Campus chaplains are warning universities to beware of an "abusive" sectarian religious group, known as the International Church of Christ, that is targeting vulnerable new undergraduates.
The group presents itself as a credible Christian church but, according to chaplains at Cardiff University, it employs highly aggressive recruitment techniques and engages in psychological, spiritual and physical abuse of its members.
Birmingham University has already banned the church from its premises because its vice-chancellor deems its activities "potentially harmful to the well being of those who become involved".
The Cardiff chaplains have written an open letter to the higher education sector. They are concerned about the group's claim to be offering "the one true faith" and its manipulative practices. "We advise students to be aware that the ICC exerts a tremendous level of control over the lives of its members and is largely unaccountable for its actions, which is perhaps why there have been abuses," says the letter.
"We advise those who are approached to be aware that this seemingly attractive church leads not to that freedom that is opened to us by faith, but to an enslavement by an oppressive organisation."
The ICC is active in major cities. In Leeds, for instance, students have been pestered on and off campus since the summer. Reverend Simon Robinson of the university chaplaincy said it was impossible to know how serious the problem had become. "There is hype both from the group itself and those wishing to ban it," he said.
"But I feel uncomfortable about banning this group, partly for practical reasons because Leeds is not a campus but a precinct, but also because our foundations are built upon freedom of speech."
He said it would be more effective to keep the group's activities out in the open and inform students about the difference between healthy and unhealthy church groups. They could then make up their own minds.
But other universities are taking a harder line. A Birmingham spokesman said the group had resurfaced since the ban but the university remained resolutely opposed to its activities.
John Armes, former chaplain at Manchester University, has helped to counsel students who became entangled with the ICC. He stressed the difficulty of distinguishing them from legitimate Christian churches. "Much of their rhetoric is strongly evangelical Christian and they can appear very credible to lonely or vulnerable students." He said they isolate students from their peers. "Watch out for their socially divisive activities - these are the cultish behaviours that give them away," he said.
The ICC began in the United States and claims more than 300 local churches and a membership of more than 80,000. It denies being a religious cult, describing itself instead as "a family of Christian churches whose members are committed to living their lives in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ as found in the Bible".
But the Cardiff chaplains detail the ICC's techniques, which include mandatory one-to-one discipling; communal living, which puts the recruit in the control of the group; mandatory tithing (donation of 10 per cent of income to the church); and various forms of abuse condoned or even ordered by the leadership, including so-called "breaking" sessions where new members are accused of grave sins.
The church says its philosophy is built on the revolutionary and biblical conviction that every person must first make a decision to become a disciple and then be baptised. Being discipled, says the ICC, does not mean that someone else makes decisions for them, nor does it mean blindly doing whatever they are told. It says discipling "is based on a relationship of trust, friendship and closeness, and breaks down if the people involved do not become great friends who respect and appreciate each other's faith, love and individuality".