Already in the seventies of the last century, the Austrian government was aware that destructive cults may be dangerous, especially for young people. The federal minister Mrs. Gertrude Frцhlich-Sandtner (social democrat) created the first «interministerial commission» in that field, in 1977 she assisted in the foundation of the «Verein zur Wahrung der geistigen Freiheit» («Association for the conservation of spiritual freedom»), later renamed to «Gesellschaft gegen Sekten- und Kultgefahren» (GSK, «Society against the dangers of sects and cults»), and in the preparation of a first brochure. A second edition of this brochure with the name «Jugendreligionen, Psychokulte, Gurubewegungen» («Youth Religions, Psycho Cults, Guru Movements») was issued in 1987. In this brochure, the following movements were listed as to be especially active in Austria: The Unification Church, Scientology, Bhagwan, ISKCON, Children of God, EST, New Acropolis, and the following Guru-movements: Divine Light Mission, Sri Chinmoy, Surat Shabd Yoga (Sant Mat), Eckankar and Sahaja Yoga. The two federal ministers writing a foreword to this brochure, Mrs. Hilde Hawlicek (education, arts and sport, social democrat) and Mrs. Marilies Flemming (environment, youth and family, conservative) were accused by Scientology to be responsible for the contents of that brochure which, according to Scientology, contained false information. The two ladies did not loose the court case, but their departments had so much work to provide proofs that their enthusiasme to figth cults calmed down for a while.
In September 1991, the German Bundestag had a hearing about the cult issue, and as I copied and distributed the minutes to MP-s and federal ministers, the idea was born to have such a hearing also in the Austrian parliament, which then took place on 27 January, 1993. On behalf of the GSK, I prepared a letter to the MP-s explaining them the importance of that matter. Five experts (two psychiatrists, one psychologist - Univ.-Prof. Dr. Brigitte Rollett, the actual leader of the «Gesellschaft gegen Sekten- und Kultgefahren» - and representatives from the catholic and protestant church) answered the questions of the MP-s and of public servants taking part in the hearing. The auditory was very much impressed, and, as a consequence, the family committee of the parliament provided a resolution which was accepted unanimously by the Nationalrat (the first chamber of the parliament) in july 1994. This resolution had five points: 1. The government should create an interministerial commission, 2. the government should issue a brochure, 3. the government should support adults education in that field, 4. the government should support the existing self-help groups, 5. the government should scrutinize the relevant laws.
On 6 november 1996, the new brochure «Sekten - Wissen schьtzt!» («Cults - Knowledge protects!» was presented by the federal minister Mr. Martin Bartenstein (environment, youth and family, conservative). The echo in the media was enormous. With a second edition, issued in 1999, about 400.000 copies of that brochure have been distributed in Austria. This brochure lists the following 23 groups, according to the experience of the consulting offices, to have major importance in Austria, but stresses the fact that the list is not exhaustive:
Guru movements: Brahma Kumaris, Divine Light Mission / Elan Vital, Divine Light Zentrum, Eckankar, ISKCON, Holosophic Society (especially Thakar Singh), Osho, Sahaja Yoga, Sai Baba, Sri Chinmoy, Transcendental Meditation.
Psycho-Groups: Landmark Education, Scientology, ZEGG (Zentrum fьr experimentelle Gesellschaftsgestaltung - Center for experimental shaping of society, related to the «Sexpeace»-movement in Germany).
New relevation movements: Fiat Lux, Universelles Leben (Universal Life).
Groups with Christian background: The Family (Children of God), Unification Movement, Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Other groups: European Labor Party (related to Lyndon LaRouche), Humanistic Party (founded by Mario Luis Rodriguez Coboz, alias «Silo»), New Acropolis, Soka Gakkai.
In addition, the brochure explains very well the mechanism of mind control etc.
The second edition of the brochure also explains the laws related to religious groups:
Law about «religiцse Bekenntnisgemeinschaften» («religious confessional assocations») from 10.1. 1998. According to this law, the following groups have been registered in 1999:
Baha’i, Baptist Church, Evangelicals, «Christengemeinschaft» (related to Anthroposophy), Pentecostals, Hinduists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Days Adventists, Koptic-orthodox church.
Those groups do not have any privileges, they are just registered. This law was necessary because the «normal» association law is not applicable to religious groups. The difference is that the related authority for normal associations is the federal ministery for internal affairs while the related authority for religious groups is the federal ministery for education, science and culture.
It is remarkable, that this law, in its paragraph 5, contains two characteristics which would prevent recognition of groups: usage of therapeutic means to «convert» people and doing psychological harm to children. Though it may be difficult to prove such characteristics, it is a step into the right direction. However, an attempt failed to put these two characteristics directly under penal law.
It also remarkable that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though registrated as a «religious confessional assocation», still are mentioned in the brochure. This means that the registration does not prevent the state from warning against a registered group.
New groups have first to apply for the status as «religious confessional assocations» and must stay there for at least 10 years until they can apply to be recognized by the other law: This, of course, is a way to postpone the problem of recognizing a group which the state for some reason does not want to have the status of a church or religious association.
The law about recognition («Anerkenungsgesetz») of churches and religious societies, existing since 1874, has been modified at the same time with respect to the required number of members etc. According to this law, the following 12 churches and religious associations have been recognized earlier:
Old Catholic Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Protestant Church, Greek-Oriental Church (which includes most Orthodox churches), Islamic Faith Community, Israelitic Religious Community, Catholic Church, Latter Day Saints Church (Mormons), Methodist Church, Newapostolic Church, Buddhist Religious Society, Syrian Orthodox Church.
In march 2003, also the Coptic Orthodox Church was recognized unanimously as a church by the Austrian Nationalrat.
Another law which was prepared by the federal ministery for environment, youth and family was the law about the installation of the Bundesstelle fьr Sektenfragen (federal office for sectarian matters) on 1 september 1998. The first and still actual leader of the Bundesstelle is Mr. German Mьller who has been manager of the GSK consulting office for about 10 years, which enables best cooperation. Different from the french mission MILS (and now MIVILUDES), the Bundessstelle provides also consulting to concerned individuals.
The Bundesstelle was scrutinized already twice be the parliamentary family committee and its operation was appreciated very much by the MP-s.
Simultaneously with the activities of the federal ministery for environment, youth and family, the department of school psychology in the federal ministery for education (this ministery headed by Mrs. Elisabeth Gehrer, conservative) convoked a «half official» committee, consisting of public servants of various departments, of representatives of the churches and of concerned relatives (me included), to discuss protection against cults. The outcome was a folder titled «Gemeinschaft kann gefдhrlich werden» («Community may become dangerous») to be handed out to pupils, with supporting material for teachers, and a book «The world is not only black and white».
The change of the Austrian government in february 2000 did not essentially change the attitude of the government towards protection against cults, as there was no disagreement among the political parties represented in the parliament. The main responsibility for that matter was moved from the former federal ministery for environment, youth and family to the new federal ministery for social security and generations, actually headed by Mr. Herbert Haupt (freedom party), as the whole youth department was moved that way. After a rebuilding of the Austrian government in april 2003 (with the same political parties), secretary of state Mrs. Ursula Haubner (freedom party) took over the direct responsibility for that matter within the same federal ministery.
Last year, an official interministerial committee became operational, consisting of public servants only. There are no official reports about the activity of this committee yet.
On the negative side, it is remarkable that the interest of the media in cult matters has relaxed, also due to the fact that media and private persons had unsuccessful court cases and lost money. This leads to the opinion in public that cults are not a problem any more. Judges and state attorneys are widely uneducated in this matter and have a tendency to protect minority religions against their critics. Also, the Bundesstelle and other involved public servants are kept to be strictly «neutral», probably also to prevent threatenings from US authorities. Public subsidies to private organisations are still given, but there is some danger that they may fade away in future.
A new challenge, as probably everywhere, is also that it becomes more and more difficult to separate cults and esoterics and our consulting activity also must cover the large field of the latter.
In future, our main efforts must take care to preserve the following freedoms, as I quote them from Thomas Gandow’s press release related to the «European-American Citizens Committee for Human Rights and Religious Freedom»:
1. Freedom for everyone to speak about his experiences, knowledge and thoughts in any organization, church or cult, be it religious or not;
2. Freedom for members of an organization, church or cult, religious or not, to leave that organization, without being detained, threatened or persecuted;
3. Freedom from fear of being confronted with material that a religious or therapeutic organization has obtained through religious or spiritual counselling; Such material should not be allowed to be used for publication, litigation, or blackmail;
4. Freedom from persecution through Copyright Laws; such laws should not be used against members who try to support their arguments by citing «church scriptures» or «spiritual literature» or other texts associated with the group;
5. Full application of law enforcement to prosecute fraud, mental and physical abuse hidden behind the shield of «religion»;
6. Refusal / Withdrawal of tax exemptions for secretive organizations, be they religious or not. Full disclosure of past secret agreements with tax authorities.
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