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Geneva to host first public information centre on cults

The bodies of 25 cult members were found in these houses in Granges-sur-Salvan, after they caught fire Keystone

Six years after 48 members of the Solar temple cult were killed or committed suicide in western Switzerland, the authorities in Geneva are to open the first public information centre on religious groups.

Eight cantons, most of them French-speaking, have been involved in the creation of the Geneva-based Centre for Information on Beliefs, which is due to open its doors next January.

The new body, which will be the first independent and publicly funded centre of its kind, is the result of cooperation between Geneva, Neuchâtel, Jura, Fribourg, Valais, Vaud, Ticino and Berne.

On the night of October 4, 1994, 48 people were murdered or killed themselves in the belief they were being transferred to another planet. Twenty-five died at the small skiing resort of Granges-sur-Salvan in canton Valais. Another 23 perished in the village of Cheiry, in canton Fribourg. Some had been shot in the head several times.

The grisly scenes at the Solar Temple cult’s hideouts were proof of the hold that religious groups can exert on their followers.

In the wake of the deaths, the Justice department in Geneva invited the other cantons to join it in exchanging information on cult activities.

“We realised there was a need for adequate information concerning cults, both to prevent tragedies and to improve the awareness of the public,” says François Bellanger, the Geneva’s Justice department’s expert on cults, who conducted the report.

“The aim of the centre is to provide neutral information to the public about different beliefs,” he told swissinfo. The centre will obtain information from religious groups willing to cooperate, as well as from private groups which help victims of sects and from university researchers.

Ironically, canton Fribourg, the scene of one of the Solar Temple’s mass-killings, has decided to opt out of the scheme. It believed the centre should have been a national body, and set up within a university, with a greater research mandate.

“The purpose of the centre is to provide information and to work with the public and for the public,” Bellanger says. “Universities have a different function. They may provide useful information, but it’s not geared towards the public.”

Some cantons, such as Fribourg and Vaud, are also concerned about how the centre will be funded. Geneva has agreed to provide the bulk of the money over an initial three-year trial period.

There are no official statistics on the number of cults in Switzerland because keeping groups under surveillance would infringe civil liberties. But Bellanger estimates there are around 180 fringe groups in French-speaking Switzerland, which can be divided into three categories.

“First there is a huge number of groups which have esoteric religious or philosophical beliefs that pose no danger whatsoever,” Bellanger explains.

“Then there are the small fanatical groups that are organised around one leader – like the Solar Temple cult. With these groups, anything could happen, and even if we provide information, it may be impossible to prevent another tragedy.

“The third category is probably just as dangerous. These are commercial groups operating under the cover of religious beliefs. They are more open and additional information on these groups could certainly help the public.”

Bellanger is keen to stress that Geneva is not preparing a major crackdown against religious cults. The law states clearly that everyone has a right to their own beliefs.

“The group’s beliefs are irrelevant. What we are concerned about are its activities. The authorities only intervene when an illegal act has taken place,” Bellanger says.

Nevertheless, Geneva is one of the cantons which is subtly tightening legislation in this area. The local parliament is considering two laws, one designed to help the victims of cults and another which would crack down on the commercial activities of religious organisations.

For now the centre will operate primarily in French speaking Switzerland. “It is to be hoped that one day the federal government will change its mind and we will have a centre for the whole of Switzerland,” Bellanger says.

As a prelude to the creation of the centre, the Geneva authorities will this autumn publish a booklet, aimed at potential victims and parents, outlining the dangers of cults.

by Roy Probert

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