Israeli Ministry Targeting So-Called 'Sects' and 'Cults'

Jerusalem, Israel - On May 23, 2011, the Israeli Special Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs Task Force on minority religious groups presented its report to the Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs, Moshe Kahlon. The Report derogatorily grouped together as so-called "cults" or "sects" approximately 80 belief systems and contains a blueprint for systematic, government-fueled intolerance directed at minority religious communities throughout Israel.

Ironically, the Report was released one day before Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress and stated, "As for Jerusalem, only a democratic Israel has protected freedom of worship for all faiths in the city." If the Report's recommendations are implemented, this will no longer be the case.

No democracy would admit to being intolerant of minority faiths or opposed to religious liberty. The tactic used to discriminate against targeted minority faiths in some countries is to redefine the notion of "religion" to exclude disfavored minority groups by labeling them as so-called "cults" or "sects". This is the tactic embraced by the Task Force in the Report.

Although the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom, the Human Rights Directorate of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, human rights groups, scholars, and experts in the field have all called for a broad definition of religion consistent with notions of pluralism, minority rights, freedom of conscience, and religious liberty as mandated by human rights instruments, the Report adopts a restrictive classification system designed to marginalise targeted minority faiths.

Classifying religious groups into "religions" and "sects" violates religious human rights standards. It is impermissible and arbitrary for the government to confer benefits on groups it classifies as "religions" while denying benefits and enacting oppressive measures against groups it classifies as "sects".

Israel has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other international human rights instruments guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion and the principles of non-discrimination and equality. It is therefore bound to uphold these standards as a member of the international community.

The Human Rights Committee has found freedom of religion is not limited in its application to traditional religions and any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason -- including the fact that they are newly-established or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community -- contravenes Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms "belief" and "religion" are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community.

General Comment No. 22 on Art. 18 (Para 2).

Moreover, the 1996 Annual Report by the Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom to the United Nations Human Rights Commission provides the Rapporteur's opinion on the broad scope of the term religion and the need for equal treatment of all religions, including so called "sects." The Special Rapporteur notes:

Religions cannot be distinguished from sects on the basis of quantitative considerations saying that a sect, unlike a religion, has a small number of followers. This is in fact not always the case. It runs absolutely counter to the principle of respect and protection of minorities, which is upheld by domestic and international law and morality. Besides, following this line of argument, what are the major religions if not successful sects?

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Again, one cannot say that sects should not benefit from the protection given to religion just because they have no chance to demonstrate their durability. History contains many examples of dissident movements, schisms, heresies and reforms that have suddenly given birth to religions or religious movements. As to governmental efforts to distinguish between religions and sects, the Rapporteur concludes that: "All in all, the distinction between a religion and a sect is too contrived to be acceptable. A sect that goes beyond simple belief and appeals to a divinity, or at the very least, to the supernatural the transcendent, the absolute, or the sacred, enters into the religious sphere and should enjoy the protection afforded to religions.

Most countries do not consider the issue of "sects" a national problem or a threat for the State. The Dutch, Swedish, and Swiss governments have taken up the issue and found there is no need for concerted government action, and many other countries like the United States have determined that this is simply not an issue necessitating government action.

The attempt to define a "cult" in the Report is so vague that it could just as easily be applied to all religions. It is also based on almost uniformly biased sources.

Laws that are excessively vague, discriminate in intent and application, and allow for the imposition of draconian measures on religious communities and their parishioners are incompatible with the rule of law in a democratic society and thus violate fundamental rights protected by all major international human rights treaties.

The Report impermissibly presumes that certain faiths classified as "cults" are "dangerous" and should be "fought against" through specific and widespread administrative and legislative measures. No State is entitled to declare that some beliefs are "pseudo-religious" or pathological.

As an international court that embraces universal human rights principles, the European Court of Human Rights decisions are instructive on this matter and bear heeding. The Human Rights Court's 10 June 2010 decision in Jehovah's Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia articulates the State's duty of neutrality in religious matters.

119. The Court further reiterates that the State's duty of neutrality and impartiality prohibits it from assessing the legitimacy of religious beliefs or the ways in which those beliefs are expressed or manifested. Accordingly, the State has a narrow margin of appreciation and must advance serious and compelling reasons for an interference with the choices that people may make in pursuance of the religious standard of behaviour within the sphere of their personal autonomy.

The Report considers some beliefs to be acceptable while others are not, assessing their legitimacy in total violation of the duty of neutrality. This is clear from the Report's recommendation regarding government sponsored "public awareness campaigns" to "warn" the public about certain belief systems that have been classified in the Report as "cults".

Likewise, the Report classifies all consenting adults who choose to join a minority faith because they sincerely believe in the faith's tenets as "victims". This biased approach ignores the fundamental human right of personal religious autonomy that allows an individual to freely choose to adopt a religious belief.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not only protects the right to freedom of religion, it also states this right "shall include freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice ... " This right to change one's religion is emphasized by the UN Human Rights Committee in its General Comment 22 on the scope and interpretation of Article 18:

The Committee observes that the freedom to "have or to adopt" a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one's religion or belief. Article 18.2 bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert.

Proselytism and the decision of an individual to convert to a new faith is a manifestation of religion or belief encompassed within the right to freedom of religion or belief under international human rights law.

International and legal standards mandate that religious minorities be treated fairly and without discrimination in the same way as other religions. These standards also mandate strict impartiality by government officials and entities.

The Report also classifies individuals who have decided of their own free will to join these faiths as "victims" who, despite their protestations to the contrary, are under "thought control" and "mind control".

These findings are truly remarkable in light of a host of scientific and academic studies unanimously finding that the theory of "mental manipulation" or "religious brainwashing" have no merit. Over the last two decades, the international academic community, including scholars from psychology, sociology, and religious studies, has articulated an almost unanimous consensus that "mental manipulation" and "brainwashing" theories as applied to religious communities are completely lacking in scientific merit. Brainwashing has never gained any scientific credibility.

Major studies by the leading authorities in the field and by organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Sociological Association debunk the myth of brainwashing as it applies to new religious movements. These studies echo the position taken by the Dutch government in 1984 in its Report on New Religious Movements that "new religious movements are no real threat to mental public health". The Swedish government reached a similar conclusion in its report.

These studies, and the vast majority of government reports on the subject, determine that any issues could be resolved by using the existing legal arsenal and be resorting to normal legal methods. Consequently, they did not recommend taking any political or legal measures that encroach upon international human rights norms. For example, in its Recommendation 1178 (1992), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe concluded that legislation on "sects" was undesirable on the grounds that such legislation might interfere with the right to freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Parliamentary Assembly's Recommendation 1412 (1999) encouraged member states to adopt an approach "which will bring about understanding, tolerance, dialogue and resolution of conflicts" and "to take firm steps against any action which is discriminatory or which marginalizes religious or spiritual minority groups".

Yet, this encouragement of tolerance and dialogue in government reports and the rejection of "religious brainwashing" in academic and scientific reports are ignored in the Report in an attempt to justify oppressive government measures around a scientifically debunked myth. As a United States Federal Court held in denying expert witness status to the major proponent of this discredited theory, Margaret Singer, "the (American Psychological Association) found that Dr. Singer's report lacked scientific merit and that the studies supporting its findings lacked methodological rigor."

The Report extensively relies upon Margaret Singer's discredited theories to further the myth of religious brainwashing as a scientific truth even though the APA and American courts rejected Singer as an expert over two decades ago.

Indeed, many of the "experts" relied upon in the Report are biased individuals who are completely unqualified to render credible opinions. For example, the Report relies on Steven Hassan who presents himself as an "expert" on religions, basing his theories on Singer whose work has been rejected by numerous U.S. Courts. In March of 1996, in the case of Kendall v. Kendall, the United States District Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts also rejected Hassan as an expert witness. Hassan's testimony in this case shows that he was charging $200 per hour for preparation and $1,500 per day for his "expert testimony" on new religions, yet he had never testified in court before and his only qualification was a night school degree in an unrelated field.

Likewise, the Report relies on Rick Ross who has no academic qualifications and who has been found liable for damaging an individual through forced "deprogramming". In 1994, Ross violently abducted, abused, and forcibly detained Mr. Jason Scott, a member of the United Pentecostal church. Ross held Mr. Scott at a remote Washington State location for almost a week to try to hammer him out of his religious convictions. Mr. Scott won a multi-million-dollar jury award against Ross, with the Court noting that the conduct of Ross was "oppressive".

The Report also relies on the Center for the Victims of Cults (CVC). On March 4, 2011, the Israeli paper, Yediot Ahronot, published an article detailing the close relationship between CVC and Yad L'Achim. The article noted that CVC was established in 2006 for the purpose of having a seemingly secular group attack targeted faiths because of Yad L'Achim's image. The article notes that Yad L'Achim "suffered a bad image" due to its religious coercion activities, and that "fighting cults under the guise of a secular center can give them in the eyes of many a legitimacy to attack organizations and groups".

The U.S. State Department has issued human rights reports for the last ten years regarding detailed instances of violence committed by Yad L'Achim including pressuring landlords, employers, and MOI officials to assist its campaign against groups it deems "dangerous cults".

The Jerusalem Institute of Justice filed a submission in February 2010 to the Attorney General in the Ministry of Justice requesting to dismantle Yad L'Achim due to its criminal activities, as well as classifying it as a terrorist group under the Terror Prevention Order. The submission to the Attorney General detailed Yad L'Achim's involvement in violent persecution of minorities, racism, violence and terror, and the distribution of inflammatory material.

The Report calls for oppressive legislative measures for groups designated as "cults". It recommends that its exceedingly vague definition of "cult" based on the one-sided "definitions of theorists, therapists and organizations in the field" be legislatively enacted. It also recommends that the definitions be used as a starting point to "serve as a basis for a bill against the leaders of cults or sects against the activity."

Religions are not above the law. However, any legitimate concerns are much more effectively addressed by the enforcement of existing laws on common criminal activities. Special laws against "sects", on the other hand, are discriminatory and endanger the religious liberty of every citizen.

What justifies intervention by Israel in this area? As a matter of law, restrictions on religious freedom, including the right of an individual to manifest one's belief through adopting the religion of one's choice and the right of a religious organization to manifest belief through proselytism, are only justified if Israel can demonstrate that such restrictions fall within the narrow limitation clauses of the relevant international instruments. Any attempt by the State to interfere with religion must be "strictly necessary" to fulfill a "pressing social need" that "is proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued."

Yet, the Report provides no factual foundation to justify State intervention and no legal justification whatsoever to restrict fundamental religious freedoms.

The Report also recommends that the government engage in "building a data base regarding" so-called "cults". This raises the concern that a government record repository will be created identifying individuals by their religious association and beliefs. Such a repository could easily be abused and transform these records into tools of persecution by those opposed to religious tolerance while further marginalizing religious minorities and creating an atmosphere of discrimination and fear.

International and legal standards mandate that new religions and religious minorities be treated fairly and in the same way as other religions. These standards also mandate a spirit of tolerance towards minority movements.

The Institute on Religion and Public Policy recommended that the Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs decline to implement the recommendations in the Report as many of them contravene fundamental rights and would initiate oppressive measures targeting all the faiths derogatorily designated as "cults" or "sects".

Implementation of the recommendations in the Report would undermine and tarnish Israel's reputation for religious tolerance, the foundation of its democracy, which, as Prime Minister Netanyahu stated before the US Congress, has allowed it to "shine like a bright star of freedom amid the despotisms of the East."