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Cult Experts Take Center Stage At IOP Forum

Controversy Surrounds Tonight's Guests

By Barbara E. Martinez

Experts from around the nation will gather tonight to discuss "The Politics of Cults in America" at a forum sponsored by the Institute of Politics (IOP).

Four panelists will debate before an ARCO Forum audience expected to include members of the Church of Scientology, anti-cult activists and Harvard students, according to IOP affiliates.

"It is an event on cults and it's been well publicized so it will be interesting to see if it draws people more closely affiliated with these groups," said Masoumeh Tadjedin '99 a member of the Student Advisory Committee (SAC) of the IOP.

The four panelists--chosen for their diverse and controversial perspectives--are expected to draw an involved audience from outside the Harvard community, according to IOP affiliates.

According to sources both at the IOP and in the anti-cult movement, the inclusion of Cynthia Kisser, director of the former Cult Awareness Network (CAN), invoked protest from the Church of Scientology.

CAN was a non-profit support organization for the friends and family of cult members. After CAN filed for bankruptcy in 1996, its assets, including its name and phone numbers, were sold. The Church of Scientology purchased this number, (773) 267-7777, and the name.

The Church of Scientology, which boasts 700 centers in 65 countries, according to Time magazine of May 6, 1991, purports "to 'clear' people of their unhappiness" through self-help techniques, career guidance and a supportive community. The Church's "Celebrity Centers," clubhouses geared toward the rich and famous, boast high-profile members such as Kirstie Alley, Sonny Bono, Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

However, many former members have alleged that the Scientologists use extortionist schemes and mind control methods to attract their members, according to the Time Magazine article.

"Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most classically terroristic, the most litigious and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen," Kisser said in the Time article. "No cult extracts more money from its members."

Boston-area Scientologists could not be reached for comment last night.

In its initial attempt to contact Kisser, the IOP called the listed number of CAN, asked to speak to her, and explained the intent of the forum.

When she called this number and explained the forum, the IOP's Tadjedin said she did not know she was speaking to Scientologists.

"They didn't tell us they were Scientologists," said Tadjedin, who was unaware that CAN's assets had been bought by the Scientologists.

"I found out afterwards about this story," she said.

According to Tadjedin, the Scientolgists are "adamently opposed" to Kisser and her appearance at Harvard.

"Scientology assured me that they will have members there," Tadjedin said.

According to Kisser in a press release dated June 21, 1996, legal fees amassed during lawsuits brought against CAN by the Church of Scientology forced CAN's financial insolvency.

"We've been backed into this corner simply because of the massive amount of litigation we have had to face in the approximately 50 cases brought by the Scientologists against us since 1991," Kisser said. "If you get sued 50 times over four years the odds are that you're going to suffer losses at some point."

The IOP will use normal security measures at tonight's forum, which will begin at 6 p.m.

"I do expect there will be a certain amount of controversy," said Rucker A. Alex '99. "Our goal is not to incite controversy."

Since the beginning of fall term, members of the Projects Committee of the IOP have been planning a forum to discuss "cults and the political influence that they have," Alex, former Projects chair, said. "[One] student was particularly interested in why people join cults. Is it society that forces people to join cults, or the cults themselves that draw people into their organizations?"

The other panelists will be Eugene Gallagher, author of Why Waco and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Connecticut; Joseph Kelly, Thought Reform and Exit Consultant and former cult member; and Peter Klebnilov, who covered the Heaven's Gate mass suicide for Newsweek magazine, and author of a book on doomsday cults, "The Cult Next Door".

Alex said that she is excited rather than scared about tonight's panel.

"We encourage undergrads to come early to sit in the front row seats," Alex said. "Barring any unforseen circumstances the panelists will be available for comment after the forum.

The IOP will use normal security measures at tonight's forum, which will begin at 6 p.m.

"I do expect there will be a certain amount of controversy," said Rucker A. Alex '99. "Our goal is not to incite controversy."

Since the beginning of fall term, members of the Projects Committee of the IOP have been planning a forum to discuss "cults and the political influence that they have," Alex, former Projects chair, said. "[One] student was particularly interested in why people join cults. Is it society that forces people to join cults, or the cults themselves that draw people into their organizations?"

The other panelists will be Eugene Gallagher, author of Why Waco and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Connecticut; Joseph Kelly, Thought Reform and Exit Consultant and former cult member; and Peter Klebnilov, who covered the Heaven's Gate mass suicide for Newsweek magazine, and author of a book on doomsday cults, "The Cult Next Door".

Alex said that she is excited rather than scared about tonight's panel.

"We encourage undergrads to come early to sit in the front row seats," Alex said. "Barring any unforseen circumstances the panelists will be available for comment after the forum.

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