How have sects won over so many new souls in the past few years? A dozen sect experts wanted to calmly answer that question a few weeks ago at Amsterdam Free University (VU). However, there was trouble right from the very start from the direction of the congress organized by CESNUR, the Italian ecclesiastical institution.
A member of that congress, a sociologist by the name of Hermann de Tollenaere, discovered that Maria Dolores Fernandez-Figares, who was supposed to make a presentation on "New Acropolis", a neo-fascist sect, was, herself, a member of that sect.
Outraged by this, de Tollenaere went to the TROUW newspaper, which had suggested on its title page last Tuesday that the CESNUR institution was nothing more than a dubious club of pseudo-theologians, and which occupied itself primarily with whitewashing right-extremist sects, such as Scientology, the Moonies and New Acropolis - that is, if it were not being paid by the sects themselves. This serious accusation was quickly withdrawn.
Reender Kranenborg, congress chairman and member of the board of directors which is allied with CESNUR, took the floor and asserted that he had never before heard of New Acropolis. That was peculiar.
Last year CESNUR released a collection of articles entitled Pour en finir avec les sectes - in which the authors accounted more for the ideas of the sects than with the sects themselves. This collection included a comprehensive article about New Acropolis. In it, the sect was described as "a philosophy which increases individual freedom of choice".
The director of CESNUR, an Italian named Massimo Introvigne, sought out public attention himself after that. In interviews with "Volkskrant" and "TROUW" he said that nothing was known to him of the membership of Mrs. Fernandez-Figarez in New Acropolis. She was in the congress, more or less, by coincidence. An oversight which he had already ironed out, in that he had removed her from the list of participants.
At the same time, Introvigne made a point of mentioning that the fear of sects had been grossly exaggerated by completely unacademic, vengeful anti-sect groups. He would have preferred to simply let Fernandez-Figarez participate in the debate, said Introvigne several days later to the "Algemen Dagblad."
"They have to know that this woman has an academic degree," and why should theologians be excluded because of their convictions? "I, myself, am a conservative Christian democrat. Does that need to affect me in my role as a theologian?"
As far as the Dutch press was concerned, that settled the matter. However, further research showed that the situation was not as clear as Introvigne claimed.
In view of French, Belgian, Italian and German sources, New Acropolis appears to be a particularly frightening sect with approximately 8,000 members, mainly in South America and southern Europe. It was founded in 1957 by an Argentinian born Italian, Jorge Agel Livraga. He was an art history student who conferred a false academic degree upon himself, and, based on Madame Blavatzky's theosophical teachings on the origin of race, selected himself as God's ordained "leader" on earth.
An ideal state, according to Livraga, who died in 1991, weeds out everything which is "weak and stupid," beginning with the gathering of homosexuals into concentration camps.
Adherents are attracted with popular courses about Plato, theosophy, meditation techniques, et al. In conjunction with these, the students are taught fascistoid ideas in paramilitary units, where they are also trained in marching, weapons use and the Nazi form of address.
The goal is the violent overthrow of democracy. "Senselessly stamping on an ant is a greater injustice than the death of a man in the name of an ideal," wrote Livraga in one of his letters to his friend, Delia Gutzman. After his death, she [Gutzman] took over the leadership of the sect which had, since the writing of that letter, spread worldwide.
The headquarters [of New Acropolis] is currently in Brussels. From there, contacts are established with fascistoid groups such as the French "Front National" and the Belgian "Westlandpost."
The controversial participant, Fernandez-Figarez, certainly appears to be known in the ranks of New Acropolis. She is the daughter of Maria Angela Ligardi, who is the "National Commandant" of the Belgian branch of New Acropolis, which also has its seat in Brussels.
Her father, Fernando Fernandez-Figares Muller, was the past "National Commandant" and was (unsuccessfully) responsible for the establishment of a Dutch branch.
Their dear daughter's name is in texts published by New Acropolis on two of their internet sites.
It is difficult to believe, then, that Introvigne, the CESNUR director, knew nothing of her sect membership. All the more so since Introvigne is to make a presentation this coming Fall to a society of American theosophists entitled, "Post-theosophical Groups: Ex-members of New Acropolis in France."
Introvigne reacted laconically to this, "Well, yes. As a matter of fact I am involved with a study about NA, but that does not necessarily mean that I have to know all the names of all the department chiefs of all national departments, does it? I am familiar with those from Italy, France and Spain, but not with those from Belgium. Can't that be?"
If you had been working on a study on NA, how could you tell the press that the danger from this sect was exaggerated? What did the ex-members in France really say about the NA?
"Approximately 7-8% of them actually talked about Nazi practices, et al. The problem is, however, that most of these had contact with militant anti-sect groups, whose information cannot be trusted. Would you write a paper on the Catholic Church solely on the basis of [statements made by] former priests? All the rest of my informants looked back, in retrospect, upon their time with the NA as a worthwhile, good experience. They left the sect simply because they wanted to do something else.
Did they then continue to be fascists?
"Now you are using the word 'Fascism' incorrectly. That has to do exclusively with Mussolini's movement. Let's come to terms, and say that they have right-extremist mental images. For instance, they do not believe in democracy, but in the bestowal of power upon a strong leader."
We call that fascism here.
That is the whole problem with this discussion. I am talking about religious convictions, which you then press directly into a political scheme. I understand that now. Politically viewed, everybody has to count on the fact that the Jews will never be able to forget or forgive the events of the Second World War. Although the question plays absolutely no role in the NA. Several of their leaders are, themselves, of Jewish descent.
Introvigne, by the way, is a member of the CCD, a right-extremist flavor of the Italian Christian Democrats, who, in the past year, ended an alliance with the neo-fascist "Liga Nord," and who barely lost the election to the "Forza Italia!" with Berlusconi, their strong leader.
What do you really think about fascism?
"Hahaha! In my own country, I prefer to describe myself as middle right. Look, our alliance could have won the election if they had taken the proper fascists of the MSI on board. But we didn't do that. And don't forget the rest of it, that the totalitarian spirits and the communists with their glorification of Stalin and his gulags."
Introvigne is also a member of the militant Catholic splinter movement Alleanza Cattolica, which he joined 18 years ago. The AC is a daughter organization of the international Tradition, Family and Property [T.F.P.] an ultra-conservative club of rich, influential Catholics who are admittedly "ready to fight tooth and nail" against "perverted elements of society such as abortion, socialism, unions, drug use and homosexuality."
A report called Prayer-Power-Profit by Marishane, a South African sect researcher, was written under commission of the University of Amsterdam in 1989. It makes connections between TFP and other right-wing Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei and the Order of Malta. It accepts relationships to the MOON sect, the terroristic Freemason Lodge P2 and the CIA. The report even announced background operations of the T.F.P. in coups d'etat and death squadrons in Chile and Brazil.
Introvigne has never made a secret of his membership in this organization. He regularly writes articles for the AC organ "Christianita" and also gives instruction for one week a year to the youth department at Legionare Christi.
May Introvigne officially bear the title of "doctor of religious studies"? After majoring in philosophy at the University of Rome, Introvigne, 42 years old, completed his studies at the University of Law in Turin in the late 1970's. Nothing is known of the ten years following that in the course of his life. Until the lawyer suddenly appeared as director of CESNUR, a "Church Service Research Institute" which was said to be "completely independent of political or ecclesiastical organizations," and whose chairman was an Italian bishop.
Since then, Introvigne has been writing books like a madman. In 1990 alone he authored 3 which are regarded overall as objective and apolitical standard works on the teachings of the Moon sect, Scientology and Satan's Church.
After that he edited many collected works, wrote articles (mostly about Satanism), in which he defended sects such as Scientology, the Order of the Sun Temple, and Heaven's Gate. Besides that he, together with his right-hand man, Ermanno Pavesi (also member of the AC) organized the increasingly called-upon sect congress of CESNUR.
What is conspicuous about the visitors to this congress is that they almost always come from Catholic universities. And several sect members are always part of the discussion. The tight circle of speakers and panelists which Introvigne has gotten together over the course of the years is very partial toward the public defense of those sects (of which they are often members) which have been discredited. Those invited to work at the Amsterdam Free University (VU) include Eileen Barker, who worked for years at ICUS, a research institute sponsored by the Moon sect. The American participant, J. Gordon Melton, let the AUM sect pay for his plane ticket to Japan in past years - after the sect conducted an attack at the metro station - to protest against the "religious suppression" and the "unjust treatment" of the sect. Of the Dutch participants, Richard Singelenberg, sociologist and "TROUW" writer, "translated and worked up" a book published by the Church of Scientology called "A Scientific Approach to the Teachings of Scientology," originally written by the American, Bryan R. Wilson, whose work appeared in the CESNUR collection "Pour en finir avec les sectes" as a kind of hagiography on Scientology.
What is going on here? Why is a large, international association of theologians playing onto the hands of a murky right-wing Italian radical group?
Sociologist Herman de Tollenaere, the one who brought the whole situation to the attention of TROUW, can only guess.
"It is known that sect experts often end up identifying with the belief system of the sect they are researching. They get a tendency to defend their subject against outside criticism. The social poverty which the sect brings with it is thereby completely nullified."
And Introvigne himself, what does he want?
"Well. According to the opinion of an informant from Italy, since the fall of the [Berlin] wall, all kinds of ultra-right organizations seek connections to ultra-right sects. With the goal of combining forces against common enemies: socialism, abortion, drugs, etc. At the same time they hunt up theologians who must defend these sects against social criticism and governmental persecution. If this theory is right, I would not be surprised if Introvigne was a pawn of these right-wing radical 'kongsi'. In any case, he has the perfect background for that. But proof, of course, is something else."
Reender Kranenborg, the congress chairman, will not say anything about it - "I have no comment. To anything. Tomorrow, neither, as I will be going on vacation then. See to it that you stay here."
Introvigne, himself, sees criticism of his organization as a big joke.
"Of course I am a conservative Roman Catholic. My colleagues believe something else. Why shouldn't we scientists have our convictions?"
"Science is a free market of ideas."