Behind closed doors: the Exclusive Brethren

Wellington, New Zealand - Set back from the road in suburban Crofton Downs, Wellington's Exclusive Brethren church is large, windowless and guarded by padlocked gates.

It gives off an unfriendly air. That suits its members perfectly. New Zealand's 2000 Exclusive Brethren members are forbidden from socialising with outsiders. They are not allowed to live in the same apartment building as outsiders or even share a driveway.

"Their belief is that they cannot be holy unless they're exclusive or cut out from the world of evil," says Massey University associate professor of religion Peter Lineham, explaining that the "world of evil" includes anyone who does not subscribe to the Exclusive Brethren religion.

Members are discouraged from watching television, using the Internet, using cellphones and reading fiction. Women do not work and are easily identified when they do venture into mainstream society by their long, scarf-covered hair. Men are employed only in Exclusive Brethren-run businesses and cannot join professional associations or unions.

The Brethren religion began in the 1820s when a group of Irish men decided the church had become too involved in the secular state.

It split into the Open Brethren and the Exclusive Brethren 20 years later. Open Brethren do not have the restrictions Exclusive Brethren face.

James Deck brought the religion to New Zealand in 1853. He settled in Motueka which is still the religion's New Zealand stronghold.

The international community is run by the "Man of God", who has absolute power to dictate the church's rules. He is Australian Bruce Hales.

Under Mr Hales, the church has relaxed some rules and, some say, become politicised, apparently throwing support behind United States President George W Bush.

Former member, Palmerston North woman Ngaire Thomas says the church "is a cult of the worst kind".

Ms Thomas published earlier this year Beyond Closed Doors, a book about her experiences with the religion.

It details how she found the strict rules difficult to take. These included not being able to take the contraceptive pill and not being able to socialise or eat with outsiders.

She says it is "hypocritical" that the Exclusive Brethren are becoming involved in politics, given the original aim to separate from the state.

When she left the church in 1974, Exclusive Brethren policy was to forbid members to have any contact with excommunicated people. "I know siblings that can't see each other, children who have had to choose whether they go with one parent of another."

Other former members tell of the "butchery and break-up of families".

One Blenheim man left the church in the 1980s and recalled how his sister would ignore him if they met on the street up till a few years ago when the community began allowing supervised visits.

He is not surprised members have come out in support of National, given that Labour is run by a woman and has introduced civil unions. He says the international Exclusive Brethren community is very wealthy.

Today, Ms Thomas no longer fears the community she once belonged to, and like the two other former members who spoke to The Dominion Post, hopes for the day that the Exclusive Brethren is opened up to the public. "I just feel really sorry for the ones left."