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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

In World Press, Boredom and Fascination

Reaction: Japan, Russian newspapers largely uninterested. Polish, Mexican publications express concern.

March 31, 1997|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — "Beam Us Up," read the banner headline in the Mirror. "They guzzled vodka, applesauce and lethal pills, then went gladly to their doom," said the London tabloid.

Do the dead of Heaven's Gate deserve a better requiem? Or, in a world ever more hardened to unspeakable outrage, none at all?

And was the mass suicide that left 39 dead in Rancho Santa Fe just California fruitcake, or did it contain the germ of something more sinister and universal?

Times correspondents surveying the world's press over the weekend found fascination with the story in some countries and a ho-hum, "just-another-cult-suicide" reaction in others.

The Chinese press, for example, passed up an easy shot at the malaise of American society. Russian newspapers were not terribly interested, nor were those in Japan, where people have become cult-hardened in the aftermath of 1995's lethal subway attack in the Tokyo subway system, blamed on the Aum Supreme Truth cult.

But in Poland, the press has viewed the Rancho Santa Fe deaths with concern, probably because the issue of religious sects is a growing one both in Roman Catholic Poland and across the rest of the former Soviet bloc.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, far-out cults are no longer perceived as an exclusively crazy American thing; alternative religious groups are spreading everywhere, with stories of parents rescuing "kidnapped" or "brainwashed" children increasingly common.

One Polish sect, Antrovis, even shares the belief that a select group of humans will be rescued by aliens when the apocalypse nears.

And across the world, in Mexico, another cult apparently has similar beliefs. Mexico City's Reforma newspaper reported on a messianic cult of about 50 followers called the Academy of Future Science and quoted a cult expert as saying the group "also expects a spaceship will come for them."

In Mexico, the mass suicide has ranked among the biggest news stories north of the border in years, splashed across the front page day after day in a curious mix of fascination and concern.

"There are sects here like the U.S. one," announced a headline in Reforma.

Analysts said the mass suicide is likely to refocus attention in the Mexican Congress on pending legislation, dubbed the Law of Religious Associations, that would regulate splinter sects in a nation that is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Mexico City Archbishop Norberto Rivera Carrera lamented in a sermon that "religious sects, esoteric movements and gurus" are, in fact, multiplying in Mexico.

"We believe that a faith that does not embody the culture of life is not an authentic faith," the archbishop declared.

The fatal conviction that you can catch a spaceship to heaven is an insanity whose time was bound to come, said British analyst Tony Allen-Mills.

In the aftermath, said Allen-Mills, America hardly knows "whether to crack jokes about little green men or to cry at the story's absurdity."

Warsaw's Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's most popular newspaper, ran a thoughtful interview with Zofia Milska-Wrzosinska, a Warsaw psychotherapist.

"Collective suicide, treated as a confirmation of the values preached by the sect, was probably not looked upon as death but as a passage into a different and better state," Milska-Wrzosinska said. "And whoever would question that value would also question the value of his very self."

Bronislaw Wildstein, a columnist for Zycie, Warsaw's newest daily, said the suicides reflect "the confusion of modern times" and the waning influence of traditional faiths.

Among British commentators, Jeffrey Masson, for one, counseled pragmatism: "When a religion or cult or philosophy goes underground, when you are offered rides to other planets, lists of enemies, magic potions, just say, 'No, thank you.' . . . If we have enemies (and who does not?) a long and healthy life is the best revenge," Masson told Guardian readers.

But Allen-Mills, citing surveys reporting that 94% of Americans believe in angels and that 45% think UFOs have visited Earth, concluded: "In some respects there was nothing surprising about the latest excursion into the dark side of the American soul. . . . It was always to be expected that the twin distractions of a passing comet and an arriving millennium would prove too much for impressionable minds."

There may be more to come, Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society told the Sunday Times. "There are always cults and cult-like behavior surrounding millennial end times," Shermer said. "People are always looking for signs that the end is near, and here we have the comet and a [recent] lunar eclipse and the millennium. For these people, there are just too many weird things going on."

Times staff writers Mark Fineman in Mexico City and Dean E. Murphy in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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