I’m not arguing that anything goes, but I do think there is a lot of ambivalence in Europe about what to do because of these questions.”

MJP END HEILBRONNER

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