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States Posing a Danger to Minority Religions

Dr. Eileen Barker, expert on minority religions

Leading academic warns of today’s changed situation where states are possibly the greatest threat to minority religions

A comment by Dr. Eileen Barker, Emeritus professor, London School of Economics; Chairperson and Founder, Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM).The comment was made during Session V, “New Religious Movements and Contemporary Threats to Religious Freedom”, 12th April 2024, the second day of an international online 3-day conference on “Peace and Public Leadership: Addressing the Challenges of Our Times”, organized by HJ International Graduate School for Peace and Public Leadership, New York, USA.

Dr. Barker was asked by the moderator of the panel discussion, Dr. Franco Famularo,

But what threats to new or minority religious movements have you witnessed? Is it more serious in the 21st century? Or was it worse in the decades prior to now? And what lessons can we learn from the past that can be applied today?”

It’s different. There are different fears, there are different contexts.

Lots of things don’t happen at the individual level now. For example, you don’t get deprogramming in the way that you did in the seventies, when it was done without anybody objecting, really. It was just taken for granted.

Now it’s far more that the state is a danger.

What’s happening is that there is the labeling, not just of “cults”, but “xie-jiao” (邪教) in China, which means “unorthodox heresy” or something like that, but which is translated as “evil cult”.

Falun Gong meditation
Labeled as “evil cult” in China – Falun Gong. Here adherents meditating in November 2007. Photo: Ironstove / Wikimedia Commons, from the website clearwisdom.net. Cropped

And once a religion is labeled that way, this gives the state permission to treat it not as a religion. I got into trouble in China, mainland China, for calling Falun Gong a religion. And it was explained to me that it wasn’t a religion, it was a xie-jiao and part of the list, like the list [list of new religious movements labelled as “cults” by anti-cultists] they have in France.

And that meant it was not a religion. So it wasn’t subject to religious freedom and the rights of a religion.

Warning against the Jehovah's Witnesses in town of Torzhok, Russia in 2012
Labeled as extremist: Here, a public warning against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the town of Torzhok in Tver Oblast, Russia in 2012. The headline says “Caution, sect!!!” The text goes on to say, “Brothers and sisters! As became known recently, near the walls of our holy monastery, followers of the sect Jehovah’s Witnesses secretly preach their teachings. Be careful and vigilant! Don’t let yourself be fooled! You can get answers to all questions about faith and the Church from the brotherhood of the monastery at any time and every Sunday within the framework of Boris-Glebsk conversations.” Photo: Artyom Svetlov / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC ASA 4.0 Int. Cropped

And similarly, in Russia, if you’re labeled, or your literature is labeled, as extremist, this means that you are criminal. And just by definition, by the labeling.

So, I think that’s something that has happened. It’s getting more systematic.

In Britain, I would say that we’re pretty free. There are problems, but the Northern Ireland situation meant that we introduced laws that forbade certain movements because they were terrorists, in Northern Ireland, and there were a few that were labelled terrorist organizations, therefore weren’t subject to [rights to operate freely]. Now, that was okay. Nobody liked terrorists.

But what happened was that this meant that the door was open to saying, you’re defined in one way, and therefore you’re not subject to religious freedom. So religious rights and religious freedoms are taken away.

But on the other hand, there are reasons for hope, I think. People will say, even if they don’t practise it, that all people are equal. It isn’t acceptable to behave in the way you did in calling people racist names. LGBT people, sexual discrimination, gender discrimination, all these things are discussed. They’re not all solved, but they’re discussed.

And there’s an awareness that there wasn’t 50 years ago when it was just taken for granted that at least in a large number of societies, certain types of people were inferior.

Now, you may still believe it, and you may still try and do something about it, but you’ll be challenged, I think, because of the work of people like my co-panelists today – Katrina [Katrina Lantos Swett] and her organization and people like Massimo [Massimo Introvigne], who’s a fantastic advocate for religious freedom – people can’t get away with it so easily.

But the situation isn’t getting all that much better because there are new ways being found of taking people’s freedom away.

“States Posing a Danger to Minority Religions” – slightly edited version of comment by Dr. Eileen Barker 12th April 2024.

Featured image above: Dr. Eileen Barker 12th April 2024 during the online conference on “Peace and Public Leadership: Addressing the Challenges of Our Times”. Photo: Screenshot from live transmission by HJI. 

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