Religious Liberty Problems and Discrimination of “Cults” in Eastern Europe: The Case of Romania

CESNUR conference - 2023, Vilnius

By Camelia Marin

The struggle for religious liberty has been ongoing for centuries, and has led to innumerable, and often tragic, conflicts.  The twentieth century saw the codification of common values related to freedom of religion and belief in numerous international treaties, declarations, and conventions.  

The United Nations recognized the importance of freedom of religion and belief in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18. Similar provisions can be found in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other regional and specialized human rights instruments. However, attempts to develop an enforceable, binding document specifically related to the freedom of religion and belief have been unsuccessful.

After twenty years of debate, intense struggle, and hard work, in 1981 the General Assembly made strides towards achieving the goal of introducing a treaty on freedom of religion and belief, adopting (without a vote) the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981 Declaration).  While the 1981 Declaration lacks any enforcement procedures, it remains the most important contemporary codification of the principles of freedom of religion and belief.

Religious tolerance and pluralism made great gains in Western Europe after World War II and in Eastern Europe after the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 "liberated" religions in Eastern Europe from Communist restraints. It opened up new possibilities for minority religions and unprecedented freedom of religion and conscience.

The general freedom has raised intergroup and interreligious tensions and competition to the surface. These tensions played a detrimental role in destabilizing the former Yugoslavia and have prevented a fully realized freedom of religion and belief even in the peaceful, consolidated democracies of Western and Eastern Europe where, sometimes, accepting minority relligions became a challange.

Eastern European governments seem to be following the lead of Western European ones, also regarding the biased targeting of new religious groups. The actions of nations as France and its „cults” list, were especially detrimental in how they influence the actions of Eastern European nations like Romania, Bulgaria etc.

The adversaries of minority religions name them "sects" and "cults." Profesor Eileen Barker suggested the term "new religions" as a less invidious appellation.

Several reports mentioned that the"administrative discrimination" directed against "sects" and "cults" in Western Europe, borrowed by Eastern Europe, was and is based on ill-documented and biased parliamentary reports, and supported by various secularist and anti-new religion activist.

Discrimination and biases reflected in the reports on cults, and nurtured by them, contribute to the inequities associated with the new religious movements.

The fact that discrimination is yet existing in our society contribute to situation when abuses are made possible, and sometimes the means to detect and prevent such abuse are scarce, or, worse, ignored.

Different forums and panels on religious liberty pointed out to the need of morality and principles in order to obtain a spiritual healthy social environment, or an environment with a strongly immune spiritual system, which allows in all that is good for the system’s wellbeing and eliminates all that is poisonous. This new level can be acchived when we accept diversity as an important part of the nature itself and when conflicts are solved by acting from the heart, with love and conscience.

Freedom of belief is a barometer for the rights in a society, and indeed, belief is a human need and a right which must be respected for all.

As a particular case, I will refer to Religious freedom in Romania.

During years, Soteria International and other human rights organizations, conducted research on the independence of the judiciary in Romania in relation to freedom of religion or belief. We found that a lack of fair trials, in combination with stigma of new religious movements, has created a system that can bring false charges against religious movements, particularly dangerous for religious minorities and new religious movements.

A relevant example of such behaiviour of Romanian authorities is the case of MISA yoga school and yoga teacher Gregorian Bivolaru.

1990 - MISA - the Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute (MISA) yoga school was created, gathering some 30,000 students worldwide.

MISA has a socio-professional, philosophical and educative character, aiming to increase the health, wellbeing and spiritual level of people by spreading the yoga knowledge and practices. MISA is the largest yoga school in Romania and Europe.

During time, since the communist regime in Romania till nowadays, in persecuting the yoga teacher Gregorian Bivolaru, Romanian authorities skilfully falsified facts, documents, for changing and then “disguising” all political persecutions into common crimes.

On 27th August 1982, the National Bureau of the Executive Committee of the National Council emitted order 1253 by which all yoga and martial arts courses and practices were banned in any public place. The risks of being caught were many years in labour camps or imprisonment in very tough conditions. The trespassers were frequently discredited in the mass media and among their co-workers. This tactic was thoroughly documented by the researchers who studied the communist era.

Despite this situation, and not wanting to give in to threat and persecution, yoga teacher Mr. Gregorian Bivolaru continued to clandestinely teach yoga, therefore, facing severe consequences. In his views, helping people to achieve better health and quality of life should not be stopped for political reasons.

After 15 years of democracy of Romania, on 18th March 2004, the biggest police raid after the Romanian revolution of 1989 was executed against 16 houses whose inhabitants were mostly yoga practitioners. The locations were violently attacked by more than 300 special troops, prosecutors and police officers.

Accusations – sexual abuses, fraud, human trafficking.

The term “dangerous sect” was deliberately used to describe MISA yoga school. The media, therefore, supported the brutal police intervention, trying to persuade the public opinion that those raided and searched on March 18 were guilty of crimes.

Basically, the mass media was used to turn the population against MISA members and trigger a “witch-hunt”.

12 years after the police raid, the ECHR ruled on 26th April 2016 that the operation on 18th March 2004 violated three articles of the Convention on Human Rights and ordered the Romanian state to pay 291 000 Euros to the 26 victims that complained about the raids. In its final decision, the court stated that “the information provided by the Secret Service to the special police troops indicated that they will be met with heavy armed resistance, usually reserved for drug dealers and organised crime environments. In reality, peaceful yoga practitioners were found at the locations. The violence and disproportionate use of force was a direct result of this misinformation from the state organisations”.

The abusive reactions of the Romanian authorities drew the attention of numerous human rights organizations.

In the meantime, because of the ceaseless pressures Bivolaru was subjected to, he fled Romania and then even obtained religious asylum in Sweden.

To understand the level of discrimination and human rights abuses that happened in Romania against the yoga school, I will quote Dr. Gabriel Andreescu – founder of APADOR-CH Human Rights NGO in Romania and professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies of Romania.

 Dr Andreescu is the author of a comprehensive study of the MISA yoga school case in Romania.

  1. ''The infringement of Human Rights in the case of MISA  was the most aggressive action against freedom and liberty in Romania in the 1990's. The number of people involved and the level of the infringement affords me to say this.''
  2. ''In the MISA case we have a double problem. One is of Human tragedy: I know young women who suffer panic when they meet policemen, a woman who lost her health because being sent to the psychiatric hospital, a woman who lost the custody over her child because she was a yoga member and the custody was given to the husband who brutalized the boy. These are only a few examples. The other problem is the tragedy of the system. In order to cover the mistakes all the institutions and politicians had to cooperate against the truth, against the law, against the procedures, against the foreign observers. From this point of view I can say that we cant have a Romanian normal system of justice, we cant have a normal Romanian democracy without solving the MISA case''.

Further I want to underline also the difference of justice and perception, between Northen Europe and Eastern Europe.

While romanian authorities were severely accusing MISA yoga school and yoga teacher Mr Bivolaru, mainly based on misunderstanding and incapacity to accept a new spiritual perspective, the case reached under the research of Swedish experts.

I quote here Vicar Karl-Erik Nylund priest and maybe Sweden’s greatest expert with regard to sects.

„I could say about MISA that it is a movement supporting a different way of life, alternative therapies, displaying strong Gnostic sincretism features. The basic ideas are reincarnation and self-transformation (the ability to transform one’s self). A cult is a movement often emerging in a psychic deprivation environment, when people gather around a leader. MISA is a yogi movement where the participants aim at self-perfecting and improving their state of health and harmony through a lacto-vegetarian diet and yoga techniques.

Following the interviews I conducted with several Romanians from the Diaspora, I have strong doubts with regard to the fact that Gregorian Bivolaru could be allowed a fair trial in his own country. As I could see by myself, the charges against him are obviously untruthful and this is why they are the very evidence of the persecutions he is subjected to.”

All these persecution raise a legitimate question: why all these?

Just because MISA yoga school is GETING OUT OF THE BOX?

A small research on the yoga school activities and on the teachings of yoga teacher Mr. Gregorian Bivolaru, shows us that is a Integral Esoteric Yoga course, currently totaling over 35 years of study with 48 lessons/year. The topics of the course cover several area of ​​human life, with a written material of more than 14.000 pages, and a systematic practice carried out in each course which lasts on average 3 hours.

We can say that MISA yoga school and some other religions or spiritual movements which prescribe rituals and practices, that may not have an equivalent in a local paradigm of behaviour that is appropriate to the rules of social life in a respective region may seem unusual or strange in the Eastern Europe paradigm, exceeding the limit of comfort created by traditional norms, mainly Christian ortodox.

However, regardless of our personal habits and subjective perceptions, these rituals and practices are absolutely legitimate and normal, as long as they remain peaceful and non-abusive.

Respecting the freedom of individuals to have and create their own spiritual convictions, and respecting the will of each person to follow the spiritual path suited to their personal system of values is imperative.

Let us not forget that the purpose of law is to regulate social relations, and rules of conduct are in constant evolution, bearing the imprint of each individual that is part of society. Analysis of a person’s actions must take into account their spiritual particularities, and ignoring them is a clear violation of their fundamental right to religion, thought and conscience—limiting their freedom to choose a spiritual path consistent with their intrinsic personal values. This is the fault of society as a whole, of the system, and we must work together to resolve this.