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

The Aumists at the Holy City of Mandarom Shambhasalem, a French syncretistic Hindu-Buddhist movement, is facing new legal problems and restrictions. Founded in 1969 by Guru Hamsah Manarah, who is venerated as a salvation figure, the group had received a favorable decision in the European Court of Human Rights in 2013 recognizing its status as a religion. But challenges from environmentalists and the French government have left its future in question. 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, the group has faced numerous trials and arrests of Hamsah Manarah and his disciples, as well as unfavorable media treatment.

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