The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report on July 17 shedding light on the plight of religious minorities in Russia. Entitled “The Anti-Cult Movement and Religious Regulation in Russia and the Former Soviet Union,” the report aims to “provide essential context and recommendations to enable advocates and policymakers to more effectively respond to FoRB [freedom of religion or belief] abuses in the region.”
Created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government commission whose purpose is “to advance international freedom of religion or belief, by independently assessing and unflinchingly confronting threats to this fundamental right.”
In the report, policy analyst Jason Morton examines how certain Russian government officials claim discriminatory measures are intended to defend religious freedom and human rights, even while those very same measures violate the fundamental freedoms of certain groups.
Dr. Massimo Introvigne, Italian sociologist of religions and founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), analyzed USCIRF’s report in his religious liberty magazine Bitter Winter.
Dr. Introvigne writes, “First, the report offers a detailed and accurate analysis of the activities of Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian activist who has led for almost thirty years campaigns against religious movements he has labeled as ‘cults.’ As the report documents, he has been instrumental in preparing the repression of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, and has attacked many other religious minorities. The USCIRF asks the government of the United States to ‘publicly censure Alexander Dvorkin and [his organization], the Saint Irenaeus of Lyon Information-Consultation Center (SILIC), for their ongoing disinformation campaign against religious minorities.’”
“The anti-cult movement is fundamentally a propaganda outlet conducting a highly effective information war against religious minorities throughout Russia and many of the countries in which it retains influence”
Introvigne goes on: “the USCIRF document is an important indictment of the anti-cult ideology in general. Dvorkin, the report says, absorbed when he was in the United States, between 1977 and 1992, the ideas of an ‘anti-cult movement informed by pseudoscientific concepts like “brainwashing” and “mind control.”’ The anti-cult movement ‘described new religious movements as “fanatic” or “bizarre,” and portrayed individual members as helpless victims without their own free will or ability to save themselves. This rhetoric enabled groups to justify the forced removal of friends and relatives from the religions of their choice, and even advocated for “deprogramming.”’ As the USCIRF notes, while ‘claiming to be experts in academic fields like religious studies, psychology, and sociology, [Dvorkin and the anti-cultists] are rarely qualified in any of them and often rely on discredited theories and methodologies to promote their ideological agenda.’”
That ideological agenda now extends beyond Russia. As Morton, the report’s author, notes, “The Russian model has had a significant impact in other countries of the FSU, such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, where anti-cult ideas influence both religious regulation and policies related to anti-terrorism and the fight against ‘extremism.’ In that context, the anti-cult movement continues to conduct a highly effective disinformation campaign against religious minorities with devastating consequences for their human rights.”
Morton also points out that anti-religious jargon like “totalitarian sects,” a term allegedly coined by Dvorkin, “alongside other favorite terms like ‘destructive cult’ or the prefix ‘pseudo’ (as in pseudo-Christianity or pseudo-religion), reveals the anti-cult movement’s pretension to standing as the final arbiter of religious truth. For example, Dvorkin claimed in an interview that the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘cannot really be called a religious sect’ but are really ‘a commercial cult organized like a pyramid scheme that exists off of the sale of its publications and multimedia productions.’ It is a short leap from assuming the ability to define religious truth to asserting a duty to intervene in cases of heresy.”
“The anti-cult movement is fundamentally a propaganda outlet conducting a highly effective information war against religious minorities throughout Russia and many of the countries in which it retains influence,” Morton writes in conclusion. “An effective response to the movement must also engage at the level of information, countering the perverse logic of anti-cult propaganda with hard facts about its lack of credibility and complicity in the suppression of religious freedom.”
The report’s recommendations are as follows:
“The U.S. government should:
- “Publicly censure Alexander Dvorkin and the Saint Irenaeus of Leon Information-Consultation Center (SILIC)) for their ongoing disinformation campaign against religious minorities;
- “Promote education about freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in regional diplomacy and offer training and resources as a component of regional humanitarian assistance;
- “Counter propaganda against new religious movements by the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism (FECRIS) at the annual OSCE Human Dimensions Conference with information about the ongoing involvement of individuals and entities within the anti-cult movement in the suppression of religious freedom; and
- “Pressure the governments of Russia and Kazakhstan to remove prominent anti-cult figures from their expert councils and bar them from official positions of influence over religious regulation.”
From its beginnings, the Church of Scientology has recognized that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. In a world where conflicts are often traceable to intolerance of others’ religious beliefs and practices, the Church has, for more than 50 years, made the preservation of religious liberty an overriding concern.
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