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Notes on the geopolitics of cults. Part 1: Despicable Me

Luigi Corvaglia


In July 2020, my self-esteem took a hit. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's (USCIRF) annual report on religious freedom around the world ended with recommendations to the U.S. president - then Trump - on how to protect this fundamental right. One of the recommendations was to obstruct the work of FECRIS, the European Federation of Information and Research Centers on Sectarianism, at the annual OSCE meeting in Warsaw. Well, the representative of FECRIS at the annual OSCE conference on the human dimension, who denounces abuses in totalitarian cults, is the very humble person who signs this paper. A few blinks later, it began to amuse me, so I started to get into character, petting the cat like the villain in the James Bond movies. After all, who is more evil than someone who wants to deny one of the basic freedoms? However, I temporarily regained contact with reality and thought that the authors of the report did not even know that I existed and therefore referred to one of the activities of FECRIS, which happened to be carried out by me. But a few days later, the report was picked up with triumphalist headlines on countless websites,

USCIRF's recommendations for the US President set out in the 2020 Report

including those of Scientology and various others who were satisfied with USCIRF's defense of their activities. Among the articles published, the one signed by the editorial board of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), entitled "Also Europe on the special watch list?" stands out for its capacity to cause alarm. I was specifically quoted in it. Instead of downplaying my importance in the alleged war on "religious freedom," the paper made a couple of rather odd statements that went in the opposite direction. Reading the first statement, I discovered that I had conducted the "usual anti-cult campaign" in China. I do not remember that. That must be because I was 'neurolized' with the Men in Black pen. In the lines that followed, they took ironically the fact that I had just published a book criticizing defenders of "cults"; the editors of FOB commented sarcastically that in the next issue I might include USCIRF among these "cult apologists." Laughter. Their point was that the report of the American Commission, which is not a reading club for housewives, has spoken the last word on this matter: Anyone who defends the victims of totalitarian cults and advocates the prevention of abuse in spiritual groups - but in fact many cults have nothing spiritual about them - is an enemy of religious freedom and a dangerous seed of hatred. It follows that any statement that contradicts this evidence, such as the ones in my book, can only be ridiculed. The U.S. government had spoken.

Excerpt from the article FOB (denouncing the persecution activities carried out by the author on behalf of various dictatorships).

But it is the second statement in the text of FOB that is most phantasmagorical. After the U.S. Commission has included France among the countries where religious freedom is endangered because of its policies of combating sectarianism (FECRIS itself has its headquarters there), the idea is expressed here that not only this country should be included in USCIRF's special watch list, but all the countries where the associations it groups operate. Indeed - and here it is easy to imagine that the author of the article was winking - it should be pointed out that "the representatives of FECRIS who go to the OSCE (and elsewhere) are not only French or Russian...".

Extract from the article in which obscure references are made; obscure.... well, let's say in penumbra....

In the vague words of the author of this piece, one can read an "unspoken" between the lines, but they do not seem so committed to hiding it. In practice, they propose the addition of yet another country to the list of countries to be monitored because it is hostile to religious freedom. The reason for this is the "negative propaganda about minority religions" that is carried out at the OSCE. This propaganda is allegedly carried out by an unnamed citizen of this country. It is not difficult to identify him: he is not French, he is not Russian, and he goes to the OSCE. If he were Italian, he would say that Italy is an endangered country for religious freedom and should be monitored by the US Commission! Since the FOB is based in Italy, the suspicion that this is a citizen of the "Bel Paese" is quite reasonable. Whoever he is, this person is single-handedly responsible for the disgrace of putting his country on the list of the world's evil! I would not like to be in his shoes!

International bodies, transnational cults, an American commission, disinformation... all the ingredients for a spy story for the cinema are present. The reader, unfamiliar with this world, will be as confused as the viewer, who is thrown into the middle of the action from the very first scenes. A flashback is then necessary to introduce the previous events and characters.

A bit of history

Between 1993 and 1995, massacres were perpetrated in various parts of the world by minority spiritual groups that had incited their followers to extreme behavior. In 1993, the siege of a ranch in Waco, Texas, where the followers of the self-proclaimed new messiah David Koresh had entrenched themselves, ended in the deaths of 82 people, including more than 20 children and two pregnant women. In 1995, the Cult of Supreme Truth was responsible for a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Six people were killed and about 3,000 poisoned. However, the events that most influenced public opinion in Europe were the collective suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple that occurred between 1994 and 1995, with another massacre in 1997, in the French-speaking world, France, Switzerland, and Canada. In Switzerland, on October 5, 1994, 25 people were found burned to death in a village in the canton of Valais and 23 in the canton of Fribourg. On the night of December 15-16, 1995, 13 adults and 3 children self-immolated in France. All were associated with the initiatory Order of the Solar Temple. Five more devotees were found dead in Quebec, Canada on March 22, 1997. Major European countries began to view cults as a public policy problem of extreme importance. France, Belgium, Spain, and Germany passed laws to protect victims of these abusive groups. Germany was particularly dedicated to combating the intrusion of the Church of Scientology. On June 6, 1997, federal and state interior ministers agreed to place the Scientology organization under surveillance. This was just one of the measures taken by the German government to crack down on Scientology (a 1998 report underscored the destructive aspects of this "commercial institution disguised as a religion," and a 2007 Interior Ministry report called the organization "incompatible with the constitution"). The Scientology campaign against Germany followed (something imaginable), but so did a series of staunch statements in defense of the cult from the U.S. government (something less imaginable). For the U.S., Scientology is a religion. Other actions include a document from the Beareau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour (BDHRL), an agency of the State Department, listing Germany among nations that violate religious freedom, along with countries like China. Sound familiar?

A French government parliamentary commission of inquiry on the subject of cults produced a report in 1995, known as the Guyard Report, which expressed great concern about the phenomenon. Similar initiatives followed in Belgium (1996), Germany (1997), and Italy (1998).

In 1996, France adopted a series of laws to protect the victims of "cults" and, above all, an interministerial mission to combat cults (MILS, later MIVILUDES), whose first president was the socialist MP Alain Vivien. This made the country of Laicitè the spearhead of resistance to the infiltration of totalitarian groups in Europe and set in motion a process that led to the creation of the Fédération Européenne des Centers de Recherche et d'Information sur le Sectarisme (FECRIS), the "umbrella" organization uniting dozens of anti-cult associations in various European countries, and to the adoption in 2001 of the About-Picard law punishing the "abuse of weakness".

In 1998, the Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour became a new division of the U.S. government. Thus was born the Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF), in practice a specialized agency to combat "discriminatory" policies against alternative spiritual groups. It was determined that the office would be headed by an empowered ambassador flanked by five officials from the Secretariat of State. The Commission even had its own representative in all American embassies. Its first chairman was Robert A. Seiple. The curious thing is that this ex-Marine was for more than 11 years head of World Vision Inc, the most important evangelical association in the world with ultra-conservative views. One would have expected that a department dealing with freedom of belief would have the trappings of secularism, or at least not be so dogmatic as to conflict with a task that might be called "ecumenical," i.e., giving equal dignity to all religions and allowing them to coexist. The fact is that the first report of the Commission in September 1998 accused France, Germany, Austria and Belgium of violating religious freedom. A new association, the Commision for Religious Freedom, soon joined OIRF. This commission was composed of American parliamentarians who made representations to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At an OSCE meeting in 1999, these parliamentarians were the protagonists of a fierce tirade against France, which they accused of the nefariousness of the "Vichy regime," of witch-hunting, and of persecution. A diplomatic incident almost ensued. In September 1999, OIRF published an even more scathing report against the European countries, so much so that French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine felt compelled to write to his American counterpart Madeleine Albright to denounce the intolerable aggression, which called into question the fruitfulness of the dialog. This led to a break in diplomatic dialog on the issue.

The picture of forces on the ground was completed by a third U.S. government body, this time directly linked to the White House. It is the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Yes, they are the authors of the report in which they portray FECRIS as the "Spectre" of anti-cultists and propose, among other things, to obstruct my work at the OSCE. One wonders what function a third organization of the U.S. government has in upholding 'religious freedom'. The fact that Americans care at all is not enough. Their first president, Steven T. McFarland, provided the answer. He admitted that one of USCIRF's main roles was to act as a 'watchdog' over the other two! As Bruno Fouchereau, author of an investigation entitled "The Sects, Trojan Horse of the United States in Europe" (Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2001), rightly points out, "elsewhere, faced with a commission charged with monitoring religious freedom commissions, one would have spoken of legacies of the Soviet apparatus!"

Elliott Abrams

In 1999-2000, the watchdog was presided over by Elliott Abrams, who is worth a few words. He is a leading figure in the neocon movement and was sentenced to a year in prison for his involvement in the Iran-Contras scandal. This involved the infamous financing of the war in Nicaragua against the democratically elected Sandinista government through the illegal sale of arms to Iran. Crimes committed in connection with this dirty operation include the importation of cocaine from the Contras, the anti-Sandinista guerrillas, through the CIA and the subsequent obstruction of justice in the U.S. Department of Justice. Abrams was one of the men implicated in this affair and is also accused of involvement in the massacres in Guatemala and El Salvador when he was in charge of Latin America affairs under Reagan. He has often accused the Israeli Likud of excessive tenderness toward the Palestinians. This champion of rights and ecumenism was chairman of the Commission on International Religious Freedom until 2000 and, drum roll, he is still a member in 2022!

Summary: There are three U.S. government bodies responsible for defending religious freedom around the world: the OIRF (sprouted from BDHRL), the Commission for Religious Freedom (composed of deputies who work at the OSCE), and the USCIRF. From the beginning, these bodies have been established and chaired by members of the religious right, which seems unusual given the low propensity of all fundamentalists to value other religious traditions. It is even more peculiar when one considers these individuals as censors of discriminatory and hateful statements against "religious minorities" (such as Scientology).

An example of an early 21st century press defamer

Now that you know the theater and the political and psychological horizons that form the background for the action that unfolds before the spectator's eyes, you will more easily understand how grotesque situations such as a government commission advising the president of the most powerful country in the world to obstruct the work of a speaker at the OSCE (c'est moi!) can occur. Among the grotesque things to be amused about is being called, for no apparent reason, an accomplice of the Chinese Communist Party in the persecution and torture of dissidents, as well as in the incarceration in re-education camps, in murders, and even in the removal of organs from living people (a subject to which we will return). In fact, as the president of FOB (the association that published the article in which I was called an inquisitor and a disgrace to Italy) wrote on social media, I would be "like the Nazi fascists who deny the Holocaust." We will see in the next part who is a Nazi-fascist and who is not. We advise you to prepare the popcorn.

Right, Alex Amicarelli, president of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), the person accusing me of complicity with the CCP, left Greg Mitchell, Scientology's chief lobbyist

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