Court case on Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and creation of the “Academy of Orthodox Politicians”. Exclusive interview with Professor Massimo Introvigne
Professor Massimo Introvigne, an internationally well-known Italian sociologist and director of CESNUR1, has been at the forefront of several international initiatives protesting the “liquidation” of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. In international conferences in Italy, Israel, and the U.S. he called it “one of the most serious assaults to religious liberty in recent times. He kindly gave an exclusive interview to the “Unsolved Crimes” newspaper.
Today on May 09, 2017 we had an honour to talk with Professor Massimo Introvigne about recent resonant court case of Jehovah's Witnesses2 in Russia, religious extremism and recently created the “Academy of Orthodox Politicians” in Russia as well as it’s subsequent influence on the freedom of religion and belief in this country.
Unsolved Crimes: What is the background of the Russian decision about the Jehovah's Witnesses?
Professor Introvigne: I believe this decision would not be understandable without decades of work in Russia of the so called anti-cult movement, led by figures such as Alexander Dvorkin and Alexander Neveev. In part, it is the Russian branch of an international extremist movement, which relies on such discredited notions such as “brainwashing” and “mind control”. But from another point of view, it is a peculiar Russian phenomenon. In other countries, the leading exponents of the anti-cult movements are secular humanists and atheists. In Russia, the leading anti-cultists are Orthodox with direct ties to certain milieus in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Unsolved Crimes: What accusations did the anti-cult movement, the Orthodox Church, and the Russian courts raise against the Jehovah's Witnesses?
Professor Introvigne: The case is complicate but is also very simple. In Russia there are laws against “extremism”. These laws are understandable, as Russia, like many other countries, does have a real problem with Islamic extremism and terrorism. However, characters such as Dvorkin and Neveev tend to give a very broad definition of “extremism”. In the case of Jehovah's Witnesses, the court accepted that they exhibit two features defining them as “extremist”. The first is that their literature proclaims that the way of the Jehovah's Witnesses is the only way of salvation and that all the other religions and philosophies are false. The second is that Jehovah's Witnesses break up families because, if one of the spouses in a marriage becomes a Witness and the other doesn't, then divorce is very common, as is common if one spouse leaves the Witnesses and the other remains in that religion. Neither I nor any other reputed expert of the Jehovah's Witnesses - I wrote the standard academic manual on the Witnesses in Italian, which by the way is not published by the Witnesses themselves but by a respected academic press, Cantagalli, which has the title of “Pontifical Press,” i.e. official supplier of the Vatican - deny that this is the case. Only, this happens with all religions. Statistics show that, when in a marriage one spouse changes his or her religion and the other doesn't, divorce is very frequent - not only among Jehovah's Witnesses, everywhere. And I can quote dozens of passages of the Quran, the Bible, and publications of both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church implying that there is only one way of salvation, only one religion is true and the others are false. So, by the same standards under which the Jehovah's Witnesses are branded as extremists and liquidated, most religions could go towards the same fate. Indeed, the secretary of the Russian Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops has stated that Catholics strongly disagree theologically with Jehovah's Witnesses but are very concerned about the decision because, by applying the same standards, even the Catholic Church in Russia could be discriminated and persecuted.
Unsolved Crimes: What can be the consequences of the decision?
Professor Introvigne: Apart from the dramatic consequences for the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves, which have been denounced by the United Nations, the OSCE, the European Union, the US Department of State, and German premier Angela Merkel, as well as many others, I see two clear consequences. The first is that this trend would not stay in Russia only, it will spread to neighboring countries. Already in Kazakhstan a Jehovah's Witness, who moreover is suffering with cancer, has been sentenced to five years in a labour camp based on accusations of extremism very similar to those raised in Russia. The second is that these easy accusations of “extremism” will be rapidly extended to other groups. Some Baptist Protestants are already complaining that they are being attacked in Russia as “extremist”, and the same is true for the Hare Krishna (ISKCON) and other communities. But, as I said, with this definition of “extremism” nobody is safe.
Unsolved Crimes: What is the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in all this?
Professor Introvigne: Let me state first that I developed, particularly when I was in 2011 the Representative for combating racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Christians and members of other religions at the OSCE (Organisation for security and cooperation in Europe), a good relation with the Moscow Patriarchate, meeting more than once both the Patriarch and his de facto second in command, Metropolitan Hilarion. Obviously, the Moscow Patriarchate is the custodian of an important liturgical and spiritual tradition. It also deserves praise for its stand in favour of Christians persecuted around the world. However, when it comes to internal questions in Russia, my impression is that the Patriarchate did not develop a clear doctrine of religious liberty. It seems that at times it regards religious liberty only as liberty of worship while in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), of which Russia is a signatory, it clearly includes freedom of proselytization. Let me say it in more clear terms: religious liberty should include liberty to try to convert members of the Orthodox Church to a different religion in Russia - and vice versa of course -, otherwise it is not religious liberty in the sense of ECHR. Metropolitan Hilarion praised the liquidation of Jehovah's Witnesses, although he later denied that the Patriarchate has instigated it. There is a strident contrast between this position and the position assumed internationally by the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant churches, which have all unanimously denounced the liquidation as a threat to religious liberty.
Unsolved Crimes: Do you see the interference of the Orthodox Church in Russian politics increasing?
Professor Introvigne: This is a complicate question, as there is no monolithic, single Orthodox Church. Clearly religious extremists such as Dvorkin and Neveev have the support of highly placed figures in the Orthodox hierarchy but not all Orthodox intellectuals and in fact not all bishops agree with their extremism. I noticed with interest, however, that the “Academy of Orthodox Politicians” has been founded in Russia3 and that Neveev is involved with it. In a video, Neveev states that “I deal with cults, I actively struggle with them and I notice that it is often very difficult to find support, adequate support in government bodies. Therefore, of course for me, I would very much like to have a number of Orthodox people who occupy certain political positions, both at the municipal and regional levels, so that the number of such people grows. For my part, I am ready to make a contribution to the preparation of these people”. This is obviously cause for serious concern.
Unsolved Crimes: Which role could this Academy of Orthodox Politicians play in Russian politics and the repression of the so called cults?
Professor Introvigne: If I am not mistaken, Russian law still prohibits to establish political parties based on religion. But it does not prohibit for politicians to belong to such “academies” where somebody like Neveev will “contribute to their preparation” and teach them how to persuade legislative bodies and courts to “liquidate” religions and other groups he regards as “extremist.” At the end of the day, we are witnessing an even more dangerous picture. Neveev and, I am afraid, institutions such as the Academy are part of an ideology seeing in Moscow the new mystical Rome and trying to establish in Russia a regime that would regard Western democracy as a degeneration and a force hostile to Christianity. It would be a regime where only the Orthodox Church would have full rights, with some tolerance for Muslims, Jews, and Catholics - the latter as long as they do not engage in proselytism, something they normally do not do -, and a serious risk of “liquidation” for all the others. I am talking in the future but it seems to me that the decision about the Jehovah's Witnesses shows that this millenarian and totalitarian dream is already very much as work in Russian society. And it is actively divulgated abroad, with Russian agencies actively spreading fake news about the Jehovah's Witnesses and the “cults” in general, and trying to establish connections with religious extremists, arch-conservative Christians (including those in the Catholic Church who criticize the politic of openness of dialogue of Pope Francis), and anti-cultists in several countries.
Unsolved Crimes: May we claim that as the result of the activity of the Academy of Orthodox Politicians an anti-cult law will be adopted in Russia and this law will ban any new religious movements as well as legitimize the policy of religious intolerance?
Professor Introvigne: In fact, anti-cultists have already proved that they can use the Yarovaya laws and other laws against “extremism” to attack minority religions. But possibly the Academy would try to go one step further and propose a new law based on the discredited notion of brainwashing. Since brainwashing, as American and Italian courts and a large consensus of scholars have determined since long, does not exist, anybody can be accused of this imaginary crime.
Unsolved Crimes: Dear Professor Introvigne, thank you for your time and for your competent answers. We will continue to monitor the situation related to the violation of the right for the freedom of religion and belief, also we are very hope to interview with you again.
Professor Introvigne: You are always welcome.
1 Redaction note: “Centre for Studies on New Religions”, Torino, Italy.
2 Redaction note: read about Jehovah's Witnesses in the “World Religions and Spirituality Project” that was established in 2010 at Virginia Commonwealth University, U.S.
3 Redaction note: the “Academy of Orthodox Politicians” was created in Moscow, Russia as a new social project. The coordinator of the project Alexander Shedrin claims that the “Academy of Orthodox Politicians” is the working title, the project was agreed with the State Duma of Russia in the person of the Inter-factional Duma deputy group for the protection of Christian values, on the other hand with the Moscow Patriarchy represented by the Department for the Interaction of church and society, and with the media. The project is also supported by the world Russian Cathedral of the international organization.