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Rise of New Faiths Jolts Old Order to Red Alert

Tolerance tested in many nations by a surge of religions, some violent

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IN the last years of the 20th century, the rights of religious groups in industrialized societies will likely come under ever-sharper scrutiny, prompted by a growing list of violent tragedies - most recently a group murder-suicide last month in a French forest, a nerve-gas attack last March in a Tokyo subway, and a 1993 siege at a compound in Waco, Texas.

For self-styled anti-sect groups, such incidents prove that new religious minorities can be a danger to society and should be curbed.

But human rights activists and many religious experts say that such campaigns tar diverse groups with the same brush, increase public misunderstanding, and may even trigger violent confrontations.

Even use of the label ''sect'' can be a device to discredit new ideas in religion, medicine, or culture, they say.

The term ''sects'' traditionally referred to offshoots of established religious groups. But in French, and increasingly in English as well, the term also carries the connotation of fanaticism. European sociologists favor the less pejorative term ''new religious minorities.''

''The designation of a wide range of groups as sects is a bid to disqualify those groups from society,'' says Jean Bauberot, director of the Sociology of Religions group with France's National Center of Scientific Research. It ''expresses a tendency to impose social norms as if they were absolutely evident, or as if they hadn't varied over the course of history,'' he adds.

The Salvation Army, for example, was denounced in the 19th century as an antisocial sect that manipulated minds and exploited pocketbooks. But it now has a positive social image, he notes.

Thousands of religious minorities have sprung up around the world since the mid-1970s, aided by the globalization of markets and communications networks. As India's gurus made their way to Middle America, so American-grown New Age groups sunk roots in European and Asian cities and towns.

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