Prague, 1 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- News of the mass suicide of 39 cult members last week in the United States has sparked new debate in several Eastern countries about the spread of extremist religious sects and their potential dangers.
The 39 members of the Heaven's Gate sect took their own lives in the West Coast state of California hoping to be carried to a higher level of existence by a space ship they believed was approaching the Earth in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet.
Their deaths -- all by an overdose of pills mixed with vodka -- was reported by newspapers around the world as yet another in a long-list of bizarre cult-related crimes.
The most recent and spectacular include the suicide of 53 Solar Temple members in France and Switzerland in 1994 and 1995, plus the suspected suicide of five more this month in Canada, and the lethal gas attack by the Aum Supreme Truth cult which killed 12 passengers on the Tokyo metro two years ago.
The Heaven's Gate suicides have caused analysts to once again ask why cults exercise such tragic holds over their members' lives. It is also likely to fuel the continuing debate in many countries about what constitutes a cult -- as opposed to a religion -- and whether some forms of faith should be legally restricted.
In an interview with Poland's "Gazeta Wyborcza," Warsaw psychotherapist Zofia Milska-Wrzosinska said that cults are inherently dangerous for their own members because they so often depict death as a passage into a better state. She notes that "whoever questions the value of life in general, will also likely question the value of his very self."
Critics of cults say that they prey on people who are in vulnerable moments of their lives and are seeking the stability of a group. Steven Hassan, of the Resource Center for Freedom of the Mind in the U.S. city of Boston, says members tend to be highly intelligent people who are uncertain as they move from adolescence into adulthood, are emerging from broken marriages, or are having professional difficulties. The groups provide a very personal sense of family and offer a higher sense of purpose by promising enlightenment in the next world.
Experts say that cult activity seems to be increasing this decade as the millennium approaches. Richard Landes, the director of the Center for Millennial Studies and a professor at Boston University in the U.S., says that millennia historically have been times of increased anxiety as people see one era drawing to a close and a new one beginning.
Landes says: "We're now in a period where a lot of people are framing the apolcalypse (the end of the world) in a language and rhetoric that is (timely) and attractive. We're more aware of these groups, they're on the rise, and they're more active."
At least one Polish sect, Antrovis, is reported to share Heaven's Gate belief, that a select group of humans will be resuced by aliens when the apocalypse nears.
In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the collapse of Communism brought both an end to decades of official repression of traditional religions and the rise of the wide variety of alternative forms of worship now common in the West.
In the United States, where some 2,000 distinct religious groups exist, religion is often described by academics as a competitive "marketplace," where all the world's major faiths plus countless minor ones and cults jostle each other for followers.
No figures on the varieties of faiths in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are readily available. But the jostling between them already has launched a heated debate over which new faiths and sects are merely non-traditional and which are dangerous cults.
In Romania, opposition from the established Christian Orthodox Church to door-to-door recruitment activities by Jehovah's Witnesses has led church leaders to call it a cult, though it is not considered such in its home-territory in the United States.
Russian presidential hopeful Alexander Lebed has sought to win support from the Russian Orthodox community by branding the U.S. based Mormons a cult, though they, too, are considered a bona-fide religion at home.
In Lithuania, where the Catholic Church has long enjoyed supremacy, opposition to newly arrived faiths is also highly vocal.
In Central Asia, where Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity are freely practiced, some new sects are regarded with caution. Controversy over the activities of the Reunification Church of the Reverend Sun Young Moon, based in South Korea, brought restrictions on its missionary activities in Kazakhstan. Officials of the Kazakh Ministry of Education who attended a church-sponsored "leadership seminar" for 70 Kazakh students in 1992 objected to Moon's portrayal as a prophet and banned tkhe church from seeking converts in schools.
Multi-faith Uzbekistan has banned all street missionary activities, including mass distribution of bibles and korans, which are characteristic of many new sects. The restrictions are aimed both at charismatic Christian movements and fundamentalist Islamic ones.
As societies continue to wrestle with the thorny questions of how to define cults, and how to protect themselves from them, one British commentator this week suggested that the only real remedy may be to help individuals recognize when a friendly invitation to join a religious group masks more sinister motives.
Writing in the "Guardian," Jeffrey Masson recommended: "When a religion or cult or philosophy goes underground, when you are offered ride to other planets, lists of enemies, or magic potions, just say 'No, thank you'." He noted: "if we have enemies, and who does not, a long and healthy life is the best revenge."