A TV programme broadcast by SBS 6 on 27 February 2011 revealed how the Miracle of Love sect grossly misleads people who participate in their seminars. Undercover journalist Alberto Stegeman and his team spent a year infiltrating the Dutch branch of Miracle of Love. Fokko Oldenhuis, Professor of Religion and Law, was asked to comment during the SBS programme. ‘It is very difficult to take steps against sects because they often label themselves as a religious community, thus laying claim to related freedoms, such as the fundamental right of freedom of religion.’
The programme clearly demonstrates how the sect strips people of both money and dignity. During the sessions, participants had to undress and fantasize about having sex with their mothers, among other things. Another member was forced to imagine killing one of his family. Orders given by the sect leaders always have to be obeyed blindly. Sessions can last for days, and during that time participants are not allowed to have any contact with their families. They are also deprived of sleep and must sign a confidentiality agreement.
Stegeman asserts that the sect leaders use ‘shocking methods’ to ‘suck’ people into their organization. According to Stegeman, everything is aimed at ‘stripping people of their money, their possessions and ultimately their identity.’
Professor of Religion and Law Fokko Oldenhuis, was asked to comment during the SBS programme: ‘It is very difficult to take steps against sects because they often label themselves as a religious community, thus laying claim to related freedoms, such as the fundamental right of freedom of religion.’
Because of this fundamental right, the judiciary is very reluctant to act against religious communities. They never rule on the tenets of a religion. If communities of faith obey their leaders’ every whim too slavishly or ascribe the leaders’ authority to a higher power that’s usually not sufficient reason for the courts to take action, according to Oldenhuis. ‘Adults are free to decide what to do with their lives.’
Freedom of religion is in the public interest in our society. According to Oldenhuis, this inevitably creates chances for crooks within that society who are out to manipulate their fellow citizens under the guise of piety, with the ultimate aim of laying their hands on their victims’ possessions. The undercover programme revealed this systematic ‘stripping’ of the seminar participants by Miracle of Love in no uncertain terms.
Oldenhuis believes it will be difficult, though not impossible, to formulate special rules to tackle sects. In contract law, the systematic misleading of a weak individual counterparty is considered unlawful and sufficient cause for cancelling an agreement.
In his opinion, the systematic misleading of a group of people is an extension of this principle and can thus also be combated by law. In fact, the Dutch Civil Code already provides for this. At the request of the Public Prosecution Service, the courts can declare a legal entity to be prohibited (Art. 2:20 of the Civil Code).
However, this article does not apply to religious communities. As early as 2002, Dr A.H. Santing-Wubs argued in her University of Groningen PhD thesis Kerken in geding [Churches under the law] that Art. 2:20 of the Civil Code should also apply to religious communities. According to Dr Santing-Wubs, a broad and tolerant definition of the concept of religious community requires legal options for ‘counteracting possible excesses.’
Oldenhuis advocates a government initiative to set up an Information and Advice Centre for the Identification of Harmful Sects. This will provide continuity in the expertise required to tackle sects. Belgium already has such a centre, the Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations, which was founded by the government in 1998. It does not have the authority to impose sanctions, but Oldenhuis does not consider this a problem. He compares the Belgian institute to the Dutch Equal Treatment Commission (CGB). ‘The CGB recommendations usually have sufficient impact.’
Fokko Tiemen Oldenhuis is Professor of Religion and Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Groningen.
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