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Waco anniversary highlights dangers of cults

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Thirty years ago this week, David Koresh led more than 80 adherents to fiery death in Waco, Texas. So it is a good time to reflect on the dangers of cults.

The Waco tragedy is imprinted in our memories and popular culture (with a slew of recent TV series and documentaries dealing with the horror). But it is far from the biggest example of the death wish that cults have sometimes imposed on their followers. Rev. Jim Jones pushed over 900 fervent believers into mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Many swallowed cyanide and gave it to their children.

And here are just a few other such instances. 

Ohio cult leader Jeffrey Lundgren made a human sacrifice of a family of five in 1989. Then he and his followers wandered through West Virginia, Missouri and California before being caught and convicted of murder.

Yahweh ben Yahweh, founder of the black Temple of Love in Florida, ordered his aides to kill “white devils” and backsliders. Victims’ ears were brought to Yahweh. Seven sect leaders were convicted in 1992 of 14 murders.

At the Hare Krishna “golden temple” near Moundsville, W.Va., murders were plotted, and two swamis were convicted.

Ervil LeBaron, leader of the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God, ordered his 13 wives, 54 children and various lieutenants to kill “false prophets” and dissenters in the Southwest. Since LeBaron died in prison in 1981, an estimated two dozen of his disciples have been killed in sect rivalry.

In western Switzerland, dozens of members of a sect known as the Solar Temple, and also as the Cross and the Rose, died in a mass murder-suicide in the mid-1990s.

Many of the victims were found in a secret underground chapel lined with mirrors. Bodies in ceremonial robes were in a circle, feet together, heads outward, most with plastic bags tied over their heads, which bore bullet wounds. Other victims were in three ski chalets. Several dead children were lying together. The tragedy was found by officers rushing to fight fires which had been ignited by remote-control devices. Farewell letters said the believers were “leaving this Earth” to escape “hypocrisies and oppression of this world.”

In Quebec, fire ignited by a timer killed several people of a different branch of the Solar Temple. The Canadian group had been stockpiling weapons to prepare for the end of the world. The cult leader had pleaded guilty to weapons conspiracy and had gone to Switzerland. One of his disciples was charged with trying to buy guns with silencers — instruments with no purpose except covert murder.

What possesses some people, to make them believe crackpot gurus so intensely that they’re willing to kill rivals, strangers, their own children and themselves? This recurring pattern defies comprehension.

There are thousands of religious groups in the United States that can be classified as cults. (A cult differs from other denominations in that it is usually controlled by a single charismatic leader, and the members tend to isolate themselves from the world.) If only 1 percent of those resort to killing, that’s still a serious threat.

How can society be protected from potentially dangerous “fringies” — and what can be done to rescue the naive, vulnerable people who are drawn into such groups? The only workable method seems to be the constant issuing of warnings. These warnings should be disseminated as widely as possible. Maybe they’ll dissuade some trusting souls from joining secretive sects that end up as horror stories.

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