On/File: A Continuing Record of People, Groups, Movements, and Events Impacting Contemporary Religion

The Aumists at the Holy City of Mandarom Shambhasalem, members of a French universalist new religious movement, continue to navigate legal problems and restrictions. Founded in 1969 by Guru Hamsah Manarah, considered by Aumists as the Cosmo-planetary Messiah, a Messenger of God sent to bring about the Golden Age of Unity, the group had received a favorable judgment in the European Court of Human Rights in 2013 recognizing Aumism as a religion.

But the ECHR decision did not end ongoing challenges from environmentalists and the French government about land use on the Mandarom property. The case began in April 1992, when the followers of Hamsah Manarah were granted a permit to begin construction of a “Pyramid Temple” high up on the hillside of their community near Castellane, in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. The permit was immediately challenged by the regional representative of the French government, the Prefect of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, as well as by an environmental group, the Verdon Lakes and Sites Protection Association (l’Association pour la Protection des Lacs et Sites du Verdon), which decided to join “the fight against sects.” Since then, there have been several instances of unfair treatment by the court, and concerns about possible collusion between the media and government to influence the case.

The scholar Susan Palmer of McGill University writes that “It seems clear from a study of the French media since 1995 that Mandarom became a convenient target for persecution simply because journalists’ photos of their spectacular architecture and exotic costumes fanned the public’s fear of sects as weird, threatening and non-français.” In August 1996, the Verdon Lakes and Sites Protection Association filed a motion for the restoration of the Pyramid Temple site to its original condition. Litigation on the land case continued until 2014, when the Verdon

Protection Association won an initial settlement of €30,000. A court decision in October 2018 was even more severe, ordering the Aumists to pay €70,000 in damages and legal fees, and giving them six months to restore the hill to its natural condition. The case is now on appeal in the Supreme Court of Appeals (Cour de Cassation). Starting in early December 2019, the order to restore the hillside is expected to be enforced: the Mandarom community will be fined €500 a day for noncompliance, under a penalty that seems constructed to deliberately drain the finances of the religious group. Ms. Christine Amory, the current Chairwoman of the Non-profit Organization running the Mandarom community, said, “We will not pay.”

Additional information can be found on the Aumism website: www.aumisme.org.

—By Holly Folk, a historian of religion who teaches at Western Washington University.