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Geneva seeks to temper influence of cults

The suicides and murders of the Solar Temple cult left 74 people dead Keystone Archive

Seven years after the Solar Temple massacres, canton Geneva is to open Switzerland's first public information centre on religious cults.

This content was published on November 3, 2001 - 10:48

"We don't want to infringe people's beliefs, but we do want people to be aware of the danger some of these groups pose," said Gérard Ramseyer, Geneva's cantonal justice minister, whose department has been the driving force behind the creation of the centre.

Four cantons - Geneva, Vaud, Valais and Ticino - are involved in the Inter-Cantonal Centre for Information on Beliefs, the first independent and publicly funded institution of its kind in the country. A number of other French-speaking cantons are expected to join in the coming months.

"This is an open-ended structure," said François Bellanger, president of the centre's council. One day, he believes, the centre may be incorporated into a federal information structure, though that is a long way off.

Preventing another tragedy

In the meantime, other cantons are being encouraged to join a body that is in line with a Council of Europe recommendation that all states set up information services on religious cults.

Geneva decided to create the centre - as well as tighten up its cantonal legislation - in the wake of the murders and suicides of 48 members of the Solar Temple Order in cantons Fribourg and Valais in October 1994. In total, 74 members of the group have died in ritual ceremonies.

"Those 74 coffins - especially the 11 children's coffins - are still fresh in my mind," Ramseyer told swissinfo.

Preventing that happening again is uppermost in people's minds, and the key to prevention, François Bellanger said, is information.

To this end, the unveiling of the centre was accompanied by the publication of a pamphlet and a book aimed at informing people about their rights regarding sects, and how to recognise whether they or their relatives are in a dangerous group. The centre will also launch a website, www.infocroyances.ch.

The authorities are keen to stress that the centre, which will open officially on January 1, is not part of a campaign to crack down on sects, rather it will provide the public with balanced and reliable information.

"We are not fighting these groups," Bellanger told swissinfo. "We live in a country where the freedom of religion is sacred. We want to provide neutral and relevant information. In collecting, analysing and providing this data, we are going to act very carefully."

Help cult victims

Indeed, the centre will, wherever possible, try to speak to the religious groups themselves. It will also talk to people who claim to have been victims of cults, as well as a number of Swiss universities that have conducted research into sect activities.

Geneva's justice department estimates that there are between 150 and 180 fringe religious groups in French-speaking Switzerland. Most pose no danger whatsoever.

However, there are small groups of dangerous fanatics, who have the potential to become dangerous. Also of concern are groups which use religion for lucrative ends.

The authorities will only interfere in a group's activities if it breaks the law. But those laws are being tightened. Geneva's cantonal parliament is considering two draft laws, one designed to help the victims of cults and another that would combat the commercial activities of religious organisations.

The Solar Temple affair showed that religious cults are rarely confined to one country, and the Geneva-based centre will exchange information about sects with similar organisations in countries such as Belgium and Austria.

However, the Swiss centre has refused to follow France's example of drawing up a list of potentially dangerous religious sects, firstly because it was felt that it would not be in keeping with freedom of religion, and secondly, it could mislead the public.

"Our approach is more pragmatic," Bellanger said. "We want to help people ask the right questions, to understand how these groups work and find out whether they pose any risk."

by Roy Probert

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