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An Open Letter Against the Italian Draft Law on Mental Manipulation
("Cesnur.org," April 5, 2004)

Dear Mr. President Ciampi,
Dear Mr. President Berlusconi,
Dear Mr. Vice-President Fini,

Italy has been long recognized as one of the world’s countries with the best records on religious liberty. Apparently, all this is now about to change.

On March 4 your Senate's Justice Commission approved a draft law introducing in the Italian Criminal Code a new Section, 613-bis, creating the crime of "mental manipulation" punishing with a 2 to 6 year jail term the use of "personality conditioning or suggestion techniques, capable of excluding or greatly limiting the capacity to make free choices”, with even greater penalties when a group is accused of "practising or sponsoring activities aimed at creating or exploiting the physical or psychological dependence of members". We are aware that your Constitutional Court eliminated in 1981 a similar provision on “plagio”, and we regard that Constitutional Court decision as both internationally important and very wise.

All of us have studied minority religions, new religious movements and the so called “cults” and “sects” for several years, although from different perspectives. We understand that there is in Italy a legitimate concern with crimes committed by a handful of religious minorities and with frauds perpetrated by some psychics. In our experience, however, these concerns are much more effectively addressed by the enforcement of existing laws on common criminal activities.

Special laws against “sects” and “cults”, on the other hand, endanger the religious liberty of every citizen (there is no shared definition of “sect” and “cult”, either, and movements within the mainline churches may also be threatened). Based on our experience, we do not believe that brainwashing or mind control as allegedly practised by religious movements is a valid scholarly category, nor do we believe that a workable distinction has been made between a lawful process of conversion and illegal “suggestion techniques”. Too many times we have seen dubious categories such as mental manipulation or brainwashing used in order to discriminate against ideas, claiming that some ideas are so “strange” that only a “manipulated” person can embrace them. Discriminating against ideas, no matter how apparently bizarre or unpopular, is a temptation our democracies should be able to resist.

With all due respect, we urge you to prevent the approval of a law which would seriously jeopardize the international image of Italy and would include Italy in the list of countries where religious liberty is not fully protected.

Yours sincerely,

Massimo Introvigne
Managing Director, CESNUR, Torino

PierLuigi Zoccatelli
Deputy Director, CESNUR, Torino

Andrea Menegotto
Milan Branch Manager, CESNUR, Milan

Giorgio Bouchard
Former President, Italian Federation of Protestant Churches

Enzo Pace
Università di Padova

Domenico Maselli
Università di Firenze

Luigi Berzano
Università di Torino

Maria Immacolata Macioti
Università di Roma “La Sapienza”

Clemente Lanzetti
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano

Fanny Cappello
Università di Bologna

J. Gordon Melton
Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara (California)

Eileen Barker
London School of Economics

David G. Bromley
Virginia Commonwealth University

James T. Richardson
University of Nevada, Reno

Rodney Stark
University of Washington

Jim Beckford
University of Warwick

Karel Dobbelaere
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Roland Campiche
Université de Lausanne

Thomas Robbins
Rochester, Minnesota

Jeremy Gunn
Emory University, Atlanta

Pauline Côté
Université Laval, Québec

Liliane Voyé
Université Catholique de Louvain

George D. Chryssides
University of Wolverhampton

Timothy Miller
University of Kansas

Phillip Charles Lucas
Stetson University

Jane Williams-Hogan
Bryn Athyn College

Susan Palmer
Dawson College, Montréal

Milda Alisauskiene
New Religions Research and Information Centre, Vilnius

Rebecca Moore
San Diego State University

H. Newton Malony
Fuller Theological Seminary

Lorne Dawson
University of Waterloo, Waterloo (Ontario)

Michelene Pesantubbee
University of Iowa

Dallas A. Blanchard
University of West Florida, Pensacola

Stuart A. Wright
Lamar University

Scott Lowe
University of Wisconsin, Eau-Claire

Constance A. Jones
California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco

Richard Singelenberg
Utrecht, The Netherlands

Douglas E. Cowan
University of Missouri, Kansas City

Solveiga Krumina-Konkova
University of Latvia