A French NGO — fully-funded by the French government with the aim of combatting religious minorities — partnered with the Putin administration and the Russian Orthodox Church to label non-Orthodox religions in Russia as extremist groups and eliminate them. The latest phase of that plan first garnered international attention with Russian authorities’ arrest of a Danish citizen.
The Arrest of Dennis Christensen
The May 25 arrest of Danish citizen Dennis Christensen in Russia thrust the plight of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) into the global spotlight. Russian authorities arrested Christensen, along with 15 other Jehovah’s Witness members, during a raid on a JW compound while the members within were engaged in a Bible study. The raid was conducted after the the Russian Supreme Court banned the JWs in Russia on April 20, and labeled them an extremist organization.
The French Connection
The Justice Ministry made its decision based on counsel from the Ministry’s Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis. The Expert Council’s purpose is to investigate religions that deviate from Russian Orthodox teaching and to recommend actions against those religions to the state. The Expert Council is headed by Aleksander Dvorkin, vice president of the Russian branch of FECRIS.
FECRIS, the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism, is a French NGO dedicated “according to its bylaws, to identify as a sect/cult or a guru the organization or the individual which misuses beliefs and behavioral techniques for his own benefit,'” according to the Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience (CAIFC).
The UN and the Council of Europe recognize FECRIS as an NGO, despite the fact that the department of the French prime minister supplies 100 percent of the organization’s funding, according to CAIFC.
“How can a Prime Minister declare that there is no legal definition of a sect/ cult in France and at the same time finance at the level of 100% a NON-GOVERNMENTAL association whose objective is to point at ‘sects/cults'” the statement from CAIFC reads.
FECRIS in Russia
CAIFC also noted the partnership of FECRIS, and Dvorkin, with the Russian Orthodox Church in the campaign in Russia against religious minorities like the JWs.
“If the action of FECRIS is not religious and claims to be neutral in this regard, how can it explain that an organization registered in a secular state – France – is massively financed with the money of all French tax-payers, while its vice-president, Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian citizen is blessed and financed by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church for its anti-sect activities,” CAIFC’s statement added. “This same Russian Orthodox Church which, along with Putin, has been persecuting religious minorities for years in Russia.”
FECRIS’ campaign against the Russian JWs had been going on for years before Christensen’s arrest. A FECRIS associate organization partnered with the Russian Orthodox Church, the Committee for the Salvation of Youth from Totalitarian Cults, filed the first legal complaint against the JWs of Moscow in 1995, according to a study of FECRIS published in the Journal for the Study of Beliefs and Worldviews (JSBW).
The initial complaint was dismissed, but the committee refiled their complaint against the JWs in Moscow four times, until Russian authorities agreed to launch an investigation in 1998. A Moscow district court upheld the complaint against the JWs in 2004 after a prolonged legal battle, and ordered a permanent ban against the Moscow community of JWs. Several suits todisperse individual JW communities were filed in other cities as well, despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2010 that the ban on the Moscow JWs violated Russian law.
The Russian Supreme Court’s latest ruling made the ban on JWs nationwide.
Dvorkin is not only the vice president of FECRIS, but also the director of FECRIS’ member organization in Russia, the St. Irenaeus of Lyons Religious Studies Research Centre, which is partnered with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Dvorkin’s campaign through FECRIS against the JWs in Russia attacked them on both the legal and the social front. Violence against the JWS, including arson and assault, was linked to several comments by Dvorkin encouraging public suspicion and action against the religious group and others according to JSBW’s study.
“Their adepts recruit failed university enrollees, and people on vacation as well; they have a wide range of psychological influence, especially on the unstable minds of adolescents and youths,” Dvorkin said of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Hare Krishna sect. Dvorkin encouraged the public to “take part in the fight against sects, file complaints and collect raw data so that the local authorities can react quickly.”
Dvorkin also gave an interview in a 2009 documentary called Emergency Investigation: Jehovah’s Witnesses, in which he compared the JWs to drug dealers and called them “slaves.” According to the study from JSBW, that documentary was used as a justification for public violence against JW members in Russia.
Legalization of Russian Religious Purification
Russia’s 2002 Anti-Extremism Law paved the way for Dvorkin and FECRIS to label a peaceful group like the JWs as extremists and have them banned nationwide.
The Putin administration passed the law ostensibly in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, but soon began to use the 2002 law to make Putin’s “spiritual security” concept a Russian reality, as described in the administration’s 2000 National Security Concept.
“Assurance of the Russian Federation’s national security also includes protecting the cultural and spiritual-moral legacy and the historical traditions and standards of public life, and preserving the cultural heritage of all Russia’s peoples,” the statement read. “There must be a state policy to maintain the population’s spiritual and moral welfare, prohibit the use of airtime to promote violence or base instincts, and counter the adverse impact of foreign religious organizations and missionaries.”
The law initially listed violent action as one of the qualifications for extremism. A 2006 amendment to the Anti-Extremism law removed violence as a qualification, and gave the following qualifications for extremist activity, according to the JSBW study:
A. The definition of extremism shall include libel against state officials related to accusation in extremism or in a particularly grave crime;
B. Any act of violence (incl. hooliganism) against an official shall qualify as extremism; and
C. Not only calls to extremist activity but also “justifications” of extremist activity will be banned.
The law then defined extremism as “incitement to racial, nationalistic, or religious enmity, and also social enmity.” With the addition of incitement to religious or social enmity, FECRIS and its associate organizations, with its partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church and its members’ positions in the Russian government, were free to label any religion that deviated from Russian Orthodox doctrine as extreme.
Dvorkin has reveled in that freedom and targeted Mormons, Hare Krishna, New Pentecostals, Falun Gong, and Jehovists, labeling them more dangerous than Satanists because they “conceal evil under the guise of good,” according to the JSBW study.
“As part of the strategy of religious purification in Russia, complaints have been lodged by anti-sect groups and various state institutions seeking the liquidation of a number of non-Orthodox movements, including Catholic organizations,” the study’s section on Russia concluded.
“However, the reality is that State neutrality and impartiality in the countries covered by this research work (France, Austria, Germany, Russia and Serbia), unfortunately does not exist. In all five countries, the state and public powers take sides with FECRIS’ affiliates and finance their activities even if they are used for the missionary activities of a mainline Church or if they are meant to defend the position and influence of a specific Church in society, to fight against the erosion of its membership or to expand it,” the study added.