Politics at the Conference
Politics too played a role during the Congress; it could hardly have been otherwise, considering the issue that was dealt with and its implications, especially in view of the recent Belgian and French Parliament Reports, and of the stand taken by the German Government towards certain "religious minorities", and of the recent report by the Italian Ministry of the Interior, etc.
This issue was dealt with by some of the speakers, who had an opportunity to criticise, sometimes radically, the conclusions reached by the Belgian and French parliament reports, but speeches were also made by some well-known Italian politicians.
The Councillor for Cultural Matters of the Piedmont Region, Giampiero Leo, was expected to attend the opening of the works. Unable to attend during the morning because of an unexpected illness, he greeted the participants during the afternoon session, together with the director of CESNUR, Massimo Introvigne, who stressed the considerable contribution by the Councillorship to the realisation of the Congress. During his speech, the councillor apologised for not having been present during the morning, stressed the international scope of the Congress, the presence of leading personalities, and said he was very happy for the following two reasons:
" … Because of the opportunity for dialogue which is the most important thing in the world, this is the only way to avoid tragedies, and then because of the very high cultural level. To find an intelligence of the heart and an intelligence of culture together like this is wonderful. This is why this was one of the initiatives that we, as a councillorship, gave the greatest credit to. Then finally there is my own enormous personal esteem of Massimo Introvigne who is one of the greatest experts in the world, but who has brought together, in this Congress, some real personalities. I am sure that these Acts will be a very precious heritage for all people of culture and good will. Finally, infinite thanks for being here and I wish you good proceedings" (1).
Finally, there were two rather important
speeches by Ernesto Caccavale (very active in the discussion in the European
Parliament on a document about "cults"), and by the Italian parliament
member, Domenico Maselli (who was the speaker for the draft law of the
Italian government on religious freedom)
during the banquet entitled "The politics of religious freedom."
Speech by the Hon. Caccavale (2)
In his impromptu speech, the Hon. Caccavale spoke on the topic of "The European Parliament and the issue of 'cults". A member of the European Parliament for four years, he expressed his political stand on the issue of "religious minorities."
He expressed his viewpoint on the recent events in Europe involving "religious minorities."
The mass suicides led to widespread emotional reaction, not only in the countries where they took place, but also in the European Parliament. The Reports of the French and Belgian Parliament commissions were also the result of this emotional reaction, unleashed by mass suicides/homicides. These reports, unfortunately, led to the drawing up of lists, which had something of the appearance of proscription lists and which were also criticised by the Bishops' Conferences.
The emotional reaction also led the European Parliament to pass a resolution, on February 29th, 1996, setting up a Committee (the Public Freedom Committee) charged with studying the phenomenon and suggesting ideas and conclusions. The final report by the Committee, read by an Austrian parliament member, Berger, was reached with great difficulty. The Committee was supposed to present its resolution at the plenary session of the European parliament; however, after two and a half years of work, during which the resolution was discussed and amended by the Committee members, no vote has yet been taken by the 630 members of the European parliament.
Hon. Caccavale, who is a member of this Committee appointed by the European Parliament, says that this delay is due to the controversy surrounding this issue and to pressures, unspecified, but attributed to the Germans. There are supposed to be "anti-freedom" tendencies inside the Committee, which are opposed by him and by other members. He said:
"Those who like me were worried by this anti-freedom trend emphasised that the category of cults is so general that it can lead to ambiguity and abuse or be used to propose subtle and less subtle discrimination, and hence violations of religious freedom. I do not mean to say that criminal organisations do not exist, but the very fact that anybody, even if in perfect good faith, can draw up a list including the dangerous and the non-dangerous ones, you will understand that this becomes a lethal weapon in the hands of an ethical concept of the state. This is the opposite of what the state should be. The modern state is liberal and not an ethical one which can say, on the basis of general and ambiguous notions what is right and what is wrong… I would like to add that the Christians of the first Roman centuries were considered outlaw clandestine sects. The risk of lists being drawn up which write down as dangerous groups whose only fault is that of being different or a minority, is a danger to be avoided. What is the solution? There is none, but the only thing to do is to probe what these movements are doing, one by one. It is too easy to draw up proscription lists… The States of the European Union attribute great importance to freedom of religion, and this is something my colleague Berger strongly stressed, when deciding which organisations rightly claim to religious freedom and which do not…"
The first problem the Committee had to deal with was the definition of the word "cult", a word which always has negative meaning. It is very hard to distinguish "cults" from criminal law-breaking organisations. After the problem of agreeing on which word to use, there is the problem of deciding how the States can and must intervene in issues involving individual freedom, and especially freedom of religion, in individual countries.
The Hon. Caccavale then provided some data on the situation of various European countries.
There are no definite data in Greece, and the only recognised cults are the Jehovah's Witnesses. There are no definite data in Sweden. In Portugal, the only data concern a cult from Brazil which attracted some attention. In Austria, according to data provided by the Austrian committee, 50,000 people belong to some cult, while 200,000 are supposed to belong to religious movements of various kinds. There are no definite data from Holland, and little from England, where however an inquiry into the influence of Masonry in politics and law is being considered. In Spain, 40 or 50 cults have been indicated, but it is not possible to provide the number of their members. In another publication, a total of 300 and 600 cults which belong to what Introvigne calls "do-it-yourself religions" is mentioned, with somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 followers. The Spanish Parliament speaks of 700,000 young people who are near these religious movements. More detailed information is to be had from Germany, Belgium, France and Denmark, where there have been more polemics and stronger emotional reactions after the events of 1994 and 1995. The German Parliament Committee stated that 820,000 people belong to these religious and ideological movements, but little information is available concerning the kind of groups and their features. This committee rejected the classification of groups by denomination. According to the data provided by the Committee, 1.7% of people interviewed admitted having attended events organised by NRMs or ideological movements at least once in their lifetime, or of having shared in their proposals, such as meditation, spiritual training, help courses, etc. The overall amount is 1,200,000 people. The common features of these people are: they have higher education, they belong to the middle-to-high class with an average income of 3000 German Marks, are middle aged and live in large cities. The Belgian Commission listed 157 cults which should be monitored, without specifying how many people belong to them or what they do. Another list was drawn up in France, which caused some worry: 172 cults are supposed to be the central organisations, with 800 branches, 160,000 members and 100,000 sympathisers. Berger was able to procure these data with great difficulty.
Hon. Caccavale concluded with two political considerations: first, drawing up lists is insufficient and dangerous, a case-by-case analysis should be made, it should go in depth and be based on all information, listening both to those who are satisfied with the group they belong to and those who are not. If the political world wants to deal with this issue, it must do using all the information available. But these parliamentary committees have often not referred to a wide range of sources, they have privileged the defence associations, the anti-cult associations. These reports are based mainly on the accounts of hostile former members. In order to explain the mistake made by the Committees which used these sources, Hon Caccavale made this comparison: "It is as if we judged the Catholic Church on the basis of accounts by former priests."
Another problem is that of crimes attributed
to religious organisations. The Parliament Member had this to say: "These
are disquieting crimes, because they are situated on a psychological and
not on an objective level. Even Berger, in his report, under very strong
pressure from the Germans, committed this mistake, speaking explicitly
of physical and emotional integrity. If this report had reached the plenary
session, I already had an amendment ready to delete the word "emotional"
from the report, because when you speak of emotional integrity, you can
easily move over to brainwashing theories. Brainwashing used to exist in
Italian law and was called 'plagio'. In 1981, the Constitutional Court
removed this because it was incompatible with a democratic constitution.
On the basis of the Italian experience, the introduction of laws which
speak of brainwashing and hence of mental manipulation is entirely unacceptable.
These are crimes which are hard to pin down, to define, crimes which may
easily be attributed to those who are not on the right or the winning side,
in other words minorities and those who are different. This is what happened
in the gulags… I believe that the Italian and European codes already have
the normal legal tools… so it is not necessary, indeed it is counterproductive
and dangerous, to create new crimes of such vagueness, while I do not intend
at all to minimise the dishonest and fraudulent propaganda techniques used
by such movements. Every time the State
tries to interfere in the individual life of people, it risks providing
a remedy which is worse than the illness."
The report by Hon. Caccavale, perfectly in line with the Conference, gives us an opportunity to go into greater depth concerning some interesting issues.
We shall overlook some of the issues raised by Hon. Caccavale, because we have dealt with them elsewhere - such as the criticism of the Belgian and French parliament committees - and we shall make a few brief comments on the abolition of the crime of 'plagio' by the Italian Constitutional Court (sentence of April 9th, 1981, No.96, published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale No. 158 of June 8th, 1981) which established the constitutional illegitimacy of Art. 603 of the Penal Code. This sentence eliminated the crime of 'plagio' from those provided for under our penal code.
In order to avoid misunderstandings concerning this sentence, often quoted in relation to crimes involving so-called "brainwashing", we have decided to make things clearer, using the acts of the 1990 Conference on "Socially accepted persuasion, 'plagio' and brainwashing".
We shall quote only a few papers, which can help us to shed some light on the events which led to the decision by the Constitutional Court. Dr Pietro Sarteschi, in the Introduction, quotes part of the sentence, which stated: "A detailed examination of the various and contrasting interpretations given to the Art. 603 of the Penal Code in doctrine and jurisprudence, clearly shows the lack of precision and definition of the law, the impossibility of giving it an objective, coherent and rational content, and hence the absolutely arbitrary nature of its concrete application. It has rightly been compared to an unanchored mine floating through our legal system, which can be applied to any fact implying dependence of one human being on another, without there being any certain parameter for ascertaining the intensity of such influence " (3).
These words clearly show that the abolition of the crime of 'plagio' was not due to the idea that psychological condition (of various kinds and intensity) does not exist, an issue for specialists and certainly not for the Constitutional Court, but to the fact that this crime, as it was established, permitted ambiguities and arbitrary interpretations.
The then President of the Constitutional Court, Dr Leonetto Amadei, attended the Conference and presided over its first day. Defending the sentence, he stated:" The Constitutional Court has decided that, in order to protect that ultimate good which is personal freedom, the incriminating law must establish the criminal deed with definite contours, so the judge can express his judgement on the basis of a correspondence between the deed and the law…
This law, as described, was rightly held by the Court to be imprecise and indefinite, so much so that it was not possible to attribute to it an objective, coherent and rational content, with the consequence that its concrete application would be arbitrary" (4).
In other words, the crime of 'plagio' was declared "constitutionally illegitimate" insofar as it appeared imprecise and undefined. But how was this crime actually interpreted? What was meant by the word "plagio"? According to Dr Giovanni Flora, when Art. 603 was in force, "three different interpretations of 'plagio' had been developed …". He says that jurisprudence tended to construe it as … "the creation of a psychological domination, induced by suggestion … with a consequent hetero-direction of the will, and, according to sum, the creation of a situation where the person was deprived of mental competence … " (5). Flora also adds that, after the abolition of Art. 603 (this abolition has of course left all the penal issues involved in 'plagio' unchanged), the problem arises of how to " …protect from a penal point of view the integrity of the psychological person from certain forms of aggressive conduct …" (6). This means that it is necessary to define a crime with features of definition and comprehensibility not only for judges, but for citizens as well.
Dr. De Fazio, in his speech, also pointed out how many polemics followed the abolition of the crime of 'plagio' because of the confrontation between favourable and hostile opinions about the Constitutional Court sentence. He says that "… the cancellation of the crime of 'plagio', as formulated in Art. 603, must not of course be understood as a denial of the existence of 'plagio' as a phenomenon" (7). He also stresses the current importance of the problem, which is "... a reality of interpersonal relationships, with concrete risks for individual freedom, especially in the case of safeguarding personal identity. The question is therefore an 'open' one …" (8)
Speaking of "circonvenzione di incapace" (approximately, abuse of incompetent persons), which still exists in the penal code, he explained that, unlike 'plagio', this is held to be a crime against property through fraud, just like swindles and so on. This crime calls for " … various and diverse manners of forcing oneself upon another person's will and obtaining his consent, in order to make a person perform an act which involves a harmful juridical effect for himself or for others" (9).
Dr. De Fazio came to the following interesting, and in our opinion also balanced, conclusion: "The sentence No. 98 of June 8, 1981, issued by the Constitutional court, irrevocably celebrated the funeral of Art. 603, i.e. of the crime of 'plagio', but not of 'plagio' itself, which is still a reality in interpersonal relations. Although we feel no nostalgia for the offence which was abolished, juridically impossible to pin down or to uphold, and a source of possible errors and abuse in court, it must be admitted that a gap has been opened in protection of the personality against abusive dynamics, a gap which should be filled in some manner …" (10).
The abolition of this crime must therefore be considered in a far more complex framework than appears from the words of Hon. Caccavale.
The factors which led to the abolition of this crime were many, and were strongly influenced by the excitement surrounding a famous sentence in the so-called "Braibanti case". The fact that the crime was abolished does not in any way cancel the issues surrounding such a crime, or the processes of psychological conditioning which certainly take place, beyond any reasonable doubt, in many fields of interpersonal relations, including the particular kind of psychological relationship between a follower and his charismatic leader.
We would like also to remark on the comparison made by the parliament member - when criticising the Parliament Committees which devoted too much time to the testimony of former members who had become hostile towards the group they left - when he said "It is as if we judged the Catholic Church on the basis of accounts by former priests ". This comparison deserves some attention, since we have often read it and heard it repeated, but it hardly seems suitable to us.
If one interviewed the young and less young people who have abandoned the Catholic priesthood, we seriously doubt whether their "complaints" would be of the same nature as those of so-called "apostates." We have had the opportunity to speak to some "former priests", and we have heard them calmly talking of their incapacity to accept the law of celibacy, or of difficulty in obeying their bishops, or of the problems involved in unceasing devotion to their ministry, or simply acknowledging that it was not the right path for them.
Some also criticise the way seminaries are managed, the rules involved in community life, which can be seen as limiting, and so on. So, even if we decided to "judge" the Catholic Church using ONLY the testimony of "former priests", we do not think that the resulting picture of the Church would be that of a "destructive" cult which conditions its members through fraudulent recruitment, or keeps them inside the organisation using threats and punishment, or prevents them from leaving using emotional and material blackmail. When a young person crosses the threshold of the seminary, he knows where is going and what awaits him, he knows that he will be asked to be celibate and to live a life devoted to God and to his neighbour, he knows that he will have to follow certain rules and live a Christian life to be an example to his brethren, that he must be ready to administer sacraments without any limit of time, he knows the doctrine he must believe in and how to announce it, he also knows that his life is not over, and that his final choice must be supported by prayer, commitment and sacrifice. If this is not enough, then he is free to withdraw without suffering any "reprisal" for this.
Of course, interviewing former priests would not provide an entirely positive picture of the Catholic Church, or rather of the experience of the former priest in such a church. But however negative this picture might be, it could never be compared to the picture which comes out from the accounts of former members who decide to testify about the abuses they consider they have suffered in the group they used to belong to. In any case, it is vitally important, when we wish to really get to know an organisation, whatever this organisation may be, to pay attention to all accounts, whether from those who are in the movement or whether from those who have left it, being careful not to underestimate information supported by positive evidence and documents which the "apostates" present when they testify, and which other members or the leadership of the organisations might be interested in denying or hiding.
Concerning the statement that Christians too were considered members of a clandestine and outlawed cult/sect, and that we must not repeat the errors of 2000 years ago against what was then a "religious minority", we take the liberty of saying that this comparison too is not relevant. It is true that the early Christians were a sect, in the sense of a minority group which had detached itself from its Jewish roots and which followed Jesus of Nazareth, whom they held to be the Messiah that the people of Israel had been waiting for for centuries. It is also true that they were unjustly and cruelly persecuted, and history has also given us other examples of innocent people who, like them, were massacred only because they were different, belonging to ethnic, religious or political minorities, which not only were not dangerous for society, but were exploited by powerful people in a strategy of violence and oppression which sometimes makes us ashamed of belonging to the same, human race...
... but what does this have to do with the so-called persecution which the "religious minorities" the speaker mentioned are supposedly subjected to? There is an enormous difference between the two terms of comparison, and a profound difference between the historical contexts which have been juxtaposed. History is living memory and demands respect, especially when it is the dramatic memory of injustices and massacres of innocent victims.
Friday, September 11th, 1998, saw the Banquet entitled "The politics of Religious Freedom", an especially important moment in the International CESNUR Conference, which I was happy to attend, and where - among other things - I enjoyed a truly excellent dinner. This was an opportunity for me to share experiences with the people I met at the same table, where the CESNUR staff was also seated.
Besides the host, CESNUR Director Massimo Introvigne, the banquet was also attended by Hon. Maselli of the Italian Parliament, who presented his paper, by the CESNUR staff, by some speakers of the Conference, by the spokesman for the Church of Scientology in Italy Fabio Amicarelli, by representatives of "religious minorities", observers and ordinary participants.
The purpose of the banquet was to inform those attending about the current situation of Italian legislation in defence of religious freedom, and about its possible future developments.
Raimonda Casari, Regional Councillor, was supposed to introduce and preside over the banquet, but was absent. However, she sent a paper which was read (11). This paper stressed the commitment by the Piedmont Region to support the initiatives of CESNUR, described as always significant and of a high cultural level. The Councillor also confirmed her confidence in CESNUR and its director, M. Introvigne, despite certain recent attacks against CESNUR, according to which CESNUR is a cult defence organisation and part of a plot.
These gratuitous accusations are not taken into any consideration; indeed, she confirmed her trust in CESNUR and expressed her best wishes, both for the continuation of the Conference and for its future activities.
Hon. Maselli delivered an impromptu speech on : "The new Italian law on religious freedom"".
He informed those attending that an "understanding" would be signed with the Jehovah's Witnesses and with the Buddhists before the end of September. This understanding should have been signed on July 22nd; it was not signed then for technical reasons, since the person responsible was not available. The final signature will be made before the end of December 1998.
Hon. Maselli expressed great enthusiasm for the final conclusion of this initiative, after the "understandings" already signed with the Waldensians, the Assemblies of God and others. He then told this story: during the previous Berlusconi government, during a visit by the US President Clinton, the "understanding" with the Baptists had not yet been signed.
Hon. Maselli had asked for a quick conclusion, and had jokingly told Berlusconi, "You know Clinton is coming, and we have not yet defined the understanding with the Baptists? Are we still so far behind?" According to Maselli, Berlusconi, thereupon rushed through the "understanding". The guests at the banquet, especially those from foreign countries, were greatly amused listening to this anecdote.
Maselli then gave some information about the law on religious freedom currently under discussion in the Italian Parliament. It is divided into three parts, and has been described as a very open and tolerant law, the most tolerant in Europe. Maselli also stressed the important fact that, before the law can be applied, it will be necessary to make final understandings with several groups. Concerning the issue of religious freedom, Maselli also said that both the right wing and the left wing in Parliament agree entirely on the approval of this issue, since on such a question of principle (religious freedom), it is not possible to make party "quarrels". Some individual parliament members disagree, but their disagreement does not involve their party groups.
Maselli also told the story of this law, which dates back to the late '80s, and said that it will be further simplified, since it is too ample at present. It will then be submitted for examination to the various religious confessions in Italy, and each will make its comments and proposals according to its needs. This law firmly upholds the principle that parents may decide on the religious education of their children, but it places some conditions on the health of minors, it protects their health which is not considered to be an exclusive asset of their parents. The State will deal with this, since this is established by constitutional right.
Maselli also announced that there will be other changes. He asked that the observatory on religious groups (cults), currently under the Ministry of the Interior, be transferred to another body. Investigations involving religious groups would no longer be undertaken by the Police but by the Prefectures, thus taking away the "police-like" feature which does not respect religious pluralism.
He also mentioned
a proposal, also made by M. Introvigne, for modifying the procedures for
obtaining new "understandings". These should involve a Commission including
experts (the Parliament Member looked significantly at Introvigne at this
point). The Commission is being set up and is
led by a professor at the University of Florence.
Efforts by people in power around the world to promote and defend religious freedom for minorities deserve appreciation.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights are often quoted to support this struggle. One of the many publications made available to those attending the Conference quotes some extracts from this Declaration in an Appendix.
Art.18 says : "Every individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this right includes the freedom to change one's religion or beliefs, and the freedom to express one's religion or beliefs individually or with others, both publicly and privately, in teaching, in practise, in cult and in ritual observance" (12). This right of all human beings can admit of no exception, and must be safeguarded also for those who, having once belonged to a "religious minority", freely decide to leave it. It is unfortunate that there are often episodes of intolerance towards such people on the part of the group they belonged to, who evidently think that Art. 18, quoted above, should be applied only to their own group, and not to those who decide to leave it.
Since we are speaking of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we would also like to mention some of its other articles quoted in the same publication:
Art.19 : " Every individual has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right not to suffer molestation because of his opinions, and the right to seek, receive and spread information and ideas by every means and across every frontier" (13)
Art.20 § 2 : " Nobody may be forced to belong to an association" (14)
We believe any comment to be superfluous; nobody in good faith can disagree with the principles expressed in this Declaration.
For this reason, we leave any comment on the following quotes to the reader.
They are taken from
various kinds of publications of organisations commonly included among
12) "Il ripristino e la salvaguardia della libertà di religione" by "Ufficio Europeo per i Diritti Umani e gli Affari Pubblici della Chiesa di Scientology", p.32 (emphasis added). (This and the following are translations back into English from Italian).
20) HCO Bull. 27 August 1987, originally published as an article in Ability, 199, in 1967, in Mario Di Fiorino, L’illusione comunitaria, Moretti e Vitali, Bergamo, 1998, p.102. This is a translation back into English from Italian.
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