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Worried about a loved one slipping away from you after joining a sect? The Swiss Infosekta hotline answers some questions from our readership on this topic.

This content was published on August 8, 2019 - 13:30

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Susanne Schaaf from InfosektaExterner Link - a Zurich office for sect issues - is in a good mood. A former colleague has just won a case against the Jehovah's Witnesses at the Zurich District Court. The religious community had accused the former Infosekta employee of defamatory allegations in 2015. The judges ruled that the allegations, while grave, were backed by solid research.

"We are not journalists who need a 50:50 balance for both sides, but take a critical stance like a consumer protection organization. Our information must be correct and based on secondary literature, internal documents, visits to problem groups and discussions with families and former members, "Schaaf told swissinfo.ch.

Jehovah's Witnesses made up most of the cases (110 out of 716) that Infosekta dealt with in 2018, followed by YOU Church (35), Scientology (24), International Christian Fellowship (17) and the Anastasia Movement (11) . Inquiries to Infosekta in 2018 concerned around 350 groups, in total Infosekta observed 66 problematic religious and esoteric groupsExternal link.

What is a sect?

"From the theological point of view, cults are groups that deviate from the Bible. We don't think this approach is helpful, and we see a variety of religious groups that cause concern or cause problems," says Schaaf.

Many of these religious groups, especially the evangelicals, are dissatisfied with being lumped together with more esoteric groups. Schaaf understands that these groups see themselves as free churches and not as sects. But she insists that some groups have sectarian traits.

"At first glance they appear like any Bible study. That's one side of the coin. On the other, there is a black and white approach where you either belong to God and the group or are under the influence of Satan," says you.

How do you found a sect?

"In Switzerland there are many providers in the alternative worldview market. It is therefore not easy to build a successful group," says Schaaf.

According to her, the leader must be charismatic and be able to convince people that he or she has special spiritual abilities. The leader must present their teaching as something unique that is helpful in solving all problems. From a practical point of view, you need to create an engaging website, find a place where the group can pray and meet.

In financial terms, Switzerland offers a simple organization option with the form of an association. After it is founded, you can apply to the canton for the non-profit association to be tax-exempt.

Who joins a sect?

According to Schaaf, there are more men in right-wing sects. Also in those who propose conspiracy theories or believe in aliens. Esoteric groups with a focus on nature, self-healing, energy, crystals or angels attract more women, although the leaders are often men.

Some members of problematic evangelical groups have a migrant background from Africa and often try to convert people from the diaspora.

How do sects manipulate people?

According to Schaaf, cults strive to completely dispel doubts about the group's principles and actions: "They claim that you are free to choose, but then they ask you to think carefully about your decision. Some even claim that doubts are the temptations of the devil ", she says.

Cults exert direct and indirect pressure on members to bring friends and relatives into the group or to distance themselves from them when they leave the group. For example, some evangelical groups claim that unregenerate sinners even if they lead virtuous lives. This can lead to difficulties in partnerships and families.

Manipulation is also used to elicit money from believers. Some groups ask members to give up 10% or more of their monthly income. People sometimes give more than they can afford because the leader says they got it back ten or a hundred times.

"When people end up having problems, the groups try to blame it on external factors or the members themselves. These controversial groups should be responsible for how their messages are understood," says Schaaf.

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How do you free someone from a sect?

Schaaf strongly advises against reacting with anger or strong emotions because the followers are mentally in a different place. Being too confrontational is not a good approach because it risks breaking the conversation.

"We've had cases where cultists blocked relatives on social media and changed their phone number because they didn't want tedious discussions. That's the worst that can happen because it's important to stay as close as possible in this situation "says Schaaf.

Instead of confrontation, it is better to talk about what you are feeling or doing. This can open the door to dialogue.

How long does the process take?

"In order to leave a sect, a person has to reach a point where they can no longer bear to stay, no matter what happens, when they stop. We don't know how long this process will take," says Schaaf.

A former member of Jehovah's Witnesses did not leave until he was 60 after having been with them for 40 years. Therefore, Schaaf recommends relatives and friends to accept that they will not be able to change the situation significantly in the near future. She compares the experience with a relative with a drug or alcohol problem, or an eating disorder. It takes time to overcome an addiction.

"You have to find a balance between affection and a certain distance from self-protection. If you are too distant, you could lose the person. Too much contact can stress you and damage your health," says Schaaf.

The path to leaving a cult is a long-term goal with many steps. According to Schaaf, the three most important things you can do as a friend or relative are: keep the relationship alive, not judge, and try to communicate regularly.

Who can help in a crisis?

The police do not interfere, as most of the supporters are adults who are capable of judgment. One of the rare cases of police intervention was a raid on the cherry blossom communityExterner Link near Solothurn in 2015, as the group was suspected of using illegal psychotropic drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and mescaline.

In addition to calling the Infosekta hotline, there is also the option of joining a self-help group for family and friends of cult members to exchange experiences. There is also a group of former Jehovah's Witnesses for dropouts. Both groups meet once a month.

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