SCMP: Isolation ‘may harm devotees’ (3 Aug, 96)

Saturday August 3 1996


Religious followers isolated by a hostile public could become deluded and self-destructive under pressure to preserve the group at any cost, experts have warned.

The hostile stand adopted by the Government and mainstream churches against the controversial Church of Zion has isolated the followers, according to Baptist University sociologist Dr Chan Shui-hing, and their leader Leung Yat-wah is exercising ‘crisis management’ to turn the public outcry into a test of their faith.

‘The controversy has shown how ill-equipped government agencies are in dealing with religious sects on the fringe because such groups are rare in Hong Kong,’ he said. ‘Unlike many Western countries, where counselling services are more readily available, Hong Kong has little experience in dealing with these problems.’ Under public pressure, various departments have started investigating the Church of Zion, which advocates daily consumption of hydrogen peroxide, a disinfectant, to its 1,800 followers as a cure for all kinds of diseases, including AIDS and cancer.

At the same time, mainstream churches across the territory have branded the church a cult and sought to discredit Mr Leung.

Dr Chan believed the confrontation was counter-productive. Instead, government agencies and enlightened church leaders should offer dialogue and counselling services, he said.

‘Psychologically isolated, the followers turn inward, and without interaction with the outside world, they become drawn more and more into their doctrinal world view, divorced from the rest of society,’ Dr Chan said.

In the United States and Australia, various public hospitals and welfare agencies offer counselling, group discussions led by former cult members and sometimes financial, legal and relocation services.

Lauren Pfister, an associate professor in Baptist University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion, said the hydrogen peroxide controversy had ‘set up a crisis’ threatening the very existence of the sect.

‘Their leader will now have to justify himself and his teachings,’ he said.

‘He may become very negative and distorted in doing so.’