Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

New Religious Movements in the New Europe - Thomas Gandow

Just as the political situation is changing in Eastern Europe the religious scene is also in a state of rapid re-formation



Talking about so-called New Religious Movements often really meant talking about newly formed expressions of very old religions. To some extent, even those groups and movements were not so new, but our attention to them was.

Now our outlook is different. We can recognise not only that things have changed but also that, at least in part, they had never been what we believed them to be.

We see now that not only is society multi-religious in Western Europe but also in the former Communist Bloc, and not just recently but for years. For example, Berlin with its population of 100.000 professing Muslims is no longer the largest Muslim community in Europe. Moscow has more than 2 million Muslim inhabitants.

It seems to me that many religious groups have accepted the new European situation and have started - some of them years ago - with missionary activities in Europe, no matter whether East or West.

Buddhist and Hindu organisations are eager to work in this new mission field ‘Europe’, and they are organising conferences on Europe in Germany, the link between Eastern and Western Europe.

From 24th - 27th of September Berlin hosted the Congress of the Buddhist Union of Europe, under the heading “Unity in Diversity - Buddhism in Europe”.

A month ago, the Vishva Hindu Parishad held its 5th European Conference in Frankfurt (28th - 30th of August), entitled “Hinduism in the Modern World” and “Science and Spirituality - is convergence possible?”

Missionary Hinduism

I remember the situation ten years ago when Johannes Aagaard and the other researchers of the Dialog Center International, such as the late Fritz Haack, reported on Vishva Hindu Parishad as the coming core and umbrella of Hindu counter mission. So-called experts told us then that we should not exaggerate and that Hinduism was not missionary, rather an internal Indian matter. Now the VHP is established in Germany and its official speakers are lending support to groups like the Rajneesh Movement, ISKCON and Transcendental Meditation.

In Frankfurt the VHP conference was highly supported by the Protestant theologian Edmund Weber and other Christian ministers and theologians. Weber is also a ‘fellow traveller’ with the moonies. He conducted seminars and gave talks at Moon conferences.

You may be surprised about the fact that I seem to be mixing up cults and religions. Here are some reasons:

First, I think that religion is not necessarily always a good thing, that there is also a dark side to what we call religiosity.

Secondly, it was Vishva Hindu Parishad that mixed Hinduism with groups like ISKCON, Rajneesh, TM or Brahma Kumaris. When considering aspects of the term ‘New Religious Movements’, the VHP is in itself such a movement. It was founded in the 1970s. For parts of the European Hindu community VHP functions as a New Religious Movement, having left other more classic Hindu organisations behind.

Apart from more traditional gurus and ashrams, ISKCON has a special relationship with VHP and enjoys its protection, but - as already stated - there are also connections with Brahma Kumaris, Rajneesh and TM. Some writers for VHP even put the founders of these groups on the same level with Mahatma Ghandi.

Thirdly, this leads to direct links with the cult scene. ISKCON, the apple of VHP’s eye, is organising several conferences in Germany together with Scientology, Rajneesh, and the Unification Church, in order to “foster mutual understanding, co-operation and exchange of information”, counteracting especially on how to attack critics. We now have in our possession the joint communiques of these conferences.

Let us now take a look at the development of cults during the past years in Eastern Europe:

Cults and sects enter Eastern Europe

Besides commercial enterprises (small and large), ideologies, “Fuehrer” cults, sects and other religious groups have discovered the ‘East’, meaning the former GDR and Eastern Bloc countries, to be fertile ground, especially the former Soviet Union.

Obviously, from the viewpoint of extremist religious groups East Germany looked like a push-over for their recruiters. The newly arrived or reinforced groups, movements, and churches now operating in Eastern Europe recognised the chaos of government collapse and economic crisis as their chance for a new beginning. They were not responsible for the chaos, they had never belonged to the East German scene and history and they therefore appeared as a very new and attractive alternative.

In contrast to them, all the political parties and all the traditional churches had been part of this history, part of the breakdown, and were now part of the loss of trust in everything.

In this context, I would like to give you a picture of the cult invasion of the East and its different stages.

Phase one: Initial contact and collecting of adresses


At first, Scientologists and other cultists took up position at border checkpoints and in pedestrian zones. Colourful books with titles like “Way to Happiness”, “Last Warning”, “Dianetics” or “Divine Principle” were handed out by cultist groups as free gifts to the visitors from the East. At this time the East Germans had no Western currency and were thankful for any free gifts or for books to buy with East German money.

From among a large number of groups including the Rajneesh movement, ISKCON, Ananda Marga, Unity of Man, Neo Germanics, Est (Hunger Project), the EAP (Schiller Institute) and many smaller Bible based groups, the Scientologists seem to be leading the race success, even prior to Christmas 1989. Allegedly they sold 10.000 books in a one-to-one basis and took down all the addresses of East Berlin purchasers. 150.000 leaflets are said to have been distributed, and supplies of books had to be replenished with parcels from other Scientology bases in Europe.

All these leaflets and brochures were read several times because in East Germany any printed Western material was thought to be important.

The cults also arranged petitions to be signed and other activities such as lotteries and competitions in order to get information and as many addresses as possible, especially from young people.

Cults and most sects have a common method: they tend to cover up their true aims. They make vague and misleading statements regarding their organisation, its goals and activities. However, as there was little or nothing known about these groups, this was not so necessary in the East.

A psycho-political breakdown


In order to explain the present success of sects and cults, one has first to consider their fierce competition in the West, which made ‘retreating’ into the barely discovered East an attractive proposition. There are also pre-conditions characteristic of the GDR.

Lack of motivation, lack of belonging, and lack of future were three reasons given by Fritz Haack for the appeal of youth religions in the 1970s. Here are the supporting facts:

State and society offer little to kindle motivation. The structure of industrialised society with a growing number of one-parent families does not promote good home environments. Plans for the future are overshadowed by fear of nuclear destruction and genetic research and technology.

In the GDR these negative symptoms of modern civilisation had been glossed over by the state ideology. This makes the disillusionment with official ideology even greater, creating something like withdrawal symptoms: Many cannot cope at all. They are simply underlings.

The upsurge of cults coincided with the collapse of hitherto pervailing trends. What could replace Honecker portraits in the nurseries? Whose example were children and educators to follow now?

The bubble has burst: the Weltanschauung which gave orientation to friend and foe has gone. For and against whom should one fight now? Old structures had been destroyed by the regime. Newly formed ties (mass organisations and workers collectives) also suffered, partly through fear of the Stasi, partly through the recent emigration stampede and the rush into economic union.

“Afraid of freedom”

Forward planning and safeguarding for the future, formerly in state hands, has been discarded, devalued and ridiculed. The State is no longer, the community is destroyed and mortgaged for decades. Personal plans have been shattered. Few have any idea what will happen next.

The danger of this situation may well be underestimated. “Ideology? - No thanks!” was said to be the ‘in’ attitude. At least it is hoped by some that such measure of resistance to ideology has been achieved. It has been said that “every question used to have its answer, not from the guru but from the party secretary. The young have had enough of that. In their present situation they would rather welcome people who could share their perplexity.”

Less optimistic is the psychoanalyst H.J. Maaz. He describes the present situation as a classic gateway for authoritarian solutions: “Many are afraid of freedom. They are searching for firm structures, for new chains and a new “Fuehrer” figure.”

In this framework the youth religions make their entry as new totalitarian ideo­logies, together with other systems and schemes for salvation, offering to the perplexed ersatz orientation, ersatz commitment, ersatz future.

Prof. Hartmut Zinser of West Berlin stated recently that lack of religious educa­tion could make young people vulnerable to the occult:

“As religious instruction is optional in Berlin schools and not taken up by sixth-formers, and as there is little religious education in the homes and in the churches, [critical] religious surveying of the occult and magic practices is virtually non-existent.”

Lack of religious education opens the mind to all sorts of offers and closes it to critical thoughts at the same time. It also breaks down defences in regard to these off beat offers: “He who does not believe in God does not believe in nothing, but believes in everything” (G.K. Chesterton).

This certainly applies to the GDR.

Phase two: Territorial take-over


As in the West, cult functions were disguised as sanctioned public gatherings. Meetings took place at locations which provided an interesting, positive image, such as municipal or church buildings, schools, high schools, so-called ‘houses of culture and democracy’ and the like. The interested person was given the impression that he/she was visiting a recognised and educationally sound group.

A series of events with Swami Mahayogi, German leader of a Krishna splinter group, took place at very prestigious locations in East Berlin; the Berlin Zachaus Church also hosted an Indian Evening run by the Bhakti Yoga School.

Also from Hare Krishna, a poster proclaiming “Peace, Freedom, Non-violence” was featured at the Evangelische Studentengemeinde (Lutheran Students Union) in large letters, making it look as if the hosts sponsored the event.

Another example of how cults claim territory is the cult of Sri Chinmoy. In December 1989 they organised a marathon in East Berlin and proclaimed the park in which this took place to be the ‘Chinmoy Peace Mile’. They even tried to rename the Olympic Stadium of Berlin ‘Sri Chinmoy Peace Stadium’.

An article in the newspaper of the communist state youth organisation Junge Welt described the stance of the Chinmoy movement as follows: “What happens here has nothing to do with cults. We only meet for meditation and when sporting events have to be organised.” The article also offered the chance of a personal meeting with Sri Chinmoy at so-called peace concerts. These concerts later took place in Leipzig and East Berlin. It was not only for functions and meetings that such places were occupied. Before the first free elections in March 1990, when not even all the opposing groups and parties had offices in East Berlin, Chinmoy’s group took over an office in the former House of the Teacher, a congress centre at the Berlin Alexanderplatz.

After that the cults began to buying real estate from the state property agency Treuhand. They now rent and buy houses and flats, as well as training centres of the former GDR Secret Service. Cults try to establish centres in university towns. When they have a firm base in such strategic locations, they are ready for recruiting.

Phase three: Recruiting


We should never forget that almost all these groups see themselves not only as a ‘family’, but that they think in military terms. Therefore when I talk about recruiting I do not mean nice talk about God and the world, nor do I mean simply conversion or PR exercises.

Cults are militant fighters for a new world. They are organised like armies, and they also recruit new fighters like armies do, by mustering a lot of young people. They do not want just anybody - only persons they can use. Therefore they sift the thousands they invite and look for idealistic and capable fighters.

Scientologists call this selection. They distinguish between a pre-clear, somebody they can make use of because of money, education and abilities, and raw meat, useless cell tissue. Hubbard himself has estimated that only one person out of 25 who bought the book “Dianetics” will become a Scientologist (4%), and that they had to speak to a hundred people to sell one book.

The cult’s target is a small elite group. They need to sift a lot of sand to find one nugget, or let a lot of ‘small fry’ filter through a wide-meshed fishing net in order to catch suitably large fish. Thus cults go to many different places, such as universities, railway stations and shopping streets to cast their nets.

Many students - I would estimate more than 10.000 from most of the important universities in the former Soviet Union - made the Moon-sponsored trips to the USA, Japan or other countries, or took English lessons from them. The Moon trips abroad were sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Higher Education, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the City Council, and Novosty, which was the President’s official information agency.

One student from Russia said this about her Moon involvement: “We were raised with no concept of God. Religion was almost forbidden, so for us the main question is: does God exist? Then we decide whether to accept what they say.” Another one said: “In such an atmosphere as we have now in the Soviet Union, Unification is a saviour.”

After the first stage of week and month long journeys to the USA and other places, the Moon movement has decided to concentrate on very short local workshops in Russia. I estimate that this year alone far more that 20.000 students have attended 7-day workshops in the Crimea.

Phase four: Infiltration

For politicians, clergy, managers, academics etc, the Unification Church offers more: all-expenses-paid trips all over the world. For years, according to reports, whole groups of GDR clergy had received written and personal invitations to attractive conferences. The first conference in the GDR took place on Eisenach (23.3.90). The lecturers were two professors of theology from West Germany: Edmund Weber (Frankfurt am Main) and Jürgen Redthardt (Giessen).

The goal of all the cult groups is not merely to attract innocent young people but to achieve power. They do not want quick profit; rather they invest, exert influence and prepare for the take-over. Therefore they do not concern themselves with mass conversion, but recruit cadres, the leadership for the coming years. They do not care for unemployed adolescents but wish to widen their influence among bright, motivated people. After all, what value is the recruitment of a bored schoolgirl compared to winning over a TV editor?

Videos produced by all the cults were soon shown in the official TV programmes of all Eastern countries. One girl from East Germany, who was almost caught by TM, told me: “If that had been on West German television I would have thought this was more Western rubbish, one of those fascist gurus. But it was on OUR television!” At universities these groups also have their lecturers, and in some cases the gurus themselves lectures in state universities.

Phase five: The backlash


What the press had called ‘the imminent cult invasion’ has since happened. In Germany, despite information offered by churches, employment agencies financed lectures and activities promoted by Scientology and other cults. The Treuhand Agency gave plots of land to several cultist groups.

Nearly all denominations, new religous movements and cults are now operating in the newly extended Europe. Some of them gained influence via charity donations. Such activities gave them the opportunity not only to appear to be helping, but also to recruit on both sides: in the West among the donors and in the East among the needy.

The Sunday Post (Scotland) reports on such an action by the Swedish-based Living Word (or Word of Life), stating that this group used Scottish donations as bait for conversions during mass rallies in Russia.

Similarly, the Moonies raised funds and recruited Western volunteers for English teaching in the East. Now fundraising teams consisting of East Europeans are operating throughout Western Europe.

The growing influence of cults on politics and economics will not stop at the line which used to be the Iron Curtain. What we are faced with are not ‘nice and interesting’ New Religious Movements as misinformed cult agencies want us to believe. Instead we see these notorious cults and youth religions, which conceal their background motives and aims, taking advantage of the new religious freedom and of the loss of values and identity which the East is struggling with.

Consequently, religious liberty and freedom of thought are once more endangered if groups with totalitarian structures and aims are allowed to work without confrontation and opposition and do whatever they like.

Religious freedom and religious pluralism is necessary especially after the long rule of totalitarianism. But in most of these countries, schools, universities and other educational establishments cannot respond to these needs and challenges because they themselves are targeted.

Therefore, I think it is the duty of the churches and all bona fide religious communities to provide information and to debate the standard of behaviour of religious organisations. Thee former East Bloc needs help to give meaning, truth, and reality to the newly achieved religious freedom, and to protect it against abuse. This task is not for the self-promotion of the Churches, but it is a service to society.

However, the Churches in these nations were weakened through 50 to 70 years of national-socialist and communist dictatorship, and thus cannot deal adequately with their own problems. Ultimately it is more important that the West aid the East with spiritual help than with mere economic assistance.


This article was first published as a talk delivered at the annual meeting for FAIR, 26th of September 1992.