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Raiding religion, the new normal

The nineteenth of April 2017 is the twenty-fourth anniversary of the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy in Waco, Texas. The disaster began three months earlier, however, with a botched effort by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to serve a search warrant for weapons upon a small religious community. The raid resulted in fifteen casualties among federal agents, including four dead, and the deaths of six Branch Davidians.

After 51 days of negotiations between the FBI and the group, the late Attorney General Janet Reno authorized the use of force to end the stand-off. Police and military units using army tanks inserted CS gas into the building, destroying the walls behind which Davidians sought shelter. Reno had hoped the gas would encourage residents to leave the building and peacefully surrender, without loss of life. Instead, a fire broke, out and 76 Branch Davidian men, women, and children died.

While the militarization of police action against the Branch Davidians was shocking at the time, the use of such tactics has dramatically escalated in the intervening decades. Stuart Wright and Susan Palmer reported on this disturbing phenomenon, documenting 116 state raids occurring in 17 different countries over the last sixty years, with 77% occurring since 1990. Their study centered on incursions in North and South America, Australia, Israel, and Western Europe, although various human rights groups have chronicled this as a global phenomenon.

The problem of government assaults on religious groups persists to this day. The most recent raid was this past February, when Russian officials stormed Jehovah’s Witness headquarters and confiscated some 70,000 documents. Last November, German security forces combined to bust more than 190 homes, businesses, and mosques connected to the purportedly radical jihadist group True Religion. That same month, Turkish police arrested more than 70 academics who are members of Hizmet, the group which follows Imam Fetullah Gülen. This followed the July crack-down following an unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey which led to the detention of 36,000 people who still await trial.

Closer to home, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the FBI and local police raided the headquarters of the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ late last year. The black supremacist group—part of the tradition of Hebrew Israelites—preaches an anti-white and antisemitic message. It was not clear why a search warrant was issued, though one news source claimed financial irregularities were involved.

News media frame these and other incidents as justifiable uses of force against criminal, rather than religious, organizations. And perhaps they are legitimate attempts to protect the public from dangerous groups and not from what are perceived to be dangerous beliefs.

Yet the trope of the dangerous cult continues to influence the actions of law enforcement and government officials. The Church of Scientology has experienced what can only be described as ongoing persecution in Germany. Thanks to the marriage of anticult groups to state power, France has launched four times as many raids as any other country studied—57 in France as compared to 14 in the United States—according to Wright and Palmer’s calculations. Chinese police routinely raid and arrest members of Christian house churches. Most notorious is the Chinese crackdown on the qigong group Falun Gong, with reports of arrests, detentions, torture, and organ-selling deemed credible.

In the United States, the tradition of religious freedom has acted as a brake on government actions against new religions. There are notable exceptions, however. In 1953, the Arizona National Guard raided a polygamist community in Short Creek and abducted more than 250 children. The 1984 attack at Island Pond, Vermont saw 99 state troopers, accompanied by social workers, snatch 112 children of members of the Twelve Tribes. Within hours, a judge ordered the immediate return of the children to their parents, citing lack of evidence on claims of child abuse—members of the Twelve Tribes spank their children.

In 2008, allegations of child abuse led Texas law enforcement authorities to raid the Yearning for Zion community of Fundamentalist Mormons near Eldorado, Texas. On that occasion 439 children were taken into state custody, the largest such detention of children in US history. As in Vermont two decades earlier, a Texas court ordered the return of the children, finding that their removal was not warranted.

In a post-9/11 world, most Americans seem willing to accept state-sanctioned actions against religions perceived as deviant or dangerous. This is already the case abroad. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are targeted; in India, Christians; in Iran, Bahai’s; in Myanmar, Muslims; in Eritrea, Pentecostals.

How do we deal with legitimate concerns about national security, child endangerment, and criminal activity in a democratic society, and at the same time protect constitutional rights to freedom of conscience and religion? In many respects this question has already been answered, as shown by the upsurge in government raids on religious groups around the world. Yet we would hope to learn from the past.

Today we could take a page from Janet Reno’s notebook and from the institutional memory of FBI agents involved in the Branch Davidian raid who now consider it a mistake. Although Reno defended the decision to use CS gas at the time, she did reflect upon it when she left office in 2000: “We’ll never know whether it was a mistake or not… But knowing now what I do, I would not do it again. I would try to figure another way.”

Featured image credit: The Church of Scientology “Big Blue” building in Los Angeles, California. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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