Moscow - Government and religious officials in Russia are pressing for a campaign against "totalitarian sects," which threaten national security, they claim.
Some officials accuse the United States of using the "sects" - including Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, the Unification Church (Moonies), and Hare Krishna - to undermine the Russian state.
"Most sectarian organization are of the U.S. origin," Yuri Polischuk, department head at the health ministry's Moscow Institute of Psychiatry said Tuesday. He said the inflow of sects was a "well-planned and coordinated action, funded from abroad" and aimed at "subverting our state."
Polischuk was addressing a round-table discussion in Moscow, entitled "Totalitarian Sects: Weapon of Mass Destruction."
Participants in the forum, attended by interior ministry officials, scholars, and representatives of the Orthodox Church, suggested that the country amend its criminal code to more effectivelycombat the sects' recruiting methods.
According to the RIA news agency, experts claimed there were up to 500 sects in Russia with a total of one million followers, of whom two thirds were between the ages of 18 and 27.
A leading critic of sects, Alexander Dvorkin, described the sects as authoritarian, pseudo-religious organizations that seek only money and power.
Addressing the round-table, Dvorkin lashed out what he called "imported sects."
Dvorkin, who is attached to the Orthodox Church, is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Russia for about a decade on a permit for foreign residents. A controversial figure, he has even labeled Pentecostal Christianity as a "totalitarian sect," according to the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, an arm of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public interest law firm.
Officially, the Russian constitution has put an end to Soviet-era religious persecution. The fall of communism in 1991 not only resulted in the revival of the Orthodox Church, but also in the growth of other religions, cults and sects.
Many Russians became fearful of the inflow of foreign sects. To address the concerns, lawmakers passed the controversial "freedom of conscience and religious association" law in 1997.
While backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, the legislation was criticized by other religious groups, the Vatican, human rights advocates and Western governments, which described it as discriminatory.
The law, which ostensibly targets cults, requires religious groups to prove that they have existed in Russia for at least 15 years. It is widely viewed as favoring the Orthodox Church.
The law in fact describes the Orthodox Church as the country's dominant religion; cites Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as other "traditional" faiths; and gives all other denominations a secondary role, subjecting them to tough registration requirements.
Its most controversial clause says a religious group must have operated in Russia for 15 years before it can distribute literature or invite foreigners to preach.
Groups failing to meet this requirement are also barred from establishing educational centers or media outlets, and their clergy are not exempt from military service.
Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexiy II has praised the law as a strong barrier against foreign "pseudo-missionaries" whom he said had "inundated" Russia.
Orthodox Church officials argue that the provisions are aimed at curbing the activities of "destructive" groups like the Aum Shinri Kyo cult of Japan, although such mainstream Christian organizations as the Salvation Army have fallen foul of the law.
In the most recent move to combat foreign "pseudo-religious" influence, Moscow authorities banned the celebration of Halloween in the capital's schools.
Halloween celebrations were "harmful for the education of children," Moscow education department spokesman Alexander Gavrilov said Tuesday.
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