The Words of the Zoehrer Family
During years in which he was a city leader, a national leader (three times, in different countries) and a national messiah, Peter Zoehrer involved himself in a sideline activity. His is the story of what can result from feeling righteous indignation and acting on it. The article below resulted from an interview with Mr. Zoehrer and later correspondence.
The Forum for Religious Freedom (FOREF) began in 1998. From the beginning, the anti-cult people tried to put me into a corner, and paint us as a Moonie organization. Yet I understood the concept of living for others had to be done on an organizational level. We are in the same boat with other persecuted minority religious groups.
Only together can we survive the storm without being sunk. It is a favorite tactic of the anti-cult people to label, stigmatize and discriminate like this. They cultivated for years the term "sect." Their campaigns they have managed to create a phantom that ignites fear in people.
The real start of the concept that became FOREF was back in 1995, when True Father visited Hungary on a speaking tour. I was the national leader there (1993-1997). He had given a very successful speech there. It was published the same day in the national newspaper. Father signed many copies. He was very happy. After True Parents left Hungary, we felt spiritually something was not right. In the afternoon, we suddenly received a telephone call saying that True Parents were returning to Hungary. We were so shocked. We had already signed out of the hotel. Immediately we arranged new accommodations. We picked them up at the airport (in our old cars).
We were just a small group of people at the hotel. True Parents, Rev. Kwak, Eastern Europe regional leader Mr. Hashimoto, my wife and I. Rev. Kwak started praying. We had very little idea of what had happened. We knew that True Parents had been turned back at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. They had been on their way to Spain but were sent back to Hungary. This was the first time we found out about the "Schengen" ban. There was absolutely no advance information about this.
Rev. Kwak prayed very intensely in Korean for about five minutes. I had an incredible spiritual experience. My body was shaking, and I was weeping. I could not stop. I felt as if the whole European spirit world were crying through me, as if we were crucifying the Messiah collectively. The whole European spirit world seemed to be in agony, repenting.
Rev. Kwak finished his prayer, but I continued weeping. True Father started trying to comfort me. Mother was very quiet and serious. Father tried to find ways to comfort me. He walked to the window. You could see the beautiful lights of the Parliament and the River Danube; it was so beautiful. Father looked out of the window, whistling. The more he tried to comfort me, the more I cried. Finally he found a very good way to comfort me, by talking about fishing -- my favorite topic!
He asked me, "Can you fish in the Danube?"
I stopped crying. We talked about fishing. After a while, I said, quietly, "Father, I am so sorry. I am sorry for what Europe is doing to you."
Father replied comfortingly, "Oh, I'm used to it. It always happens to me."
At that point, the idea of FOREF was born. I made a determination to myself, and to God: I will fight for religious freedom in Europe. Whatever any leader tells me, I will fight until True Parents are vindicated.
In Hungary, the government invited me regularly with Catholic bishops and other religious leaders to a roundtable discussion in parliament once a year. There was genuine religious freedom, but I was thinking and praying about what I could do to actualize the vision I had.
I returned to Austria in 1997 after I became a national messiah to my own country! I was shocked at what happened in Austria; in 1998, Austria passed two laws against minority religious groups. One outlined "confessional communities," -- and the other established by law a federal sect observation office. That's when I started in earnest.
At first I was visiting church magazines. For example, the Catholic Church would write an article against us. Then I would confront the editors and say to them, either you publish my letter or you have to meet me, and I will tell you about human rights. In every case, they published the letter. They didn't want to meet me!
I started with the newspapers -- tried to get our stories out. I found some very cooperative journalists. I realized that they are not so bad. They are human beings. Though the Austrian press in general has caused me difficulties, individual journalists wanted to be fair -- once they got to know me. Still, they never got a positive story into the paper, because their editors always refused such articles. I thought that was strange until I pestered one editor -- I phoned and wrote faxes to him for been about three or four weeks -- until he got fed up with me. He sent me a fax, saying, "There is an unwritten constitutional statute that we should not treat minority religious groups -- so-called sects -- in a positive way. This must have been a government instruction. We met the same problem everywhere. Then I understood it doesn't help to talk with journalists -- there is really an unwritten rule.
I started to think more and more about this. I realized that to make any impact, I would need my own medium. There was no choice. But how to create that? I decided to take a correspondence course in journalism. I had already had some journalistic inclinations, and I had done some stringer work for the Segye Times. But I had never ventured into it professionally. The course was pretty tough. It helped me to gain understanding of the world of journalism, and the situation in Austria, and to gain some skills. I then had more confidence.
I thought, "I know you guys! I know your tricks!" I began to have a lot of confidence in writing.
While I was still doing the course, I saw a report about Matt Drudge on the internet. I searched for more information about him and found a speech he had given at the National Press Association in the United States. The print media had tried to ignore him, but at some point they couldn't ignore him anymore because he had so many hits [visitors] on his web site -- millions of hits. He beat all the print media. When I listened to his speech, I felt as if God were talking to me. Matt Drudge explained, Ladies and gentlemen, you always try to ignore me, and now I am standing here talking to you. The Drudge Report has become a powerful phenomenon.
Matt Drudge mentioned that he would look out of his window and speak with famous journalists from the past, who seemed to be telling him what to do. When he said that, I got goose pimples. What really touched me is that he said you have to realize that with the arrival of the internet, a new age of democracy has arrived; you don't have a monopoly on the truth anymore. Now every man and every woman who has a computer can be an owner of the truth and can publish it. A new age has begun; man can be free.
I was shocked. That was it! I contacted Paul Ettl, within one weekend we made a web site. We chose the name FOREF. "Forum" is something of a magic word here in Europe. It's seen as a symbol of civil society and democracy. A forum is a powerful tool for lobbying, or for getting things moving. I started posting material. Within three weeks, we had already hit the national level. One of our Green Party politicians, a lady, demanded that virtually every county in Austria have five to eight criminal investigators observing the "sects." This was supposed to be a human rights party! I uploaded the story and the headline was "Green Party in Austria Evokes the Spirit of the Inquisition."
The effect was that another small political party, the Liberal Party, phoned me in my car and asked for permission to put my story as the top link on their web site, "because, you understand, we are the real the human rights party."
In countering the Austrian politicians, I posted a study by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had found that the so-called sects are no more dangerous than other religious groups and can even be of benefit. This is a very important finding.
I indicated in my article that the Austrian politicians seem to have something to learn from the Germans. The German Green Party is a genuine human rights party, unlike the one in Austria. The story hit hard. From then on different media publications quoted FOREF, and increasingly web forums put FOREF as one of their top links. That is how the FOREF web site got many hits.
It must be added that FOREF's early relationship with the International Coalition for Religious Freedom (ICRF), run by Dan Fefferman and Bruce Casino in the United States, was crucial to it gaining international influence.
FOREF has become a real success story. No one can deny this. The critics always tried to oppose. In Austria we have thirty-four anti-sect offices, which is out of proportion to our size as a country. Austria should be in the Guinness Book of Records for "sectophobia."
In Austria we have about six hundred minority religious groups. We have incredible legislation in Austria regarding them. We have thirteen official religions and eleven "confessional communities." According to this new law, in order to become a recognized religion and join the thirteen, you have to have a ten-year testing time and you have to have more than 18,000 members. All the others are called "sects." If you are not a confessional community, or an official religion, everyone feels they have the right to discriminate against you; you are like an outlaw! The point is that FOREF has been fighting against this and raising awareness among the minority religious groups.
In 1998, the government published a brochure entitled "Knowledge Protects." It was a blacklist of the most prominent sects, of which we were one. The government published this. They made the mistake of putting the Jehovah's Witnesses in it; they are a confessional community. They didn't publish the names of any authors, though we knew exactly who it was. FOREF wrote a very sharp critique of this brochure. Finally, the government had to back down and stop distributing it.
In 1999, the Austrian Federal Office on Questions Regarding Sects hosted a meeting with all the European anti-sect offices, under the Austrian Government Family Ministry. I wanted to attend this but was not allowed to. It was by invitation only.
FOREF ran an article about it, with the headline "Government Hosts Motivational Training for Sect Busters." This hurt them very much. FOREF became famous for bold headlines!
Then the head of the anti-sect office, Dr. German Miller, called me. For ten years, he had been the leader of an organization called Society Against Sects. He spoke to me over the telephone for three hours. He was very upset. He his best tried to explain himself. They cannot ignore us anymore.
We are also campaigning against the use of the word "sect" in the media.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the strong urge to write. As much as I want to continue sleeping, I cannot. It is like an invisible force pushing me. My wife Gabriele usually wakes up, too, and for her it is difficult to go back to sleep. She has never complained to me about my wild, irregular lifestyle. She has been constant in her support through prayer and moral encouragement. I remember her more than once saying during those nightly inspiration attacks, "Now, that's the man I married, a passionate warrior for righteousness!" Also, our older son has expressed fury on various occasions when religious discrimination has occurred. "Dad," he would say, "we must do something. We must fight this injustice!"
At the time I began FOREF, I was church leader in Innsbruck. From 1999 to 2000, I worked as national leader in Slovenia. This was a productive time for the work for FOREF. In the brothers' room, while the brothers were snoring and their socks were hanging in front of me, I wrote on my laptop, stirring up controversy in Austria. I did this during the night. I could not talk too much about FOREF in my sermons. This was my personal war. I knew that one day it would help our church very much. I was fighting for Father. I had a long-term vision for FOREF. Nevertheless, I couldn't figure out how we could actually stop them. They had so much power.
While I was still in the Tyrol (Innsbruck), the head of the Styrian Anti-Sect Office, Dr. Schweidlenka, developed an exhibition for schools, to warn the children. The exhibition had about thirty posters, and poster number twenty-eight showed True Parents on a high podium conducting a Blessing Ceremony. Many couples in wedding attire stood in front of them but every couple looked identical. They'd manipulated the poster in such a way that at first you thought it was Hitler addressing a crowd. The title was "Absolute Obedience." It really got me mad.
Dr. Schweidlenka had organized a panel discussion in cooperation with city counselors and the state-level education department. The purpose was to draw public attention to the exhibition, which was supposed to be taken from city to city throughout Austria.
I was Innsbruck city leader at that time. I created leaflet for FOREF and the Action Committee of Concerned Parents and Teachers entitled "Stop Religious Discrimination in Our Schools!" It was a merciless, point-by-point analysis of why this was a human rights violation.
After distributing the leaflets, we entered as participants. Everyone was reading the leaflet. One of the "experts" pointed me out. "He says he is with FOREF, but he is a member of the Moon sect!"
I kept my cool.
My son was with me. Not long before, he had come home from high school and he was mad. He said, "Dad, you have to do something. Today, the teacher discriminated against my religion in front of the class again." Three different teachers had done this. Finally, Muslim high school students came to his defense. (My son is very straightforward. On his schoolbooks, he had written, "I am studying for God, True Parents and humankind." That is how he motivates himself.)
At some point in the discussion, I told the panelists, "What you are doing here is creating an atmosphere that is very hostile toward children who belong to minority religious groups. They will be mocked, discriminated against, stigmatized."
No, they said. We don't want that. That's ridiculous!
I said, "You really think so? I have a witness here who can tell you exactly how it feels." They had to be fair, so they invited my son to speak. He stood up coolly and related his experience in a matter of fact manner. You could have heard a pin drop. They felt so bad!
Then the city council fell over themselves to make it up to him; they invited him for a buffet, and so on. But it was a turning point. Even so, I did not know how to win this war.
I climbed up Mount Isel, where the Tyroleans had beaten back Napoleon's army on several occasions. Up there is the statue of Andreas Hofer, the Austrian freedom fighter. There is a museum, with the inscribed names of the freedom fighters. I have always felt this was a very spiritual place, and I felt some special spiritual support from Andreas Hofer. In the middle of the night, I prayed. I was desperate. I asked God, How can I win this war? -- it is too much!
Then something happened. Suddenly I saw many figures everywhere around me, beings emanating light, and I heard them speak in one voice, Don't be of little faith! We are helping you. This is just a small battle that you will win -- and we will guide you in much bigger battles.
Then they said, We are on your side.
I could not understand this; but they were somehow challenging me -- This is nothing. Have faith! I decided not to give up. I went down the mountain and thought, Let's see.
The next day I got a phone call from Prof. Zangerle of Innsbruck University, a youth psychologist and famous columnist in Austrian newspapers. He asked me if he could use the wording of our FORM'? leaflet. "This is great stuff," he said, "Can I use it in an article in a Tyrolean daily newspaper?"
I said, "If you like it, you can use it."
He wrote a scathing criticism of the exhibition. His line of attack was that this exhibition was an ineffective way to teach kids about the danger of sects and would ignite discrimination because of its alarmist approach. That's exactly what we don't need in our schools. FOREF sent his article, which appeared in the Tiroler Tageszeitung, to all the high schools in the country. The reaction of the teachers and school directors was impressive. They strongly protested to Dr. Schweidlenka's office and the project had to be stopped before it went nationwide. Schweidlenka was furious. He expressed his frustration in public, "Never before have we experienced such a powerful defense from the sects. FOREF has added a new quality to this confrontation."
Later, in 2001, when I was the national leader of Austria, one of my biggest frustrations was getting the religious communities consistently on board with FOREF. I needed to present FOREF as a forum supported by religious communities.
The religious communities loved the professional, righteous and fearless work of FOREF, and they constantly fed me with new information regarding cases of religious discrimination. They even told me that they have included protecting FOREF and me in their daily prayers.
Some evangelical groups have suffered very much because of discrimination by local authorities. They did not belong to the thirteen official religions in Austria, so they were also stigmatized as "sects." They may have been denied meeting rooms. They have suffered attacks by the media and because forty-two anti-sect movies are circulating in Austrian schools, some of them have children who have been vilified or attacked.
But for the most part religious communities really haven't had enough guts to support publicly. The cult "experts" tried to ostracize and stigmatize me. "This is a Moon organization. This is a one-man show." This was my battle, to overcome this stigma and prove to the public that this was a forum.
There was a time when I was almost ready to throw in the towel. Then I received a phone call from Who's Who in Austria. I had been recommended by three members of Who's Who in Austria to be included in the book. They invited me to be interviewed at a prominent cafe in Vienna.
They opened a new category "Human Rights Activist" and I was the first to be included. It gave me a boost.
FOREF has a certain power. When I was in Chung Pyung I made a determination that I was not going to pray for FOREF. I was there as the national leader, so I would pray for a breakthrough in that work, but I would not pray for FOREF.
However, I was in the prayer hall, praying, when suddenly I got these very clear instructions about what I should do for FOREF! Later, I went up to the mountain, the Tree of Blessing. I was not going to pray about FOREF. Then suddenly -- whoosh! -- You have to do this, and do that, and formulate it like this. All in detail. This course of action outlined by this revelation turned out to be the right thing to do! There is some power in this project beyond my own understanding.
One of FOREF's biggest breakthroughs that allowed us to prove ourselves to the public was when the state government of Upper Austria and the Catholic Church created a CD that criticized three hundred and fifty minority religious groups. It was widely distributed in schools. This must have been in about 2003.
Evangelical Christian ministers called me; they are ardent readers of our web site.
They said, Mr. Zoehrer, we should do something about this. They were also attacked, the evangelicals. Even the Mormons, one of the established religions in Austria, were attacked.
They suggested we should create an expert opinion on how unconstitutional this is. I was looking for the right constitutional expert when I met Dr. Christian Brunner, a professor of European and Public Law at Graz University. He is also an important constitutional expert in Austria. He has been a member of parliament and a national president of university rectors. He has expertise in the dialogue of cultures and in human rights.
Prof. Briinner was very distant in the beginning. Bit by bit I had to win his sympathy. Then I was raising the funds, money came in, six or seven thousand Euros from the persecuted religious groups. The expert opinion became much longer than I had originally intended, over sixty pages. When it was finished, we held a press conference.
I got incredible support from my friend Mr. Rusznak, the speaker in a mosque that had been torn down by the local authorities, who were kind of right wing. I was there with a camera recording as they tore it down. The authorities had found, according to them, some irregularities; somehow it didn't qualify as a mosque, but another expert disputed that. FOREF supported him in his battle. Rusznak is an Austrian, a convert to Islam. We became friends because I was the only one who supported him. In turn, he was my press spokesman. He has helped me to write articles.
We organized a press conference. The night before that we had an information evening that two hundred people from various minority religious groups attended.
All the major media outlets were at the press conference and they all knew Mr. Rusznak. Prof. Branner and seven representatives of minority religious groups were sitting beside me. They all had statements ready. We had only time for a few statements, but Professor Brunner's was brilliant.
For one year we had tried to get the upper Austrian government to stop the distribution of the CD, but they wouldn't even talk to us. We couldn't even talk to the deputy governor.
I wrote a very sharp open letter to the deputy governor, which several journalists congratulated me for, because I wrote things that wouldn't have gotten past their editors.
Austria Presse Agentur (APA) contacted the deputy governor. They put tremendous pressure on him. Within three days, the deputy governor had no choice but to receive our delegation. We made a deal, and we published the deal through the national news agency, APA. The school authorities and the Catholic Church stopped the further distribution of the CD immediately after the press conference. Mormons and some other churches could also post descriptions of their own faith communities on the Catholic Church web site, where originally the content of the discriminatory CD was uploaded.
Also, at the press conference, Prof. Erno Lazarovits, in his strong Hungarian accent, said, "Ladies and gentlemen, you may wonder why a Hungarian has come to the capital of Upper Austria to talk to you about religious freedom. I'm not just Hungarian. I spent some years of my life in Austria during the war. Do you know where I lived? I lived in Mauthausen, which was, as you may remember, your local Nazi concentration camp. I was one of the Jewish prisoners there who luckily, by God's grace, could survive. I became very concerned when hearing that the government and church is persecuting small religions. That's the way it started back in the 1930s. They started to pick on small religions, the Jews, the Jehovah's Witnesses. When I see this happening again, I feel obliged to raise my voice and sound a warning, Never again!" His speech stunned the media representatives.
Prof. Briinner's expert opinion is still regarded as a major reference source on the issue of religious freedom in Austria. He could see such incredible injustice in the way Austrian law dealt with minority religions, but up to then he had had no means to fight against it. Now he has found
FOREF. From that point on, he has been advising and protecting us.
He told me we should make an official association. When I first met him about writing an expert opinion, he hesitatingly took on the challenge. He must have been impressed with the success of the FOREF campaign; he was willing to serve as expert advisor. When we registered FOREF as a legal organization, Prof. Brunner was happy to serve as president. Since then, FOREF's public image has changed even more. We have an impressive board of legal advisors and international experts. Now I am the secretary general and my president is pushing me to act! I feel very good about this.
Prof. Brormer also told me, "Peter, you should get a press card." I had always thought that the Austria National Press Association would never give me accreditation because they are left-leaning, but I applied, sending my material as it is, without pretense. Take it or leave it, I thought. No one is going to deter me. Not long after, a nice letter arrived informing me that I had been accepted as a member. I am an accredited journalist. It is a powerful card; it gets you into almost everything and can be used in other countries. When I received this, I had tears in my eyes. It was like Cain's recognition.
I have always understood what Father means by true love. You have these people who are going against the Messiah. You have to prevent them from committing this terrible sin. This is true love.
Most of all, FOREF has turned enemies into friends. We have key people who were at first our enemies and became friends.
The Austrian government dissolved the Unification Church of Austria in 1975. The movement was pushed into the underground until after the cold war. In 1996, we registered the Family Federation for World Peace as an official NGO. Whenever I was asked about my religious affiliation, I proudly identified myself as a member of the Unification Church and a follower of Rev. Moon.
My guiding motto for FOREF has always been Father's guidance, "True love means living for others." Consequently, it took several years until I felt free to defend my own religious community. After a certain foundation of public trust was established, it did not harm the credibility of FOREF for it to be defending my own faith community.
Since 1997, when I returned to Austria, after having served for twenty-one years in other countries, I was determined to promote sustainable results for God's providence. True Father told the national messiahs that their mission will extend even to their descendants. One goal is to fight for a country that is free of inquisition and religious discrimination. One could say we are propagating an inquisition-free zone all over Austria. I don't want my children, grandchildren or the descendants of other parents to be persecuted for their religious convictions. I want them to be free to follow their conscience. Somehow, our Heavenly Father and the liberated Austrian saints and sages have been guiding us.
For more information visit FOREF: www.religionsfreiheit.atl