Germany and the “Sects”

The Jehovah's Witnesses

The Jehovah's Witnesses--who had already faced persecution by a previous German administration (1933-1945)--report problems in two areas. The first is the dissemination by German states of "anticult" material that defames the church. The church has brought defamation suits against the purveyors of this information, and for now the practices have stopped.

A second cause of problems for the Jehovah's Witnesses is the refusal of the German state of Berlin to accord them the kind of nonprofit corporation status that the larger religions in Germany, including the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, enjoy. This refusal has focused on whether the state has the right to expect special loyalty from religious groups that claim the status of a corporation. The Witnesses have as a pillar of their faith the principle of nonpolitical involvement. Because of their unwillingness to compromise this principle (this same principle caused them to be shipped off to Nazi concentration camps in years past), the Jehovah's Witnesses were denied corporate status in a recent Berlin state case that went all the way to the federal court, whose ruling against the Jehovah's Witnesses placed the federal government's approval on the original denial. The case is now pending with the highest German court. If the Jehovah's Witnesses are once again denied the status of other churches because they do not vote, the church will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

The refusal to accord the Jehovah's Witnesses corporate status greatly increases the administrative burden of running the church. In particular, the church cannot be represented as a single legal entity, but must file separate papers for each one of its congregations. An even greater difficulty is related to the zoning laws.

Zoning laws reserve the right for religious bodies to build their places of worship. These laws, however, are applicable only to recognized religions with full corporation status. The denial of corporation status, therefore, has, in effect, muted their ability to worship. It is ironic that in the old East Germany Jehovah's Witnesses enjoyed the full corporate status now denied them in the reunited democratic Germany.

The Unification Church

Another denomination that has experienced difficulties is the Unification Church. After classifying the Reverend Sun Myung Moon as dangerous to society, the government banned him from traveling to countries that are signatories of the Schengen Treaty, which provides for visa-free border crossing between a number of European Union countries. This classification was made even though there was no allegation of criminal wrongdoing on Moon's part.

Further, the Ministry of Family has targeted the Unification Church in booklets that are part of an "anticult" education program for public schools. The booklets labeled the Unification Church as "criminal." A German court recently ordered the ministry to cease distribution of this inflammatory literature because of inaccuracies. Finally, the German state has refused to recognize the Unification Church as a religion, a status they have enjoyed in the U.S. since 1963. Rather Germany has labeled them a political organization, which prevents them from receiving the favorable tax status enjoyed by mainstream religions.

The Krishna Consciousness Movement

The Krishna Consciousness movement also claims mistreatment at the hands of the German government. Besides the humiliation of justifying itself before the Enquete Commission (whose "experts" know little about nonWestern religious traditions), the Krishnas complain that though the government has not moved directly to censure Krishna Consciousness operations, the general environment of suspicion against them has been heightened by the governmental scrutiny. Krishna officials believe that unfavorable governmental scrutiny has opened the door to highly critical press coverage, including articles that describe the religion as "thieves of people's souls." These articles are suspected of inflaming antiKrishna passions among neoNazis, particularly in the former East Germany, where neoNazis have vandalized property of Krishna adherents and stabbed one of their female leaders.

Other Minority Religions

Certain congregational charismatic churches have complained of harassment. Two of the largest charismatic congregations in Germany, with attendances of more than 1,200 persons a week, have been the targets of repeated vandalism and bomb threats. Further, the government refuses to recognize new charismatic churches as legitimate. The largest charismatic church in Berlin was officially labeled a cult by the Berlin senate, which paved the way for a media attack campaign and further threats and vandalism.

Not all small religions in Germany report similar problems. A representative of the Church of God (Seventh Day), which has approximately 300 members in the country, stated that the church has experienced no governmental persecution or discrimination. Members do, however, experience some societal discrimination. A spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also noted that their church is not presently experiencing difficulties, although they have in the past, and were targets of the Enquete Commission until U.S. diplomatic efforts ensured they were removed from the list of suspected cults.

One wonders if the U.S. government would do the same for these other faiths as well. Not likely.


Article Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.