Feb 29, 2024

Airman who set self on fire grew up on religious compound, had anarchist past

Emily Davies, Peter Hermann and Dan Lamothe
Washington Post 

February 26, 2024

Less than two weeks before Aaron Bushnell walked toward the gates of the Israeli Embassy on Sunday, he and a friend talked by phone about their shared identities as anarchists and what kinds of risks and sacrifices were needed to be effective.

Bushnell, 25, mentioned nothing violent or self-sacrificial, the friend said.

Then on Sunday, Bushnell texted that friend, who described the exchange on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety.

“I hope you’ll understand. I love you,” Bushnell wrote in a message reviewed by The Washington Post. “This doesn’t even make sense, but I feel like I’m going to miss you.”

He sent the friend a copy of his will on Sunday. In it, he gave his cat to his neighbor and a fridge full of root beers to the friend.

Twelve minutes later, Bushnell, who was a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force, doused himself with a liquid and set himself on fire. He had posted a video online saying he did not want to be “complicit in genocide.” He shouted “Free Palestine” as he burned.

Secret Service officers extinguished the blaze. Bushnell died seven hours later at a hospital.

His suicidal protest instantly won him praise among some antiwar and pro-Palestinian activists, while others said they were devastated that he would take an action so extreme. But how a young man who liked The Lord of the Rings and karaoke became the man ablaze in a camouflage military uniform remains a mystery, even among some of his closest friends.

Bushnell was raised in a religious compound in Orleans, Mass., on Cape Cod, according to Susan Wilkins, 59, who said she was a member of the group from 1970 to 2005. She said that she knew Bushnell and his family on the compound and that he was still a member when she left. Wilkins said she heard through members of Bushnell’s family that he eventually left the group.

Wilkins’s account is consistent with those of multiple others who said Bushnell had told them about his childhood in the religious group or who had heard about his affiliation from his family members.

The group, called the Community of Jesus, has faced allegations of inappropriate behavior, which it has publicly disputed. In a lawsuit against an Ontario school, where many officials were alleged to be members of the U.S.-based religious group, former students called the Community of Jesus a “charismatic sect” and alleged that it “created an environment of control, intimidation and humiliation that fostered and inflicted enduring harms on its students.” The school, now defunct, disputed the allegations. Last year, an appeals court in Canada awarded 10.8 million Canadian dollars to the former students, who attended the Ontario school between 1973 and 1997.

A receptionist who answered the phone at the Community of Jesus declined to put a call from a reporter through to someone in authority. Emails to the group were not answered.

Multiple people who said they were former members of the Community of Jesus described their years after leaving the compound as particularly challenging. They said former members, soon after they depart the group, often long for a sense of belonging.

“A lot of us that got out are very much into social justice, trying to defend those who don’t or can’t defend themselves, because that is what we went through,” said Bonnie Zampino, 54, who said she was a member of the group for three years in the 1980s.

Wilkins also said it is common for members of the Community of Jesus to join the military, describing the transition as moving from “one high-control group to another high-control group.”

The Air Force said in a statement Monday night that Bushnell’s death is under investigation by military officials, a common practice after the death of a service member. He was a cyberdefense operations specialist with the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, and had been in the Air Force since May 2020, the service said.

To support someone going through a mentally tough time: Offer a safe space to talk and listen. Validate and affirm their feelings. Don’t engage in toxic positivity. Don’t be pushy with advice. Ask how you can help.

In recent years, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation have reached historic highs, especially among children and teens. Experts say urgent reforms are needed for America’s underfunded, fragmented and difficult-to-access mental health system.

Lupe Barboza, 32, said she met Bushnell in San Antonio in 2022 at an event for a socialist organization. She said they bonded over their politics and started working together to deliver clothing and food to people experiencing homelessness.

“He was outraged, and he knew that no one who is in charge is listening to the protesters out there every week,” Barboza said. “He knows that he has privilege as a White man and a member of the military.”

Other friends from San Antonio said they had talked with Bushnell about the Palestinians and their shared distaste for the U.S. role in the Israel-Gaza war. But he had not expressed to them any indication of what would take place in Washington on Sunday.

They also said he moved to Ohio earlier this year for a course for service members transitioning out of the military.

One of his friends, Levi Pierpont, 23, met him for lunch in Ohio in January. Over plates of butter chicken, the two talked about their involvement in the military and what they hoped to do after leaving the force. They had met in basic training in May 2020, when they were both still excited about joining the military and how it could help them experience more of the world, Pierpont said.

Pierpont said he grew disillusioned with the military over time — concerned with what he saw as flippant attitudes toward violence within the force — and said he left as a conscientious objector. (The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his account.) By 2024, Bushnell had become more open about his objections to the military, Pierpont said. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis in 2020, Bushnell told Pierpont he had started to research the history of the United States and wanted to take a stand against all state-sanctioned violence.

Bushnell had considered leaving the military early, Pierpont said, but he had decided he was close enough to the end of his required service to stick it out. Bushnell was scheduled to leave the military in May, Pierpont said.

At the January lunch, Bushnell told Pierpont that he planned to find a job that would let him make enough money to support himself while engaging in political activism on the side. Pierpont said he encouraged his friend to go to college and get a degree in something related to his beliefs.

Self-immolations are rare, but a number are connected to antiwar protests, perhaps most famously that of a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire in Saigon during the Vietnam War. An American Quaker self-immolated in 1965 at the Pentagon.

During the Iraq War, an antiwar protester self-immolated near the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. In 2010, a street vendor self-immolated in Tunisia, an act of defiance that served as a spark for the Arab Spring, in which numerous heads of state were forced out in uprisings. In 2022, a Colorado man died after setting himself on fire outside the Supreme Court in what his father believed was a climate change protest. In December, a woman self-immolated outside the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta. She had a Palestinian flag with her, authorities said at the time.

U.S. service members are prohibited from acts of political protest, under the Pentagon’s long-standing policy of remaining nonpartisan while civilian leaders oversee policy decisions. While no one else in uniform has stepped out against the war in Gaza as stridently as Bushnell, some service members do have misgivings about it and frustration that critics of the war blame U.S. military support for Israeli military actions.

Since the Israel-Gaza war began in October, at least 29,782 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and says 240 soldiers have been killed since the start of its military operation in Gaza.

Hamas and allied fighters took more than 250 people hostage during the attack. More than 100 were freed in exchange for more than 200 Palestinian detainees during a November pause in fighting. Israeli authorities believe that more than 100 hostages remain in Gaza.

On Monday afternoon, about 80 demonstrators showed up at the Israeli Embassy to support Bushnell and condemn Israel for the war. Among them was Sam Osta, playing an audio recording of Bushnell setting himself on fire.

“I wish I would have known. I would have stopped him,” said Osta, 55, who first met Bushnell at a protest at the Lincoln Memorial in 2022. “His life means a lot, and it’s horrifying what happened.”

Some of Bushnell’s friends, including Barboza, said they last saw him in January at his going-away party in San Antonio. It was at a karaoke bar. He belted out song after song, many of which were from “Les Misérables,” which he was known to love. And one was Mandy Moore’s “Wind in My Hair” from the TV series based on the movie “Tangled.”

“I got a smile on my face,” Bushnell sang, “and I’m walking on air.”

Peter Jamison, Omari Daniels, Ellie Silverman, Hannah Allam and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.


Courtroom fireworks as alleged cult leader tries to fire lawyer

Emily Kean and Lauren Silver
Court TV
February 27, 2024

DECATUR, Ga. (Court TV) — The fourth day of Eligio Bishop‘s trial saw fireworks in court as the defendant argued with the judge after announcing he wanted to fire his attorney.
Bishop faces several charges, including rape, after allegedly leading an online cult known as “Carbon Nation.” He has switched attorneys at least three times since 2022, and has been represented by Robert Booker during the trial, which began on Feb. 22.

After Judge Stacey Hydrick denied a defense motion to dismiss counts 3, 4 and 5, which are related to revenge porn, Bishop announced that he wanted to fire his attorney and hire a new one. Hydrick was adamant that he had only two options: proceed with his current attorney or represent himself pro se.

\“You don’t get to choose a different attorney in the middle of a trial,” Judge Hydrick said.”We don’t stop for you to get a new lawyer. You proceed with Mr. Booker or you proceed by yourself. Period.”

Judge Hydrick, who was wearing a mask when court began, warned Bishop that representing himself was a “terrible, terrible, terrible idea.”

While it wasn’t stated in court that the judge was who had COVID-19, Bishop brought it up, saying that he was concerned and that he was not being treated fairly. Judge Hydrick told Bishop that if he was concerned about COVID-19, he could ask to be kept in a holding cell but he would not be able to see or hear the proceedings.

Judge Hydrick told Bishop that if he fired his attorney and asked to be removed from court the trial would move directly to closing arguments because there would be nobody present to present his case. Ultimately, Bishop decided not to fire his attorney.

The proceedings ended early for the day after a brief conference in chambers with the judge and attorneys, after which Hydrick revealed to the jury that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

Ex-Jehovah's Witnesses in Brazil Fight Against Social Ostracism and Seek Dialogue

Discover the stories of Jefferson Alexandrino de Lima and Fabiano de Amo, who challenge the practice of shunning in religious communities. Their experiences shed light on the need for dialogue, respect, and inclusivity.

Saboor Bayat
February 28, 2024

In 2008, Jefferson Alexandrino de Lima's life took a significant turn after joining the Jehovah's Witnesses in Pernambuco, Brazil. Embracing the faith fully, he ascended to roles of responsibility within the community, dedicating years to its service. Yet, by 2020, questioning internal guidelines led to a drastic change, marking the beginning of his social ostracization. This experience of being treated as deceased by friends, family, and community leaders pushed Lima, now a psychology graduate, to explore the depths of 'Religious ostracism and depression' in his academic thesis. Concurrently, Fabiano de Amo, sharing a similar journey of faith and exit, initiated a virtual petition advocating for the rights and respectful treatment of disaffiliated members.

Understanding the Impact of Ostracism

Lima's academic pursuit sheds light on the psychological ramifications of being ostracized by a religious community. His thesis, rooted in personal experience, aims to highlight the profound effects such exclusion can have on mental health, specifically focusing on depression among former Jehovah's Witnesses. This body of work not only contributes to academic discourse but also offers a beacon of understanding and validation for others enduring similar isolation.

The Push for Change and Dialogue

Amo's virtual petition represents a collective call to action from those who have left the faith, seeking to bridge the divide between current and former Jehovah's Witnesses. This movement emphasizes the need for dialogue, freedom, and mutual respect, challenging the practice of shunning those who choose to leave. It is a testament to the resilience and solidarity among ex-members, striving for a future where personal faith decisions do not result in social exclusion.

Institutional Response and the Way Forward

Despite these allegations, the institution overseeing Jehovah's Witnesses in Brazil maintains that leaving the faith is a matter of personal choice and insists that it does not encourage the severing of family or community ties. This stance, however, contrasts with the experiences shared by Lima, Amo, and others, highlighting a disconnect between official statements and lived realities. As this dialogue unfolds, the broader community is urged to reflect on the principles of understanding and compassion, paving the way for a more inclusive approach to faith and belonging.

The stories of Jefferson Alexandrino de Lima and Fabiano de Amo underscore a critical conversation about religious identity, belonging, and the human right to choose one's path. Their courage in facing ostracism head-on, coupled with their efforts to foster change, signals a hopeful shift towards inclusivity and respect within religious communities and beyond.


Feb 25, 2024

Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental Meditation | athmavidyafoundation.guru

" ... In 1970, after having trouble with Indian tax authorities, he moved his headquarters to Italy, returning to India in the late 1970s.That same year, the City of Hope Foundation in Los Angeles gave the Maharishi their “Man of Hope” award."

" ... In January 1988, offices at the Maharishinagar complex in New Delhi were raided by Indian tax authorities and the Maharishi and his organisation were accused of falsifying expenses. Reports on the value of stocks, fixed-deposit notes, cash and jewels confiscated, vary from source to source. The Maharishi, who was “headquartered in Switzerland” at the time, reportedly moved to the Netherlands “after the Indian government accused him of tax fraud”.) Following an earthquake in Armenia, the Maharishi trained Russian TM teachers and set up a Maharishi Ayurveda training centre in the Urals region. Beginning in 1989, the Maharishi’s movement began incorporating the term “Maharishi” into the names of their new and existing entities, concepts and programmes."

" ... The GCWP unsuccessfully attempted to establish a sovereign micronation when it offered US$1.3 billion to the President of Suriname for a 200-year lease of 3,500 acres (14 km2) of land and in 2002, attempted to choose a king for the Talamanca, a “remote Indian reservation” in Costa Rica."

" ... The Maharishi is credited with heading charitable organisations, for-profit businesses, and real estate investments whose total value has been estimated at various times, to range from US$2 to US$5 billion. The real estate alone was valued in 2003 at between $3.6 and $5 billion. Holdings in the United States, estimated at $250 million in 2008, include dozens of hotels, commercial buildings and undeveloped land.[296] The Maharishi “amassed a personal fortune that his spokesman told one reporter may exceed $1 billion”.Accor ding to a 2008 article in The Times, the Maharishi “was reported to have an income of six million pounds”. The Maharishi’s movement is said to be funded through donations, course fees for Transcendental Meditation and various real estate transactions.

In his biography of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Story of the Maharishi (published 1976), William Jefferson suggests that the financial aspect of the TM organisation was one of the greatest controversies it faced. Questions were raised about the Maharishi’s mission, comments from leaders of the movement at that time, and fees and charges the TM organisation levied on followers. Jefferson says that the concerns with money came from journalists more than those who have learned to meditate.[303]"

" ... Just four years after his death, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Rs 60,000 crore fortune is at the centre of an ugly battle between two groups of followers

Maharishi died in February 2008, leaving behind more than 12,000 acres of land across India.  all vested with the Spiritual Regeneration Movement (SRM) Foundation, set up by the guru in 1959. The guru established several societies with the SRM Foundation and Maharishi Global University based in Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh at the top of the list. The other four educational institutions are Maharishi Shiksha Sansthan, Maharishi Ved Vigyan Vidyapeeth, Maharishi Gandharva Ved Vidyapeeth and Mahila Dhyan Vidyapeeth that run 148 schools in 16 states across India."

" ... Maharishi Nagar Colony in Sector 39 of Noida, which the guru’s followers built in the late 1970s, is in a state of neglect.The colony, spread over more than 900 acres, currently houses four buildings, each with more than 800 rooms. Most rooms lie in total neglect. A helipad once used by the guru is now dedicated to grazing cattle. Local real estate agents peg the worth of the land at Rs 15,000 crore. “The global university no longer operates from here.500-odd devotees of the guru stay in the colony, doing odd jobs to run the ashram.A mere four years after his death, the Maharishi’s legacy in India is in tatters."

" ... Ivanka Trump’s Gurus Say Their Techniques Can End War and Make You Fly
Celebs from Katy Perry to Ivanka say Transcendental Meditation helps them focus. The movement’s chief promises more: quasi-magical powers and the ability to steer world events.

The Daily Beast/October 13, 2018
By Justin Rohrlich

When the David Lynch Foundation held a gala for Transcendental Meditation at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last year, it drew a star-studded crowd. Comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Margaret Cho were there. So was the singer Kesha, as well as White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who had recently published a self-help book that included a section extolling TM’s benefits.

It was a pleasant, 77-degree June evening in the District. The guests wore cocktail attire, and the event was set up almost like a Hollywood premiere, with pre-show celebrity interviews on a red carpet. That’s where Kesha asked for a hug from Seinfeld, who brusquely refused her request while cameras were rolling (she later got one from Bob Dylan). Seinfeld laughed with Jay Leno for the cameras; Hugh Jackman, who co-hosted the event with Katie Couric, posed with real estate developer Jeffrey Abramson and his wife Rona. Jay Leno, Ben Folds, singer Angelique Kidjo, classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, and Seinfeld, Cho, and Kesha performed for the assembled luminaries.

The event was yet another sign that TM, with its lengthy (and growing) client roster of the rich and famous, had cemented a place among America’s cultural elites. Although independent estimates vary, TM officials claim that roughly 10 million people have learned the technique, which is meant to control anxiety, reduce stress, and increase their overall well-being.

“Transcendental meditation is a practice I picked up several years ago and I couldn’t do half of what I do in a day without it,” Ivanka Trump wrote in her book. “Twenty minutes is ideal for calming the mind, eliminating distractions, and boosting my productivity.”

The fundraiser promised to provide TM instruction so that underprivileged kids, military veterans, and trauma survivors could avail themselves of its benefits."

" ... David Vago, a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation, pointed out that all of the Maharishi Effect studies are basically correlation without causation.  “As much as I’d like to believe that crime rates will reduce in a causal response to group meditation increases, I have a hard time buying this kind of correlational research,” Vago told The Daily Beast.

Clinicaltrials [.]gov, which tracks accredited clinical research studies, found 910 studies of mindfulness currently underway, but only 14 studies of TM—half of which began before 2002. While TM officials often note that the National Institute of Health has funded research in TM to the tune of $24 million, that funding ended in 2010.

In 2014, an independent meta-analysis of meditation research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association for Internal Medicine found “insufficient evidence that mantra meditation programs [such as TM] had an effect on any of the psychological stress and well-being outcomes we examined.” An earlier review of TM data by the NIH also found insufficient evidence that TM lowered blood pressure as claimed.

Other assertions have been fact-checked to TM’s detriment. The organization’s American home base of Fairfield, Iowa has a population of roughly 10,000 residents. In 1993, reporter Scott Shane inquired about the crime rate in the area, figuring that crime must be virtually non-existent what with all the advanced meditating going there on all the time. “Crime here is about the same as any small town in rural America,” Fairfield police chief Randy Cooksey told Shane. In fact, Cooksey said, “I’d say there’s been a steady increase. I think, based on my statistics in Fairfield, I can show they have no impact on crime here.”"

" ... Dennis Roark, the former chairman of the physics department at Maharishi University has described TM’s research as “crackpot science.” Roark said he resigned his position after being told to link TM’s effects to legitimate physics—a notion he described as “preposterous.”

“Although there is substantial work in the physics of quantum mechanics giving to consciousness an essential role, even a causal role, there is no evidence or argument that could connect some sort of universal consciousness to be subjectively experienced with a unified field of all physics,” Roark wrote. “In fact, the existing scientific work suggests just the opposite.”

“The style of research they use is what I call ‘painting the bullseye around the arrow,’” says ex-TMer Patrick Ryan, who attended Maharishi International University, the progenitor to MUM, against his Navy master chief father’s advice, and spent 10 years in the movement as a “spiritual warrior” before quitting in the 1980s. “If a bunch of TM meditators get together and the stock market goes up, TM made it happen. If there’s another course and crime rates go down, or if accidents go down, TM created that. Find a positive thing that’s happened and take credit for it.”"

" ... The relentless focus on money is one of the main reasons Southern California meditation teacher Lorin Roche left TM in 1975.

“The whole focus of TM in the United States became to get all the teachers and all the half-million or more people who had learned TM, to go take expensive advanced courses and learn to levitate,” Roche wrote on his personal blog. “Soon there were tens of thousands of Siddhas trying, but failing, to levitate, all across the United States and around the world.”

Roche “benefited from TM tremendously, but it was a different organization when I was there,” he told The Daily Beast. “Once it became worth a billion dollars, it just changed.”

One billion may be a low estimate. According to The Economist, the Maharishi’s land holdings alone were worth $3 billion in 1998. A 2012 investigation by India Today estimated Maharishi’s real estate assets at the time of his death 10 years later to be worth Rs 60,000 crore—roughly $9 billion.

Although private donations have dwindled in recent years, from $31.6 million in 2008 to $1.5 million in 2015, there still seems to be plenty of money around, and there are dozens of separate but related TM organizations across the globe. The Daily Beast’s detailed review of TM-related financial documentation revealed a byzantine tangle of non- and for-profit corporations, global land holdings, and hundreds of millions of dollars—maybe more—flowing each year through the various entities that make up TM."

Feb 24, 2024

Prem Rawat Is The Lord of Flight

Prem Rawat's Boeing 707: The DECA Project, 1979

In 1979 the acquisition and customization of a Boeing 707 for Prem Rawat's exclusive use became the dominant focus within the then Divine Light Mission. The headquarters of DLM was moved to Miami and large numbers of the most skilled and dedicated ashram premies were moved to Miami into run-down, rat-filled hotels. Work on the 1961 Boeing 707 was completed in 1980 but it's emissions exceeded legal limits so the plane was soon sold to the more famous and much, much richer Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (he had begun his career working as the accounts clerk for a major Indian religious leader, so he could handle legal details like not letting your family steal your inheritance.) The plane was used by Rawat for a US tour and a trip to Australia and New Zealand and a holiday in Tahiti.


She left polygamy and now wants to help others with her story


Nicea DeGering

February 20, 2024

  • Getting a second chance at life with a brighter future for those who have left a polygamous background. Tonia Tewell, the Executive Director of Holding Out Help and former client Hannah Stauber sat down with us this morning to talk about the importance of fundraising for the cause.

o        Holding Out Help helps those who have left polygamy find the resources that they need to become independent and self-sufficient. But Tewell says what is unique about the charity is that they have three different properties so those who’ve left polygamy can stay as long as they want and get back on their feet. Holding Out Help is growing quickly, they now have ten employees and served three hundred and forty people just last year.

o        Hannah is one of them. She was just 14 years old when she married a 43 year old man in her polygamous community. She was his seventh wife. “For twenty years I felt like my sole purpose with him was a physical, intimacy relationship and I was trading my soul for love.” She says leaving was difficult, but Holding Out Help has been a lifesaver. She is now a Family Nurse Practitioner and helps others connect to the truth in their relationships.

o        Holding Out Help is having a fundraiser to help others like Hannah on March 15th. It’s called Securing Their Future and if you would like to find out more please visit: www.holdingouthelp.org


CultNEWS101 Articles: 2/22/2024 (Jehovah's Witness, Book, TB Joshua, Nigeria, Legal, Abuse, Conspiracy Theories)

Jehovah's Witness, Book, TB Joshua, Nigeria, Legal, Abuse, Conspiracy Theories

"I used to knock on people's doors and tell them the end of the world was coming. We were born imperfect, I would say, and soon will come the day of Armageddon when we will all be tested. Be good and you could win life in Paradise. Be bad, and your reward is annihilation. No wonder people would see us coming and turn off the lights.

Stories have always been in my blood. Until a few years ago, I based my life on their outcome. Raised in the UK as a Jehovah's Witness, I was told we were in "the time of the end", which meant we were in the third act of Life's story, when I would soon be rewarded with eternal life on a paradise Earth.

Every Witness child was given a copy of My Book of Bible Stories, a heavy yellow hardback. From the moment I could listen, I was taught the story of Abraham, who almost murdered his son after God commanded him as a test. The accompanying illustration of Isaac tied up on a sacrificial altar as his father looms over him with a knife was terrifying. Then there was Lot's wife, who was turned to salt for daring to look back at the fire God was raining down on her hometown. I never questioned these stories or their morals. Why would I? They were taught to me at the same time as my ABC. They were my version of "normal".

My entertainment was heavily vetted. Anything with ghosts or witches was banned. Christmas and birthday colouring pages were ripped out. Looking back, I struggle to think of books that would have been more shocking than the Bible. Babies' heads dashed against rocks, entire nations murdered by an angry God, an upcoming worldwide genocide of billions … yet it is a tree with coloured lights that was deemed offensive.

I was allowed to choose my own books, but reading was a pastime that came second to religious activities. I attended a mainstream school, leaving after A-levels, but usually Witnesses attain only the most basic education, and are instead encouraged to direct all effort towards preaching. University is frowned upon. Although I was never forced into full-time preaching, there was little encouragement to take my education seriously. Books have always been the easiest way to travel.

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four gave a label to the "doublethink" and "thoughtcrime" that I accepted as normal. When I read it in my early 20s, I had a genuine watershed moment. The way that "The Party" alters beliefs and insists followers accept these changes without dispute mirrored my community. The story of Winston, who knows the truth and yet must conform for his own survival, opened a door I had never dared to touch.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale opened my eyes to the danger of a patriarchy that positions itself as beneficial to women. I had recently become a mother and so the themes of suppression of women and loss of agency in the name of religion inspired a visceral reaction. I was already having doubts about my faith, and this book made them snowball.

Perhaps because my imagination was forged in such bloodthirsty fire, stories have always felt more alive and memorable than nonfiction. What could be a more devastating teacher on the subject of slavery and its subsequent trauma than Toni Morrison's Beloved? Parts of the story left me so angry that I had to keep putting down the book to compose myself. I read it after I had stepped away from my community, but it only confirmed my doubts. How could a powerful god stand by and watch this happen and not feel compelled to intervene?

A rule I had always struggled to accept was disfellowshipping, when wrongdoers are cut off and even their family are not to have any contact. Shunning those who simply no longer want to be a member is also normal among Jehovah's Witnesses. Classics such as Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, which feature characters cast out for allegedly going against the accepted morals of their day, helped me realise the unfairness of such a practice."

BBC Africa Eye:  DISCIPLES: The Cult of TB Joshua
"Man of God? Or a predatory cult leader? A ground-breaking investigation into the world famous televangelical preacher, TB Joshua, told by the people closest to him: his Disciples.

Two young women in Britain watch a VHS tape that will change the course of their lives forever: a Nigerian preacher can apparently heal the sick, cure cancer and AIDS. They decide to visit his church in Lagos to meet him. Joshua invites the teenagers to become his disciples, joining dozens of other young people who live on the church premises and do his every bidding. But life as a disciple isn't what they imagined."

PsyPost: The surprising dynamics of conspiracy theory beliefs
"Many people believe at least one conspiracy theory. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing – conspiracies do happen.

To take just one example, the CIA really did engage in illegal experiments in the 1950s to identify drugs and procedures that might produce confessions from captured spies.

However, many conspiracy theories are not supported by evidence, yet still attract believers.

For example, in a previous study, we found about 7% of New Zealanders and Australians agreed with the theory that visible trails behind aircraft are "chemtrails" of chemical agents sprayed as part of a secret government program. That's despite the theory being roundly rejected by the scientific community.

The fact that conspiracy theories attract believers despite a lack of credible evidence remains a puzzle for researchers in psychology and other academic disciplines.

Indeed, there has been a great deal of research on conspiracy theories published in the past few years. We now know more about how many people believe them, as well as the psychological and political factors that correlate with that belief.

But we know much less about how often people change their minds. Do they do so frequently, or do they stick tenaciously to their beliefs, regardless of what evidence they come across?"

" ... we found that beliefs (or non-beliefs) in conspiracy theories were stable – but not completely fixed. For any given theory, the vast majority of participants were "consistent sceptics" – not agreeing with the theory at any point.

There were also some "consistent believers" who agreed at every point in the survey they responded to. For most theories, this was the second-largest group.

Yet for every conspiracy theory, there was also a small proportion of converts. They disagreed with the theory at the start of the study, but agreed with it by the end. There was also a small proportion of "apostates" who agreed with the theory at the start, but disagreed by the end."

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Utah advances bill to criminalize ‘ritual abuse of a child,’ in echo of 1980s satanic panic

Utah could become the first state in decades to enact a law codifying ritual abuse. Others passed similar laws at the height of a since-debunked satanic abuse hysteria.

NBC News

Feb. 23, 2024

By Brandy Zadrozny

After an evening of emotional testimony from activists, self-described victims and law enforcement officials, lawmakers in Utah are moving forward with a bill that would criminalize so-called ritualistic child sexual abuse — a codification critics say is unnecessary and potentially harmful.

Sponsored by Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory, House Bill 196 defines ritual abuse as abuse that occurs as "part of an event or act designed to commemorate, celebrate, or solemnize a particular occasion or significance in a religious, cultural, social, institutional, or other context." The bill lists specific actions that fall under the proposed definition: abuse against children that includes animal torture, bestiality or cannibalism, or forcing a child to ingest urine or feces, enter a coffin or grave containing a corpse, or take drugs as part of the ritual.

At the hearing on Wednesday, several adults who described themselves as survivors of ritualistic child sexual abuse urged lawmakers in the state House Judiciary Committee to support the bill. Their testimony included the stuff of nightmares: devil worship, animal torture, forced bondage, rape, cannibalism, child prostitution and mind control — assaults so physically and emotionally traumatic that the victims said they repressed memories of their abuse.

Kimberli Raya Koen, 53, an activist who heads a nonprofit and leads local summits on ritual abuse, told legislators through tears that "everything named in this bill" had happened to her. Koen has appeared on dozens of podcasts over the years to tell her story: that she was tortured and forced to participate in human sacrifice as part of satanic cult rituals led by family members, neighbors and church leaders. She told NBC News that no one has been charged with her abuse, memories of which she uncovered as an adult.

"Utah has an incredible opportunity to lead the country in naming and acknowledging this horrific abuse is real," she said at the hearing.

If the bill passes, Utah would be the first state in decades to enact a law codifying ritual abuse. Several states passed similar laws in the 1980s and '90s, during the height of hysteria over satanic ritual abuse, but few, if any, prosecutions came from them. Since then, federal law enforcement agencies, scholars and historians have pointed to the scarcity of evidence for the claims of widespread ritual abuse and warned of the lasting legacies of the national panic — including false allegations, wrongful imprisonments and wasted law enforcement resources.

"This bill is a very good example of panic legislation, hastily cobbled together, on the basis of testimony from a couple of women recollecting childhood histories of satanic ritual abuse," said Mary deYoung, a professor emeritus of sociology at Grand Valley State University who has documented the harms of the satanic panic. "It's a bill that responds with the kind of approach where we get really angry and say, 'There ought to be a law.' And we don't think about whether it can be enforced in such a way that adds any benefit to society or that ensures that justice is done."

But Ivory described ritualistic abuse as common in Utah, offering as evidence the anecdotes from constituents and a statewide investigation announced in 2022 that the Utah County Sheriff's Office said resulted in over 130 tips. Ivory characterized those tips as individual victims coming forward.

That investigation, led by Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith, who spoke in support of the bill, led to the 2022 arrest of David Hamblin, a former therapist who has been charged with sexual abuse of children in the 1980s. His ex-wife, Roselle Anderson Stevenson, was arrested last August and charged with the sexual abuse of a child decades ago. Hamblin and Stevenson have not yet entered pleas. Hamblin's attorney said in a statement that he "strongly denies the allegations"; Stevenson's attorney said she "is adamantly denying the charges."

Their prosecution has lagged in the courts, the cases plagued by accusations that investigators mishandled witness statements and that the investigation was politically motivated from the start. Prosecutors have disputed these claims in motions before the court, but a judge found them concerning enough to recuse the Utah County Attorney's Office from prosecuting Hamblin's case.

Smith has defended the integrity of his investigation and told lawmakers Wednesday that his yearslong probe into ritual sexual abuse in the state had made him a laughingstock, but that he believed the accusers.

"I was attacked, I was ridiculed, I've had memes made about me because of it," he said. "Without a doubt, these things do happen in Utah," Smith added. "I believe they're happening, I believe they have happened."

Lt. Jason Randall, the county's lead investigator on ritual abuse, argues the new bill would help legitimize this work and encourage more victims to report their abuse, because it would signal that authorities won't discount what can appear to be incredible claims. When asked by lawmakers what in the existing code had kept Randall from being able to press charges against child abusers, Randall answered, "Belief. Belief."

Utah's proposed bill and the county sheriff's investigation have attracted national interest from conservative media and an online network of conspiracy theorists who believe this case will prove that the allegations that fueled the 1980s satanic panic were true all along, and that cabals of satanists are still sexually abusing, murdering and cannibalizing children. Several self-described internet investigators have, in blogs, videos and podcasts, accused hundreds of Utahns of participating in satanic ritual abuse rings.

Utah's role in the 1980s panic was significant. Many of the first well-known cases of alleged ritual abuse originated in the state, as did the movement's central figures, including therapists who used hypnosis and manipulative interview techniques to recover memories from alleged child victims and scholars who made some of the earliest claims of widespread satanic ritual abuse. Local media promoted the claims.

In 1990, Utah's governor formed a task force that spent $250,000 in state funds to address pervasive ritual abuse. Investigators interviewed hundreds of victims in more than 125 alleged cases, only one of which ended in prosecution. A final report from the state's attorney general in 1995 suggested that there was evidence of isolated instances of abuse involving rituals, but not a widespread plot to abuse children in this way. "What hasn't been corroborated," the report said, "is the multitude of reports by abuse 'survivors' claiming to have been party to human sacrifices, sexual abuse of young children, torture, and other atrocities committed by well-organized groups which pervade every level of government, every social status and every state in the country."

National studies from the Department of Justice and the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect found no evidence to support claims of widespread ritual abuse. Child sexual abuse, however, is staggeringly common; about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys in the United States are victims, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The unanticipated harms associated with a ritual abuse panic, deYoung said, include "ripple effects" on child victims of sexual abuse. "We spend time and resources and energy going after robed and hooded strangers when the greatest risks to children remain within the home, with family, friends or the local parish priest. Yet we don't have the same degree of moral outrage where the largest risk lies."

California, Illinois and Idaho were among the earliest states to pass laws criminalizing ritual abuse in response to 1980s claims of satanic threats to children, primarily in day care settings, deYoung said. A handful of other states followed suit.

While some states still have these laws on the books, others did away with theirs after the consequences of the panic became clear.

In Utah, the Judiciary Committee voted 10 to 1 on Wednesday to advance the ritual abuse bill to the full House; if passed there, it will advance to the Senate. No one testified in opposition to the bill. With his dissenting vote, Rep. Brian King, one of the two Democrats on the committee, questioned its necessity, noting that state law already criminalizes physical and sexual child abuse. The bill would differentiate the crime and classify it as a second-degree felony, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

Ivory, the sponsor, conceded the offenses were already criminal, but said a specific law was necessary because the crime "is so heinous."

​​Rep. Kera Birkeland, a Republican, cried as she addressed the people who spoke during the hearing. "I had no idea that this was happening in our state," she said. "We believe you."

Brandy Zadrozny

Brandy Zadrozny is a senior reporter for NBC News. She covers misinformation, extremism and the internet.


Feb 23, 2024

CultNEWS101 Articles: 2/23/2024 (Ayodhya, Maharishi, India, Legal)

"New Delhi: The Supreme Court ruling in favour of the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya sparked a gold rush for land near the temple's location and several government officials – including an MLA – also joined in with the hopes of cashing in, according to an Indian Express report.

According to an investigation by the newspaper, several government officials – including local MLAs, close relatives of bureaucrats who have served or are serving in Ayodhya, and local revenue officials whose job is to authenticate land transactions – have bought land within a five-kilometre radius of the temple site – either in the months before the Supreme Court's verdict in November 2019 or later.

The buyers who bought land in their own name include an MLA, mayor and a member of the state OBC Commission, the report said. Relatives of the divisional commissioner, sub-divisional magistrate, the deputy inspector general of police, the police circle officer, the state information commissioner also bought land, the newspaper has found.

The newspaper, in a separate report, said that one set of transactions – in the early 1990s – may have been in violation of norms. The Maharshi Ramayan Vidyapeeth Trust (MRVT), which was founded by Mahesh Yogi, is being probed for alleged irregularities in the purchase of land from villagers who belong to a Dalit community.

At least four buyers are closely related to officials probing the MRVT for buying the land in the early 1990s, raising questions of "propriety and conflict of interest", the Indian Express said.

The MRVT had bought nearly 21 bighas (about 13 acres) of land from Dalits. These lands were bought in the Barhata Manjha village, less than 5 km away from the Ram temple site.

While the Uttar Pradesh Revenue Code Rules bar acquisition of agricultural land (less than 3.5 bighas) belonging to Dalit persons by a non-Dalit unless cleared by the district magistrate, the MRVT bought land parcels from about a dozen villagers in 1992 by using Ronghai, an employee of the MRVT who is also from a Dalit community, as a "conduit" in the transaction, the daily reported.

Sale deeds were registered in the name of Ronghai, who in June 1996 signed an unregistered donation deed (daan-patra), and "donating" all the land to the MRVT, the newspaper added, citing records.

Mahadev, one of the people whose land was bought by Ronghai and "donated" to the MRVT, later complained to the Board of Revenue that his land had been "illegally transferred". He was paid Rs 1.02 lakh for his 3 bighas, as per the records cited by the newspaper."

In fact, the entire land was bought by the MVRT for approximately Rs 6.38 lakh. It is currently worth Rs 3.90 crore to Rs 8.50 crore, according to IE.
"More than 30 years ago, rioters destroyed a historic mosque in this holy Hindu city — a seismic event that critics say continues to help transform India from a secular democracy into a Hindu nationalist state.

On Monday, a new Hindu temple will be consecrated on the mosque's old grounds, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi participating in the rituals. The consecration comes ahead of India's general elections this spring, with Modi likely to secure a third consecutive term in office.

But there's a problem: The new temple isn't completed.

On a late-December day, during a tour of the compound arranged for foreign journalists, dozens of workers in bright-yellow hard hats walked past police in green fatigues sporting assault rifles. They filtered past a watchtower, past a sandbagged police checkpoint that guarded the entrance to the sprawling construction site, surrounded by high walls of corrugated tin. Facial recognition cameras registered the men, who then ducked through metal detectors.

As they entered, the workers chanted, "Jai Shri Ram!" or "Victory to Lord Ram," one of the most revered deities of the Hindu pantheon. Over the years, the chant has become a rallying cry of Hindu nationalists, who believe India should serve its Hindu majority instead of being a secular, constitutional democracy that promises equal rights to all."
" ... Under the visionary leadership of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Ayodhya has undergone a transformative journey towards development, making it an appealing destination for investors."

" ... Top 10 companies investing in Ayodhya are The House of Abhinandan Lodha-3000 Crore, Pakka Limited-550 Crore, Crescendo Interiors-500 Crore, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ramayana University-480 crores [Rs 480 crores is $57,821,363.31]."

News, Education, Intervention, Recovery



Intervention101.com to help families and friends understand and effectively respond to the complexity of a loved one's cult involvement.

CultRecovery101.com assists group members and their families make the sometimes difficult transition from coercion to renewed individual choice.

CultNEWS101.com news, links, resources.





Cults101.org resources about cults, cultic groups, abusive relationships, movements, religions, political organizations and related topics.

Selection of articles for CultNEWS101 does not mean that Patrick Ryan or Joseph Kelly agree with the content. We provide information from many points of view in order to promote dialogue.

Please forward articles that you think we should add to cultintervention@gmail.com.

From Deprogramming to the Intervention 101 Approach: The Evolution of Cult Intervention

"As the knowledge base of cults, manipulation, and control has expanded, so too has the awareness that intervention is often more complex than at first it might appear. Many cult interventionists have become aware that, in addition to the manipulative and coercive tactics utilized by high control groups, there is often a mental health component that needs to be understood and addressed in order for the intervention to succeed. Our approach begins with an in-depth assessment of the family system to evaluate whether intervention is appropriate at a particular time, what part of family dynamics might be contributing to the situation, and who in the family could be helpful during intervention. For all of these reasons we have found it valuable to collaborate with a mental health professional for a more comprehensive understanding of the overall picture. This talk will explore the development of our family-centered, non-confrontational, respectful approach to understand and effectively respond to the complexity of a loved one’s cult involvement. Vignettes from our cases will be presented to illustrate how this collaboration has enhanced our effectiveness as cult interventionists."

​CultMediation.com / Intervention101.com  how to effectively respond to the complexity of a loved one's cult involvement.

CultRecovery101.com renewing individual choice.


Attorney Irwin Zalkin explains the article, Pa. courts weigh whether JW's Witnesses elders must report confessed child abuse

February 22, 2024

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court memorandum opinion that [was] posted on the [Jehovah's Witness Discussion Forum] discussion board 2/22/2024 was confusing enough ... to ask Attorney Irwin Zalkin to explain the issues. He promptly replied and gave me permission to post here the following important information that he provided.

"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court memorandum opinion raises the question of whether Jehovah’s Witnesses (“JW’s”) Elders, who are volunteer clergy, fall under an exception to the mandatory reporting law of the State of Pennsylvania. JW’s members of the Ivy Hill Congregation of JW’s sued the PA Department of Human Services (DHS) and asked the court to issue a judgment that as a matter of law makes JW’s elders exempt from PA’s mandatory reporting of known or suspected child abuse, including child sexual abuse. PA’s clergy mandatory reporting law has an exception when the clergy member learns of the child abuse under circumstances that require him or her to maintain the information secret or confidential. The Ivy Hill Congregation members argued that under the tenets of JW’s organization, elders are required to keep that information secret and therefore fall within this exception to the PA clergy mandatory reporting law. The lower court where this issue was first raised, dismissed the lawsuit holding that there was no actual controversy raised by the lawsuit since DHS has never brought any legal action against the JW’s related to mandatory reporting, and that DHS is not the proper enforcement agency to take legal action against the JW’s. In essence, the PA Supreme Court held that the Ivy Hill Congregation sued the wrong party.

"The PA Supreme Court did not decide the issue of whether JW’s elders are exempt from PA’s mandatory reporting law. It reinstated the Ivy Hill lawsuit on the basis that the judge’s dismissal was inconsistent with another Ivy Hill case where the court refused to dismiss that case at the request of DHS, on different legal grounds but in essence finding that a case against DHS is proper. PA’s Supreme Court sent the second Ivy Hill case, referred to as Ivy Hill II, back to the lower court for that lower court to rule on whether JW’s elders are exempt from PA’s clergy mandatory reporting law.

"The Zalkin Law Firm (“ZLF”) has been representing survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization for over 20 years. In many of these cases JW’s have argued that their elders are exempt from various state mandatory reporting laws for the same reason they raised in the Ivy Hill Congregation cases. What PA’s DHS may not know, and what ZLF has learned through these years of litigation against JW’s is that congregation elders are not required to keep information they learn about child abuse, including sexual abuse secret. In fact, their requirements are the exact opposite. Congregation elders are required to disclose the information to the national organization’s Service Department and Legal Department. Further, records are maintained relating to disciplinary action taken against the alleged perpetrator. These records are available to other elders who may be new to the congregation at a future date. If the perpetrator moves to a new congregation, the elders of the new congregation are required to be advised of the information relating to the allegations of child abuse or child sexual abuse by that perpetrator. So, unlike other religious denominations where such information remains confidential between a priest, pastor or rabbi who cannot disclose such information to anyone else, JW’s require that many other individuals have access to the information. There is no reason that JW’s elders should be exempt from reporting child sexual abuse to the proper authorities. Given the long and known history of child sexual abuse within JW’s organization, mandatory reporting by the elders needs to be required and enforced."

Irwin Zalkin
Senior Partner
The Zalkin Law Firm, P.C.
10590 W. Ocean Air Drive #125
San Diego, CA 92130
(858) 259-3011 (800) 617-2622


Cult expert testifies at rape trial of accused cult leader Eligio Bishop

Tyler Fingert
FOX 5 Atlanta
February 23, 2024

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - Witness testimony continued today in the rape trial of Eligio Bishop, an alleged cult leader facing charges of sexual assault. The prosecution called an expert witness to the stand, shedding light on cult dynamics and Bishop's alleged involvement in the group known as Carbon Nation.

Rick Allen Ross, founder and director of the Cult Education Institute, testified that he has spent decades dealing with cults and conducting interventions with members. Ross, who has researched and followed Bishop's alleged cult for a number of years, described Bishop as fitting the profile of a destructive authoritarian leader.

"In my opinion, Eligio Bishop fits the profile of a destructive authoritarian leader, and there are patterns of coercive persuasion to gain undue influence that have been reported by people under his influence and families affected by him," Ross stated during his testimony.

The prosecution has focused on the power dynamic within Carbon Nation, alleging that Bishop held all the power as the self-proclaimed king of the group. The victim claims that the alleged sexual assault occurred while she was a member attempting to leave the cult.

Prosecutors argue that Bishop's influence resulted in the victim being coerced into submission, leading to the assault as she tried to escape. Additionally, the state contends that after the alleged rape, Bishop retaliated against the woman for leaving the group by posting revenge porn.

The defense objected to Ross's qualifications as an expert witness, arguing that he isn't qualified to speak on cults. However, the judge overruled the objection, allowing Ross's testimony to stand.

The alleged victim was the first witness that was called to the stand on Thursday. The woman testified that her membership in the group started off fine, but eventually she noticed violent outbursts. When she wanted out, she says Bishop wanted to sleep with her one last time. She says she told him no repeatedly before finally relenting.

After she left, Bishop reportedly posted "revenge porn" online.

The prosecution plans to call more witnesses in the coming week. Once the prosecution concludes its case, the defense will have the opportunity to present its evidence.


'I want to make history.' Gwen Shamblin's daughter says she is ready to take mother's church to next level

Gwen Shamblin

In leaked recording, Elizabeth Hannah Shamblin on mother Gwen Shamblin's message: 'You’ll be lifted up if you follow this example, if you followed my mother and follow me as I followed her'

Phil Williams
News Channel 5
February 22, 2024

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — She's the reclusive leader of a controversial Brentwood church who reportedly hasn't been seen at services in years.

But in a newly obtained recording, Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah — daughter of the late Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin Lara — declares her intention to take her mother's following at Remnant Fellowship to the next level.

"I want to make a difference. I want to make history. I want to start a movement around the globe," Hannah said in a New Year's message played during a Remnant service on Jan. 6. That message was leaked by a current insider and provided to NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

"My mother started it, and I want to not only keep it going but to expand it around the globe in such an exponential level that anyone who sees it can pick it up and get it."

Hannah, 42, assumed leadership of the church after her mother was killed in a plane crash in May 2021, along with her husband Joe Lara and five other Remnant leaders. Elizabeth's husband, Brandon Hannah, was among those killed.

Remnant Fellowship, which Shamblin created and declared to the "the one true church," has faced widespread criticism from former members and others as being "a cult."

In the often-rambling message, which continues for 37 minutes, Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah brushes aside such criticisms, saying her goal is to become famous in heaven.

"I want my name to be written in heaven," she said. "I want to be friends with the greats, and I want them to know that every day I woke up that I was not here for myself. I was here to make the movement happen."

Former Remnant member Helen Byrd, who appeared in an HBO Max docuseries about Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship, could barely contain her disgust as we played the recording of Hannah's message for her.

LISTEN: Elizabeth Hannah talks about wanting to be known in heaven

"Are you kidding?" Byrd exclaimed at one point, laughing out loud at another.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "She sounds a lot like her mother."

"She didn't before," Byrd replied. "She absolutely does, and I think that was probably what was most triggering."

"That she has ideations of spreading this absolute pain across the world, this pain, I think that it's a scary thing," the former Remnant member continued.

As for Hannah's desire to become well-known in heaven, "It's incredible hubris. You know, it's just, wow! Really? And you are part of a movement that has shielded abusers, child abusers."

This comes as her brother, Michael Shamblin, speaks out against the church where he was once a leader, although he's still reluctant to say anything critical of his younger sibling.

"I have so much sympathy for my sister," Michael Shamblin said.

When NewsChannel 5 Investigates first met Elizabeth 20 years ago, she was right at her mother's side — a role she continued to play. Remnant's website now says it operates "under the leadership and direction" of Hannah.

Oddly, her brother and others say she does not attend church services, opting instead to call in or, more recently, to provide recorded messages.

Remnant members widely considered her mother, Gwen Shamblin, to be a prophet.

Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah in image sent out by Remnant Fellowship to members

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Michael Shamblin about his sister: "Is she viewed as a prophet now?"

"She's viewed as having the lead," he answered. "I don't know if they call her a prophet, but she would be viewed as having a leading from God."

In the recorded message, Hannah calls upon Remnant members to follow her lead.

"You’ll be lifted up if you follow this example, if you followed my mother and follow me as I followed her."

Helen Byrd's reaction?

"How about following Jesus? That's a good place to start. How about following Jesus?"

It comes two years after an HBO Max docuseries — "The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin" — that portrayed Shamblin as a power-hungry cult leader.

We played Byrd a segment where Hannah references the docuseries.

"Ridiculous, negative and false," Hannah said, as Byrd interjected: "Truth!"

"National media."


"That is so ridiculously."


Hannah compared her mother to Dolly Parton, saying that both women had been mocked for their hair and their looks.

LISTEN: Elizabeth Hannah compares her mother to Dolly Parton

Byrd's reaction: "Oh, come on. Leave Dolly out of it. Just c'mon. Dolly's a good woman. Leave Dolly out of it."

Hannah said she is working on a book about her mother.

"I’m going to make a difference in this country. I’m going to make a difference around the globe, and I’m going to write this book about my mother — and the world will one day see that she’s a misunderstood woman."

Among the misunderstandings, Hannah claimed, was Shamblin's role in the child abuse death of 8-year-old Josef Smith — a case where our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that Shamblin had praised the child's parents for locking him up in his bedroom for an entire weekend with just his Bible.

"Her philosophies on childraising were awesome! Incredible! She couldn’t hurt a fly," Hannah said.

Byrd's reaction: "I think that there are a lot of people who would disagree with that. I think Josef Smith would, you know, disagree with it — were he here."

While some suspect Elizabeth may still be struggling after the tragic loss of her mother and husband, she insisted she's doing well — thanks to the Remnant message.

"Don’t you want to join me? I’m a lot of fun, by the way. Don’t just believe what you hear. You need to come party with me."

Helen Byrd was appalled.

"They're still spewing this propaganda. They're still sticking to their guns. They know that it's not the greatest place on earth, it's the sickest place on earth."

As for those who may ridicule her, Hannah said that's OK with her.

"Guess what? Every time they’re rude and they lie about me, then more people in heaven hear about it and I get a better standing again in heaven – so they are cracking me up. The more false things they write about me and my mother, the higher up I’m going to go."

LISTEN: Elizabeth Hannah talks about getting higher spot in heaven

Again, Byrd interjected: "Because there's levels to this, right?"

We noted, "You want the top level in heaven."

"Yeah, they're going to epic heaven. Jesus!"

But Elizabeth Hannah said she and her mother will get the last laugh.

"You’ll see that Gwen and I were just two little loving blondes who were born in the South at the wrong time. I mean, nobody wants us, a Southern woman to be a preacher."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Michael Shamblin about suggestions in the HBO Max docuseries that his sister is not well.

He declined to comment.


Ex-Catholics in Rome reconnect with roots, spirituality in paganism

As Romans search for alternatives to Catholicism, some have turned to Jupiter, Minerva and Juno.

Claire Giangravé
Religion News Service
February 21, 2024

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Disillusioned by their experiences in Catholicism, some Romans are turning to paganism and finding a connection to their roots through worshipping the gods of antiquity, whom they see as more welcoming than the church.

“Rome is pagan,” Pope Francis told members of the Roman clergy during a closed-door meeting Jan. 14, when he urged them to consider the city a mission territory. Asked about the pope’s surprising words a few weeks later, the head of the department for catechesis of the Diocese of Rome, the Rev. Andrea Camillini, admitted: “Rome is at the same time pagan and the city of the pope: It’s a paradoxical city.”

The number of practicing Catholics in Italy has plummeted after the COVID-19 lockdowns to an all-time low. The Italian National Institute of Statistics found that only 19% of Italians were practicing Catholics in 2022, compared with 36% in the previous 10 years. The number of people who “never practice” their faith has doubled to 31% in the historically Catholic country.

While the church grapples with the causes behind the emptying pews, some who have left their Catholic faith behind are searching for other spiritual outlets. An eclectic group of Romans who gathered near the ancient Forum on a windy morning on Feb. 10 have turned to Juno, Jupiter and Apollo to find answers.

“I was a practicing Christian Catholic for many years. I was a catechist,” Luca Fizzarotti, who recently started attending the ancient Roman rituals, told Religion News Service. “Then I had a spiritual crisis when I moved in with my wife. I had a very bad experience and had to leave my church,” he said.

A computer programmer, Fizzarotti fell in love with a woman who believes in Kemetic Orthodoxy, based on the ancient Egyptian religious faith. “In the beginning I could not really understand this, then as I slowly learned about the pagan community, I found a way to live out my spirituality,” he said.

Paganism — though sometimes used as a derogatory shorthand for anyone who does not worship the Abrahamic god of Judaism, Islam and Christianity — is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of religious traditions, many of them polytheistic. Ancient Romans worshipped a pantheon of gods, mainly Jupiter, Juno, Apollo and Minerva, through rituals and observations with activities than included animal sacrifice and temple worship.

Fizzarotti was among a dozen people who gathered for the early February ritual, organized by the Communitas Populi Romani, a community started in 2013 by a group of young enthusiasts of Roman history, culture and religion.

In the beginning, the group focused on reenactments and history, but it slowly shifted toward becoming an officially recognized religious group. There are 20 or so members, said Donatella Ertola, who joined the group in 2015 and now organizes meetings three or four times a month in the places that are closest to the original temples spread across Rome.

“We all believe in the gods, we make rituals at home, we have devotion temples at home, we have our priests and officiants,” she told RNS, adding that this is a “niche community that has been growing recently.”

Communitas is hardly the only Roman religion organization in Rome or Italy. Groups like Pietas in Rome have larger memberships and even their own temples. According to a 2017 study by the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, the number of neopagans in Italy has grown to more than 230,000 people, a 143% increase over 10 years. In the United States there are 1.5 million pagans, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, a significant increase compared with 134,000 in 2001.

The draw of the Roman religion is clear for many modern-day Italians, who view it as a way to reconnect with their ancient roots. Fascination with ancient Rome has also become a worldwide phenomenon. A social media trend last year found a staggering and surprising number of people — especially men — think about the ancient Roman Empire at least once a day.

“I was looking for something that monotheism didn’t give me,” said Antony Meloni, an airport construction worker. “I found in polytheism a new strength,” he added.

There is no religious text in the Roman religion, meaning faithful today must rely on what was written by people of the time. Communitas attempts to re-create the ancient rituals, without any human or animal sacrifice, of course, using ancient texts.

The group gathered that day to celebrate Juno Sospita, or Juno the Savior, whose temple once stood a few steps away, where the Church of St. Nickolas in Chains is located today. The original columns are still visible. She is usually shown as a warrior, lance in hand, and covered with goat skins and historically celebrated in February, considered a month of purification by the Romans, as winter turned to spring.

They follow the description of a ritual offered by Cato the Elder in the “De Agricultura.” It starts off with an offering to the local “genus,” or spirit, followed by ablutions with water and incense. During the central part of the ceremony, the “Favete Linguis,” faithful are asked to “hold their tongues” and quiet their minds.

Amid the chaos of Roman traffic and the occasional bark of their mascot — the dog Poldo, who has two different-colored eyes — the group shouted prayers in Latin. Two nuns, dressed in black, looked over suspiciously. Wearing a white veil, the officiant May Rega, scoffed with annoyance.

Rega was an active member of her church in Naples and sang in the choir, but she also drifted away from Catholicism due to ruptures with the church and its congregants. As an archaeologist, she loves how specific and detailed Roman religion is, forcing one to check sources, follow the ritual precisely, with no mistakes and with the appropriate citations.

She had carefully put together the flowers, scones and almond milk — because she could not find goat’s milk — for the ceremony and was annoyed when her boyfriend and concelebrant, Daniele Pieri, interrupted the ritual, forcing them to start over.

“When I met her, she said, ‘I am pagan and vegan,’ and I thought ‘Great! I am celiac!’” said Pieri, who works as a sound technician. Pieri left the Catholic Church after the parish priest insisted he could not be harmed by receiving Communion despite being celiac. He said he still has an admiration for Jesus: “If Jesus had prayed to Jupiter, he would have been even cooler.”

For Pieri, Roman religion is a question of identity. “I love this city. I was born in this city, and I want to die in this city,” he said. “When I began to study Roman history and these cults, I found my roots. This is where I come from. This is who I am.”

Taking turns, the members of the Communitas made their personal offering to the goddess. Unlike other pagan communities in Rome, the group doesn’t have any initiation rite, and everyone is welcome to join. “The Roman religion is not about saying these are my gods, and there are no others,” Pieri explained.

Chiara Aliboni is a student of history, anthropology and religions from a “very Catholic family” in Perugia was also attending the ceremony. She said she had her conversion to Orthodox Kemetism when she learned about the ancient Egyptians. “I thought, if I am to follow any religion, it’s this one,” she said. While hesitant at first, she found in the Communitas a welcoming home for her beliefs.

Fizzarotti was also pleasantly surprised by the openness of this religion compared with his experiences in the Catholic Church. “I am drawing closer to this community. I am finding many answers that I have been searching for for years,” he said after the rite was completed, and the group reveled in wine and an improvised banquet.

“I am feeling emotional. I deeply felt today’s ritual. It was truly beautiful,” he added.

The group members gathered their things, leaving nothing behind but the lingering scent of incense. They spoke of plans for creating a temple one day just outside Rome and of upcoming gatherings with other pagan groups. Their faith, believed to have been long lost, is still very much alive, they said.

For Camillini, as the number of Catholics dwindles in the Eternal City, he has had to face reality. “It’s time to give up the delusion of omnipotence, of evangelizing Rome, and abandon the idea of making Rome into a Christian city. It’s no longer our objective and it never was,” he said.