Avatar: Scientology-style sect causes concern in Netherlands

By Anna Holligan
BBC News, Netherlands

Image caption, Avatar was created by former Scientology leader Harry Palmer

Reports of a Scientology-style sect infiltrating schools have aroused concern in the Netherlands.

A television investigation claimed to have found at least six private schools governed by "Avatar wizards" and guided by the principles of the Avatar ideology.

So what is Avatar (besides a blockbuster movie)? And how influential is it?

Avatar's self-proclaimed goal is to create an "enlightened planetary society".

Some members believe Earth was colonised by aliens, and Avatar explores controversial practices such as exorcism.

It was created in 1986 by the former Scientology leader Harry Palmer.

Emailing from their headquarters in Orlando, Florida, Mr Palmer told the BBC they have almost a million graduates worldwide.

"The basic doctrine of Avatar is: what you believe has consequences in your life," he says.

"The course does not promote a specific philosophy beyond this. We have people from all religions. What Avatar does teach are tools, techniques, processes for taking control of one's own mind, of connecting beliefs and actions to their consequence."

He shared a link, suggesting we get a feel for Avatar by exploring the free mini-courses.

Trainees typically pay for courses, which generate money for Mr Palmer's company Star's Edge. Prices vary from $500 (£350) for a five-day "Integrity Course" to $7,500 for a 13-day "Wizards Course".

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People who qualify as a Master or Wizard can offer their own lessons. A portion of the profits are funnelled back to Avatar HQ.

Mr Palmer believes there are "tens of thousands" of Avatar disciples living in the Netherlands.

Sektesignaal or "sect alert" - a Dutch organisation set up to monitor sectarian movements - has asked the Dutch Education Inspectorate to investigate reports that Avatar poses a threat to society by covertly infiltrating public institutions which are ostensibly secular.

"We aren't saying if it's right or wrong," the organisation's manager Karin Krijnen told the BBC. "We are only worried if there has been abuse or misconduct. That's why there needs to be an investigation."

They are responding to claims that three Dutch councillors attained Wizard status and were using public money to send civil servants on Avatar training courses.

Han Bekkers, 69, a municipal secretary in the south-eastern province of Limburg, was one of those named in the reports. His spokesman Roek Lips told the BBC the reports were "mostly nonsense".

"Han Bekkers did the Wizard Course, but there was no public money used in training," he said. "And from the workshops he offers, none of the profits are transferred to Star's Edge, he is fully independent."

Image caption, An example of some Avatar learning material

Avatar, Scientology - what's the difference?

Avatar shares much of its philosophy with Scientology.

It offers self-development programmes that borrow elements from Scientology, Shamanism, Hinduism and New Age philosophy.

Many of the original course materials incorporated Scientology terminology.

The Church of Scientology filed a trademark case against Harry Palmer over a sign featuring a Scientology logo. The sign was eventually removed. Harry Palmer launched Avatar shortly afterwards.

It has retained some of the same terms such as "rundown" and course names like "integrity" and "professional".

Scientologists deny that they are part of a cult and reject accusations of abuse and scamming members. Followers describe it as providing spiritual support.

The word Avatar comes from Hindu mythology, and refers to the manifestation of a soul released in bodily form on Earth.

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Image caption, The Guus Kieft School in the commuter town of Amstelveen

The BBC decided to look for evidence of Avatar at one of the schools mentioned in the reports.

Dodging muddy puddles along a pot-holed dirt track, and with the roar of planes from Schiphol airport overhead, we entered the Guus Kieft School in the commuter town of Amstelveen, just south of Amsterdam.

In the lobby we met social studies teacher Samuel Dirkse, who was clasping a mug of tea and wearing a beanie.

"I'd never heard of Avatar," he said. "I knew of the movie, of course, but nothing like Scientology - it was the first time I'd heard of it."

One of the staff did an Avatar course. "She'd never mentioned it before and she's not a Wizard or anything, it was only for personal development," Mr Dirkse said.

"Parents are scared because they see the reports and think there's a cult. The journalists didn't come here, they just make these accusations. A few of the pupils are very angry. Now people are looking at them like they're from some kind of cult."

Image caption, Samuel Dirkse is a teacher at one of the schools named in the report

Dutch democratic or free schools often attract parents who believe their children will excel in less controlled environments.

A number of these primary and secondary schools offer self-development courses designed to "identify and remove limiting beliefs".

This one resembled a rather relaxed drama school. A boy sitting on a desk strummed a guitar, a teenage girl stared intently at her phone, earphones plugged in.

Zeno, 14, seemed bemused by the suggestion that his school was run by wizards. "It's nonsense. I never knew what Avatar was," he said.

His mother Christel van Zweden explained that they chose an alternative school to escape the relentless pressure to meet performance targets in the mainstream.

"Schools need to be free of occult or extremist things. They should be neutral. I'm against Scientology, I'm against Avatar, I'm against any kind of indoctrination," she said.

"Now it's like a witch hunt. Everyone is pointing the finger just because we come to a school that does things differently. I'm confident there is no brainwashing here."

Another school called Life! told us one of its teachers did an Avatar course for personal reasons and that it wasn't taught to the students.

Across the road from the Guus Kieft School, a neighbour, Jurgen Seunke, was walking his black labradors in the rain. I asked if he was worried about the reports of a cult next door.

"In the Bible Belt they don't want kids to have injections against polio, or to allow homosexuality, because they say it's God's will," he replied.

"So even if Scientology exists across the road, everyone should be free to choose. And anyway, it's just a few kids, right? It's not like they have an army or anything."

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