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STUDENTS CAPTIVATED BY `CULTS’?

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When the fog lifted from her mind, Sarah Lieu found herself scrounging pats of butter at Au Bon Pain near the student center on the Rutgers University campus.

She was penniless and hadn't eaten for days, she recalled six months after the incident. Only the gnawing hunger, she said, was able to break a spell that gripped her toward the end of her freshman year.She returned to the small room she shared with two older members of Campus Advance, the campus ministry of the International Churches of Christ, threw her belongings into a plastic trash bag and walked away from the group she now accuses of using cultlike methods to recruit students on campus.

Lieu, now a 19-year-old sophomore, who claims the campus ministry took her food money and "brainwashed" her, is not alone.

Students, parents and faculty at Rutgers and other university campuses have raised similar alarms over what they call the high-pressure tactics employed by proselytizing members of the church, a breakaway from the mainstream Churches of Christ, with which it has no relationship.

Campus and regional representatives of the church say their actions are misrepresented by religious groups jealous of their ability to appeal to young adults.

At a Rutgers forum earlier this month, some former members charged that local church leaders systematically target and isolate recruits and deprive them of food and sleep in carefully coordinated steps to break down resistance and cause mental confusion.

The church's stated goal is to win converts and save souls. But critics at the forum, which was organized by Catholic Center, Hillel B'nai Brith and Christos House, an umbrella group of campus ministries, contended that something more sinister is going on.

They said the church was skilled at finding ways to drive wedges between recruits and their friends, family and schoolwork, immersing them in all-night Bible studies led by mentors called "disciplers" who soon assume control over what a new member thinks and does.

"They have ways of making some very bright people vulnerable to their control," said the Rev. Ronald Stanley, the priest who directs the Catholic Center on this state campus. "Once they get their tongs into you, it is difficult to get away."

Campus Advance has come under fire and been banned at several campuses, including American University and George Washington University in Washington.

Leaders of the sect deny they exceed norms of method or zeal practiced by any other evangelical mission. They scoff at the cult label pinned on them by mainline religious groups and ask, if they are so sinister, why do they manage to attract intelligent young men and women at campuses like Rutgers, Harvard and Yale when so many other denominations fail?

"The only thing that makes us different from these other churches is that we are very successful and that scares them," said Matthew Fridley, a spokesman for the New York Church of Christ. He said that membership had grown to 70,000 in 15 years, including "several dozen" on the New Brunswick campus, and that the church was active in 13 foreign countries.

"This word `cult' is so inflammatory and thrown around so loosely that it is completely unfair and totally unfounded," Fridley said. "Their tactics are completely and utterly deceitful," asserted Rick Bauer, a former church organizer who said he spent years in its top echelons in Boston.