Contenuto principale

By Raffaella Di Marzio

February 9th, 2014




In Germany  they first came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me. 


(Martin Neimoller, prominent Protestant pastor)



This is the famous statement and provocative poem attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power.

Niemöller emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, despite his ardent nationalism. It's very interesting to know his biography.


The new persecutions

 In Italy, on 27th January we remember the persecution against Jews and the purging of Nazi chosen targets, group after group.

Unfortunately, the stigmatization and persecution against minorities still exists, everywhere. All religious groups can be affected by this phenomenon. Which groups are persecuted and discriminated depends on the situation and the country in which that religious group is born and tries to convert people.

So, it happens that Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Hindu are persecuted where they are a religious minority. 


On the contrary, when they’re not and represent the religious majority, they turn to be the persecutors and the discriminators of other minorities. No religious group can avoid to be stigmatized or persecuted.

The only way to avoiding this negative situation is to segregates ones faith, treat it as a private matter, avoiding any kind of proselytism, political activities, public worships, the spreading of literature and so on.

According to the modern anti-religions campaigns, we should go back to some centuries ago and erase some articles of the Universal Declaration  of Human Rights, in particular article n.18: “People have the right to change  and to manifest in public their religion in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

In spite of this important and Universal Declaration and its consequences, that is the implementation of human rights all over the world, in many countries the Freedom of Religion or Beliefs is still threatened in different ways.


Europe and FORB

Speaking, in particular, about Europes situation, the anti-cult campaigns try to create a distinction between “true and good religions” and “false and bad religions”, a rather difficult job, because none is able to find a way of separating ones from the others.

A very useful stratagem in order to solve the problem is to use the controversial notion of “cult”. This notion is attributed to religious/spiritual groups with various origins and structured as minorities, characterized by alternative beliefs and practices relative to their social context.  The divergence of these groups from the mainstream social context may lead to tendencies for them to be labeled as “dangerous”.

Very often the media may reinforce popular prejudices, thereby creating a vicious circle. Labeling may result in adverse psychological reactions among members of such groups and may also contribute to tendencies toward deviance amplification, that is, to increase deviance resulting from the act of labeling. 

Because there is no scientific way of distinguishing a dangerous cult from a harmless religion, the media, influenced by anti-cult agencies, are in the habit of defining “dangerous” any religious or spiritual minority accused by someone for something.

Badly influenced by this propaganda, some European governments set up courts of inquiry, parliamentary commissions, anti-cult squads and approved even laws against “cults”, or, in other words, against the alleged “mind manipulation crime” that “dangerous cults” would perpetrate against their followers.hr7

These stereotypes may also constitute a violation of the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 7, which states:All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination”.

This kind of persecution against religious minorities was also condemned by the European Human Rights Court, which notes many times in its decisions that: “... in exercising its regulatory power […] in its relations with the various religions, denominations and beliefs, the State has a duty to be neutral and impartial”*.

The wrong idea that there are many dangerous religious or spiritual groups inside our society, ready to harm us or our relatives, is so common that it is very difficult to criticize and challenge. Usually, who tries to do so is accused of being afriend” of dangerous and criminal organizations.


Cults with Popes imprimatur?

The “deviance” is already created. Now, how can we challenge it? 

Sometime some journalist, unwittingly, could help us to do so.

Some days ago Italian journalist, Luca Kocci, wrote an article published on “Manifesto”, a left-wing newspaper, usually hostile to the Catholic Church. His article Le sétte con l'imprimatur papale (Cults with Pope's imprimatur) was a review of a recently published book where some catholic associations were defined “cults”.

The journalist applies the “cult” stigma to seven organizations: Neocatechumenal Way (NCW), Legion of Christ, Focolare Movement, Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, Renewal in the Holy Spirit (RnS) and S. Egidio Community.

According to him, there is only one difference between these “catholic cults” and the other cults: the alleged Popes imprimatur. In fact, the journalist affirms that inside these movements occur the same abuses as in all cults (cfr. Lifton, 1989): 


  • control of information and communication both within the environment and within the individual
  • significant degree of isolation from society at large
  • manipulation of experiences that is planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority
  • the world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection
  • public confession: sins, as defined by the group, must be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.
  • the leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism
  • strange language: the group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand
  • proselytism: those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology
  • people who do not join the group or are critical of the group must be rejected by the members and any member who leaves the group, must be also rejected


The journalist adds to these allegations also many abuses. He writes that these catholic “cults” are well known, in Italy and elsewhere, for their public scandals, crimes, sexual violence and the involvement in lobbying activities in order to influence the Italian Parliament’s decisions about some laws.

This article is a very clear example and a proof that the “cult” stigma can be attributed to any kind of religious group, even if it is approved by a mainstream religion, very well accepted in a particular social context.

This happens because the “cult” stigma has no foundation. It is only a way of creating deviance without holding any evidence. The truth about this matter can be difficult to be accepted, especially for some catholic people who are ready to stigmatize some religious minorities as "dangerous cults". They seem to feel safe because their religion, certainly, cannot be accused to be a dangerous cult. However, the article “Le sétte con l'imprimatur papale" (Cults with Popes imprimatur)” shows that this is not the case…


The danger of stigmatization

It is safe to say that any people can violate human rights in any groups. Thus, it is important to distinguish between different groups. Some of them could be indeed dangerous, while others may harm members and nonmembers as unintended side effects of their actions. 

Because minority groups vary so much, it is important that the media understand the complexity of the phenomenon so as not to cause a misinformed public to treat current or former members of such groups as stereotypes, rather than as unique individuals worthy of the dignity affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.fecris

According to Willy Fautrè, Editor-in-chief of the HRWF Newsletter Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief:


“A faith or belief community cannot be held accountable for a misdeed committed by one of its members or leaders except if there is some form of active or passive complicity or if its teachings have led to the said crime or offence. Stigmatization and demonization of a group because of the behavior of one of its members or leaders must be unequivocally condemned”.*

On the other hand


“Nobody and no religion, whether historical or new, is above the law […] Individuals and organizations must respect the laws of their country and national authorities must respect the human rights of their citizens. Whoever violates the law is to be prosecuted whatever his or her religion or belief system is”.*


A very important and complete document about this matter is the Recommendation 1412 (1999) of The Council of Europe. It regards state neutrality and equal protection before the law as fundamental safeguards against any form of discrimination and therefore calls upon state authorities to refrain from taking measures based on a value judgment concerning beliefs.

The Recommendation says that:

“It is of prime importance to have reliable information on these groups that emanates neither exclusively from the sects themselves nor from associations set up to defend the victims of sects, and to circulate it widely among the general public, once those concerned have had the chance to comment on the objectivity of such information”.

I would like to conclude this article with a few words by Jeremiah S. Gutmanof the New York Civil Liberties Union, an attorney and social activist for civil liberties from 1925 until his death, in 2004:

“The First Amendment prevents, both by the clause guaranteeing free exercise of religion and by that prohibiting the establishment of religion, any attempt to create a hierarchy of religions by labeling some "recognized" or "established" or "good faith" or "pseudo-religious" or "cult". Nonetheless, legislatures in the past few years have attempted in various ways to do so. Some legislatures have held hearings on perceived threats from new religious groups, others have undertaken studies of what they call cults, while others have sought to restrict unpopular religious groups by receiverships, accounting procedures, legislation on evangelizing and soliciting funds, and by zoning enactments and enforcement procedures […]  The conservatorship bills which have arisen in the United States Congress and in various states share the concept that the existing mental status categories described above are not adequate to deal with adults who join new religious movements. They therefore seek to create still another stigmatized group of persons legally deprived of the right to act and make important decisions on their own affairs, unable to associate with whom they please, incapable of believing what they think best and what seems right to them, and, most importantly, not free to go where they please and associate with those chosen by themselves […]**. 

*Freedom of Religion or Belief - Anti-Sect Movements and State Neutrality. A Case Study: FECRIS Journal for the Study of Beliefs and Worldviews - Gerhard Besier and Hubert Seiwert

** Jeremiah S. Gutman, Guardianship Threatens Religious Liberty, in Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas,  vol 14 n. 269, March 2, 1984

 More Information:

Religious Freedom in Europe

Dangerous trends in religious freedom worldwide

Freedom of conscience and belief at a crossroads in Europe

Freedom of Religion and European Identity

Human Rights Without Frontiers in Italy

HRWF Report on restrict religious freedom

Recommendation 1396 (1999) - Religion and democracy

Social context and violations of human rights

Synthesis of the SHR 2013 Conference

To be or not to be a cult : That is the question

FORB by year