SPECIAL REPORT - RUSSIA: Religious Freedom For Sale?

Geraldine Fagan and Lawrence Uzzell, Keston News Service, 19 August 2002

The Moscow Patriarchate draws a clear distinction between non-Orthodox who believe in the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ, and "sects", according to a document adopted by the Church's Episcopal Synod on 14 August 2000. "The Orthodox Church opposes all forms of destructive missionary activity by sects," it reads. The Church has never made any secret of precisely which denominations it opposes. The most well-known of those included in "New Religious Organisations in Russia of Destructive and Occult Character," a reference work published by the Moscow Patriarchate's missionary department in 1997, include Scientology, Jehovah's Witnesses, Ba'hai, Krishna Consciousness, The Church of the Last Testament (Vissarion) and the Unification Church (Moonies). The concluding document of "Totalitarian Sects - Threat of the 21st Century", an April 2001 conference held under the auspices of Nizhny Novgorod Orthodox diocese, adds the Mormons and "neo-Pentecostals" such as New Generation, Word of Life and Full Gospel Churches.

Russia's 1997 law on religion was hailed by Patriarch Aleksi II as a legal mechanism "for the effective protection of both the individual and society against the arbitrary actions of destructive pseudo-religious cults." Stiffened by the recent Putin-sponsored law against extremism, Article 14 of this law introduced a host of grounds for banning religious activity, some as broad as "infringement of the person, the rights and freedoms of the citizen," the use of narcotics, hypnosis and "the performing of depraved or other disorderly actions."

Today, however, the religious groups identified by the Moscow Patriarchate as dangerous sects for the most part function freely. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported in 2001 that the Jehovah's Witnesses had successfully re-registered 97 per cent (some 330) of their organisations in accordance with Russia's 1997 law on religion. Under the same law, the Hare Krishnas, Vissarionites, Mormons and Moonies have all re-registered centralised and local religious organisations. One of Russia's foremost lawyers specialising in such cases, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, is aware of just four attempts to invoke Article 14 - against Pentecostal congregations in Kirov, Kostroma and Magadan and the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. None of these has succeeded. Groups identified by the Moscow Patriarchate as sects are now far more likely to face opposition of a backhand or indirect nature, such as termination of rental agreements, or vitriolic articles in the local press.

Why has the 1997 law failed to achieve what its proponents intended? Local officials dealing with religious organisations insist that it is due to respect for religious freedom taking root in Russia. "I think it is medieval barbarity to try and limit new religious movements," Nikolai Volkov, adviser on religious affairs in the Siberian republic of Khakassia commented to Keston in Moscow on 19 March. "How they believe is their own affair." According to Article 12 of the 1997 law on religion, the state can refuse to register a religious organisation if its aims or activities violate the constitution or the law. On 17 January 2000, however, Vladimir Zhbankov, the official then in charge of registration of religious organisations in Moscow city, commented to Keston that he could not refuse to register a religious organisation on religious grounds, "even if they drink children's blood." On 31 May 2002 the official dealing with religious affairs in the republic of Mari-El, Valentina Kutasova, told Keston that the state had "no right" to limit so-called sects, "it is not so much a legal problem as one of how parents bring up their children."

On 24 March Keston spoke in Moscow to Anna Yevseyeva, a young follower of Vissarion. After having accepted Orthodox baptism as a teenager, she explained, she had been unable to find a way of "reconciling the material and the spiritual" in the Church, and subsequently recognised in Vissarion "the spiritual teacher I had searched for." She now lives in the main community of Vissarion's Church of the Last Testament, a complex of 40 villages in the Kuryaginsk region of Krasnoyarsk Krai in Siberia. Yevseyeva told Keston that, whereas the local authorities had been suspicious of the community initially - "all kinds of commissions came and checked us out" - their attitude had changed from approximately 1997. "They want to encourage handicrafts, and they have seen how our community can help with that," she said," and pointed out that the Krai authorities put on a craft market run exclusively by the Vissarion community in a large public hall in Krasnoyarsk three or four times a year. In her view, the Russian state authorities had declined to curb those groups deemed by the Orthodox to be sects because "the benefit from those organisations is much more evident than from the ill-will which tried to prevent them."

Exasperated at the authorities apparent failure to intervene, some anti-sect activists have taken matters into their own hands. According to Issue No3 2002 of a newspaper distributed by the Red Youth Avantgarde movement, Molniya ("Lightning"), "the activity of the Scientologist Church of Hubbard, like other totalitarian sects, causes direct material and moral harm to our society. The solution would appear to suggest itself - an immediate ban on the activities of foreign sectarians on Russian soil. But the president-patriot, blessed elder-patriarch Aleksi and numerous human rights activists shamefully hold their tongues and do not raise this long-since pressing problem. Perhaps they also receive dividends from the Scientology racket? In contemporary Russia even such a possibility does not sound absurd." On 22 January 2002, Aleksandr Shalimov, a Red Youth Avantgarde member, was handed down a two-year prison sentence for throwing a petrol bomb into Scientology's Moscow premises the previous September. At a demonstration in his defence on 6 March outside the Ministry of Justice, one participant commented to Keston that the only reason why groups such as Scientology were able to function in Russia was "because they have a lot of money."

"Traders in Happiness", a documentary broadcast by ORT state television channel on 20 July, made similar allegations, focussing on the Vissarion community and the Unification Church. The security organs "turn a blind eye to the deaths of children from malnutrition, murders within families for religious reasons and suicides" in the Vissarion community, it claimed, "and indeed, what talk of a reaction by the security organs can there be when the prison service is in cahoots with the Moonies?" In an interview for the documentary, and more fully in his paper at the April 2001 Nizhny Novgorod conference, former vice-chairman of the Unification Church in Russia Lev Semyonov related how the head of Russia's prison service, Colonel Aleksandr Dolgikh, had opened a four-day seminar by the Moonies for assistant heads and teachers at corrective labour colonies in July 1993. "He told them that they should listen attentively to all the lectures," wrote Semyonov, now an Orthodox deacon, "and take note that from now on all educational work in the colonies should be conducted according to Moon."

In the same year, maintained Semyonov, the Unification Church initiated a programme to send dozens of Russian students for four years' free tuition at Bridgeport University, Connecticut, where the Moonies had acquired a controlling share, giving responsibility for the selection of candidates to Russia's State Committee for Higher Education. A report compiled by the Moonies' public relations office on 20 February 1993, said Semyonov, boasted that "in sending more than 20 Russian students to Bridgeport University via the Higher Education Committee, we have been able to guarantee completely the Committee's support for our policies. :They assist us with invitations and multi-entry visas."

On 31 May 2002 Bishop Ioann (Timofeyev) of Yoshkar-Ola and Mari-El complained to Keston about the destructive activities of sects in his diocese. "They don't obey any laws," he maintained. When Keston asked why in that case they were not prosecuted, the bishop replied: "To them the law is money. Just as they buy people with parcels and books." Pressed to clarify whether this meant that so-called sects bribed state officials in order to function, he responded: "With their financial means in our poverty - what do you think? How do they get into hospitals, children's homes? People can't refuse such money."

On 17 May Keston interviewed Deacon Yevgeni Tremaskin, who heads rehabilitation programmes at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Non-traditional Religions attached to the Orthodox Church of "The Joy of All Who Sorrow" Icon of the Mother of God in central Moscow. Like Bishop Ioan, Fr Tremaskin maintained that, in return for preaching access, a sect would commonly give equipment to a provincial school and trips abroad to its teachers. "The three main temptations are riches, power and glory," he remarked. "Very few people get past the first." In his view, it was thus "a game when officials say that sects function due to the secular state's provision of freedom of conscience."

Speaking to Keston in Moscow in March, Nikolai Volkov maintained that corruption among state officials dealing with religious organisations was "not a particular problem." Interviewed by Keston back in December 1997 in Khakassia, however, he stated that he never accepted bribes, "unlike some of my colleagues." A year earlier, he said, he declined to go to Novosibirsk when invited by the Unification Church at their expense. The Moonies similarly invited a Krasnoyarsk official and offered him 500 US dollars, he maintained, "but he declined on my advice." Volkov also claimed that a Pentecostal church had offered Khakassia state officials free trips to Sweden.

Deacon Tremaskin noted to Keston that "sects usually win lawsuits" - primarily, he thought, because they were able to afford the best lawyers, "and it is no secret that money doesn't play the least role in our judiciary." As a result, he maintained, those Orthodox concerned by sectarian activity in Russia had concluded that there was no point invoking Article 14 of the 1997 law. Preventing the registration of new religious organisations was also useless, he said, since "sects don't need more religious organisations, just people." Confirming that they were now working on the level of the individual, he explained that his Centre had decided to do the same. "We don't go trying to sort organisations out, or hunting down sectarians," explained Deacon Tremaskin. "A person must have the right to choose. We can't just go telling a person he's a heretic if he's a Baptist - he may be sincere in his error. We aim to lead a person to a Christian way of life by giving information, the Church's view. We have found that this method works, while court cases don't - they just provoke aggression, even suffering." (END)