Debate on the Address (Third Day) - 28 Oct 1996

House of Lords Debate (Hansard, col. 191-192)

8.18 p.m.

Lord McNair: My Lords, today's debate gives me an opportunity to tell the House about a visit to Germany which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, Professor Antony Flew, Dr. Dennis O'Keeffe, Mr. David Rosser Owen and I returned from on 2nd October. The reason for our visit was to take evidence from witnesses who represent religious and ethnic minorities in that country. In the space of a week we met people from 17 different groups.

We think of Germany as a modern, progressive industrialised and democratic country. Indeed, it is all of those things, but by the end of the week we had the feeling that behind all that was another reality. As I recount some of what we discovered, the House may come to understand why we came to feel that Germany, in parallel with all its great achievements, is moving perceptibly in the direction of becoming a highly conformist, theocratic state.

Apart from the Turks, Kurds and a group called VPM, which has a philosophy of education and socio-ethics, all of the other groups interviewed were solely religious. The Turks and Kurds have religious as well as ethnic affiliations which can complicate their international and inter-community relationships in Germany. For example, in Britain we take for granted that if someone is born here he or she is automatically British. In Germany that is not the case.

One oddity brought to our attention by the witness from the Centre for Turkish Studies was that university applicants of Turkish origin had to attend an office at the university which was different from that used by German students. I was not sure whether that separation applied only to Turks or to all non-Germans. In any case, it applied mainly to Turks because they were Germany's largest minority. All of the members of the committee were already aware in general terms of the difficulties faced by Turks and Kurds. However, they were astounded by reports received from representatives of smaller religious groups, including new Christian denominations and religious movements.

The first group on which I touch briefly is the Charismatic Christian Church in Cologne. We took evidence from Pastor Terry Jones and co-Pastor Charles Robinson. That active Charismatic Christian Church has been administering to people in Cologne for many years. Over the weekend it has an attendance of about 1,200 people. That church reported an intense media campaign to discredit it, coupled with an attempt to remove its tax-exempt status. The most disturbing matter described was the attempt to reduce the charitable status. The Church received a de-registration order which stated that it did not contribute to the cultural, religious, social or spiritual value of German society. That appeared to the committee to be a rather arrogant position to adopt in respect of someone else's religion. It certainly goes beyond the limits of state neutrality in matters of religion. Pastor Jones and his colleagues are now engaged in a court battle to reverse the decision.

The VPM is a group that consists mainly of professionals such as teachers, lawyers, theologians, doctors, psychologists, people from other callings and parents interested in the psychology of education. That is a secular pressure group which is perhaps comparable with the British Campaign for Real Education, with which it has close links. It has been swept up by a network of sekte priests and sekte commissioners, largely because its stand against drugs runs counter to the views of powerful proponents of drug legalisation. It has been viciously attacked in the media as a sekte. In summary, its opponents have stigmatised VPM by the label of sekte and the authorities, media and public appear to have accepted that.

The committee also spoke to Herr Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the National Council for Jews. He told us that there had been an increase in the number of attacks on Jewish property and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. He also clarified the difference in the meaning of two German words. I do not attack Germany. I want to see an improvement in the situation. He said that one had to listen carefully to the language used and there were graduations of dislike. The word auslander literally means a foreigner. For example, that term is applied to the British, Swiss and French. Non-whites are Fremde or strangers. Presumably, this means that the non-white minorities in Britain would count as Fremde even though they were mainly British citizens by right of birth.

Next, I deal with the situation in which the Church of Scientology finds itself in Germany. That seems to be the most frequently attacked group, perhaps because it is also the biggest. The attention devoted by the German state and certain officials to eradicate scientology (in the words of one CDU Young Union official) is extensively documented. The placing of Scientology in the cross-hairs was commented upon by the witnesses from the Unification Church and Sri Chinmoy. It was suggested to us by witnesses from those groups that the state and churches targeted Scientology as a prelude to, and an excuse for, the destruction of religious freedom for all religious and philosophical minorities in Germany. We were presented with a detailed and well researched briefing which included a sampling of incidents of discrimination. That briefing provided 60 examples.

We also received a copy of the application form to become a member of the Christian Democrat Party. There were two pre-conditions for membership. One was common to all such application forms known to the committee and my colleagues. It stated that the applicant was not a member of any other political party. The other was a declaration that the applicant was not a Scientologist. We were informed that all other major political parties took the same line; in other words, a German scientologist may not participate in the democratic process as a member of any of the main political parties.

Next, the followers of Sri Chinmoy express devotion to their leader's quest for peace in the world by organising concerts, marathons and other athletic events. Almost all of these facilities are within the gift of local authorities. They recounted instances where concert venues and sporting facilities are closed to them for no apparent reason. On one occasion they organised a marathon run only to find that they were not allowed to use the showers. The City Council of Cologne has decided that no public rooms are to be let to Sri Chinmoy groups.

Another group whom we met and interviewed was Orden Fiat Lux, a Christian healing group. Enormous efforts were being made to close it down. There is also a resurgence of cultural discrimination, which echoes German history. In the late 1990s attacks on artists who are members of an unfavoured sekte appear to be gathering pace. The technique employed is a refinement and intensification of the procedure in Germany known by the English word "outing" which is applied to professionals in any field, as the witnesses have clearly showed. In addition to the artists we interviewed, we were given documentation which described quite unacceptable discrimination. Reports in the media about two recent situations highlight the absurdity. In August 1996, as the release date of the Tom Cruise Film "Mission Impossible" approached, a spokesman of the Youth Union of the CDU issued a statement urging Germans to boycott the film because Tom Cruise was a Scientologist. The same fate was supposed to be meted out to John Travolta's film "Phenomenon".

We decided to try to find out from where this discrimination was coming. We concluded that there were several interconnected and mutually reinforcing sources of discriminatory attacks on the groups we interviewed. These can be distinguished as follows. Within the political and administrative structure there is a network of sekte commissioners, known in German as sektebeauftragter. Their task is similar to a network of religious sekte commissioners, to which I will turn later.

It was also reported to us that approximately 20 per cent. of elected German politicians were trained priests or pastors. There is a very close interconnection between church and state. From the evidence given, it appeared that the German state was spending millions of deutschmarks every year on anti-sekte personnel, propaganda and related actions. Some estimates are as high as 100 million deutschmarks.

Another example of direct discrimination by government is the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The state parliament has recently amended its data protection law to create a document centre containing information about individuals connected to sekten. That law is a specimen of selective legislation which strips away the fundamental privacy rights of members of groups labelled as "sekte" by excluding them from the data protection safeguards enjoyed by all other German citizens.

The Lutheran and Catholic Churches have a network of 140 sekt priests and pastors throughout Germany. Their function is to disseminate unproven, negative generalised propaganda about any group they choose to categorise as a sekt. In fact Pastor Terry Jones of the Christian Church of Cologne told us that the Lutheran and Catholic Churches categorise any group of which they disapprove - almost any group that is not Lutheran or Catholic - as a sekt to be closed down or disposed of.

We were astonished at the millions of deutschmarks and the thousands of man hours being poured into the campaign against minority religions. Our inescapable conclusion was that significant elements within the state and church apparatus have been brought to bear on these minority religions in an attempt to destroy them, but nowhere in our report do we suggest that events will inevitably follow a similar pattern to that of the 1930s. That would be unthinkable and quite impossible. However, there are unquestionably comparisons that can be drawn regarding the persecution of minorities, and those are of considerable concern to us.

I have gone some way towards introducing our report to the House. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news when there is already so much bad news in the world. It is, I believe, a great strength of our House that we have such a diversity of preoccupations. The committee's report will be launched officially at a press conference tomorrow morning. It will be widely distributed thereafter. I shall of course send it to the Minister who so ably introduced the debate and to those noble Lords who were kind enough to wish us well on our mission. I hope that this will be the beginning of a focus on this aspect of political and social life in Germany which will bear fruit by changing the situation that I have described.

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