WHILE SLOVAK secret service chief Vladimír Mitro last year described religious sects as among the major threats to national security, some religious organisations which experts describe as sects continue to be recognised by the state.
Such is the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, one of the approximately 200 religious groups experts say are active in Slovakia.
The Witnesses, who are officially registered as a religious organisation, according to the 2001 Slovak census have around 20,000 followers in the country. Boris Rakovský from the Centre for the Study of Sects, established by the ecumenical council, says the group is among those which have a bad reputation.
"They try to appear very democratic, religious, and highly spiritual, but in reality they control people through psychological terror," he said.
Miroslav Lojda, of the state Office for Relations between the State and Churches (ÚVŠC), said he believed 20 to 50 Slovak religious groups of the total 200 to be "dangerous, which is a rather high number for such a small country."
He compared membership in a sect to "drug dependency".
"Everything that occurred in a person's life before he entered the sect is bad, and everything after entry is 'divine'. That's the tragedy. The person loses the capacity for self-reflection and dies spiritually. The person feels that he is unable to take a single step without the sect. On the other hand, a strong subconscious fear is fuelled in him that prevents him from leaving the sect," said Rakovský.
"Through manipulative techniques they [sects] make people dependant and rule over them; that's what is negative about sects," he added.
However Jozef Kalnický, an official Jehovah's Witnesses representative, said claims his group was a threat "are completely out of the question.
"We can't accept being labelled a sect at all. We aren't some closed secret cult, our activities are public, we hold public meetings and we are open for information," he said, adding that members were in no way manipulated by the organisation.
"We don't manipulate anyone. Our activities are based on willingness, voluntary acceptance of the Bible's teaching. You should ask and find out yourself whether people who feel manipulated even exist," he said.
The Slovak Spectator later approached two Jehovah's Witnesses distributing magazines and talking to passers-by near Hodžovo Square in downtown Bratislava. They refused to speak on the record.
"If you get permission from the organisation, we will talk to you," said one of the men, and explained that only the group's headquarters was allowed to provide information to the media.
Rakovský, when told of the encounter, said the men's reaction "clearly illustrates the sectarian nature of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"A person identifies the organisation with God, and to disobey the organisation is to disobey God," he said.
Lojda said that sects usually targeted people having family problems, seeking new spiritual experiences, or who feared the future.
Once a person becomes involved in a sect, Rakovský said, leaving can be very difficult,
"While they may have doubts and want to leave the sect, people are afraid. On the one hand they are afraid to admit that they made a mistake [by entering the sect], and on he other they also fear that the sect may be right after all and that when they leave it they'll be on their own to face the 'demonic world' and 'dark powers'."
This, he claimed, also applied to Jehovah's Witnesses who dropped out of the organisation and were then ostracised.
"Those who according to them [Jehova's witnesses] had a chance to discover the truth and then left are absolutely in the worst category in the world," he said.
But Kalnický said the Witnesses were far more tolerant than their critics maintained.
"Naturally there are individuals who choose a different lifestyle and leave, and we don't stand in their way. It's a personal decision. God is a God of freedom and love, and we will not force anyone," said Kalnický, adding that "everyone bears responsibility to God, and we fully respect that".