CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Russia and Religious Liberty: Some Reflections after the Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology Cases

by Massimo Introvigne



In April, the Moscow Supreme Court ordered the “liquidation” of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. And now Russia is moving against the Church of Scientology, following the same pattern: raids, arrests, and seizures of “subversive” literature seem to prepare another “liquidation.” In 2016, Russia passed a draconian law prohibiting proselytization outside of religious buildings. Against both Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology, however, it is not this law that is enforced, but the anti-extremism provisions of 2002, amended in 2006 and originally intended as a weapon against radical Islamic fundamentalism.

With the amendment of 2006, “extremism” can be found even without actual violence or incitement to violence. Actually, in the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses three tests were used to prove that they are “extremist.” First, they claim that they preach the only true religion, and that all the other religions (including Christianity as taught by the Russian Orthodox Church) are false. Second, they “break families,” because if only one spouse joins, or leaves, Jehovah’s Witnesses, divorce is the outcome in the majority of cases. Third, they “violate the dignity” of former members, by suggesting that members avoid any contact with them, even when they are close relatives. The same three tests are now being used to claim that Scientology is equally “extremist.”

What the Russian authorities claim about the Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology is not entirely false. Yes, in different ways, both the Witnesses and Scientology proclaim the uniqueness and superiority of their faith (or “technology,” in the case of Scientology). Yes, divorce is frequent when only one of the spouses join, or leave, these religions. And yes, those remaining in the religion are counseled to avoid the ex-members disfellowshipped by the Jehovah’s Witnesses or declared “suppressive persons” by Scientology, even when the latter are their blood relatives.

The problem is that these are not unique features of the Jehovah's Witnesses or Scientology. Most religions proclaim that they offer the only path to salvation. This is obvious for Islam, but was reiterated by Catholicism in the Vatican declaration Dominus Iesus of 2000, although it is perhaps less emphasized by the present Pope. And it would not be difficult to collect statements by dignitaries of the Russian Orthodox Church claiming that all other religions are false, and some are in fact directly controlled by the Devil. Sociologists can document that, when only one spouse changes his or her religion, divorce is frequent – in all religions. Until a few years ago the Catholic Church regarded those excommunicated as “vitandi,” a Latin word meaning “persons to be avoided.” The Orthodox Church is not known for its kindness towards those who have left the Church and criticize it. Many religions have policies of forbidding any communication between members and “apostate” ex-members, including groups we normally regard as nice and peaceful such as the Amish. And for several Islamic schools – not for all, of course – the “apostate” who has left Islam should not only be avoided by former friends and relatives, but may be punished with the death penalty. In short, by applying the three Russian tests most religions could be easily labeled as “extremist” and “liquidated.”

Why is this happening in Russia right now? The Putin government is experiencing serious difficulties, both at home, where dissent grows, and abroad, amid accusations of violating human rights in Syria and interfering in American elections. It needs more than ever the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. This support comes with a price: the suppression of these religions that have proved successful in converting Russians who were once Orthodox to a different faith. The government astutely started by suppressing the Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology, knowing that they are unpopular in some quarters even in the West. The attitude of those who applaud the Kremlin because they do not like the Witnesses or Scientology is, however, myopic. Some anti-cult and other organizations just applaud Russia because they benefit of its generous financial support. But others in the West do not even make money out of their statements. It is simply that they are happy when the Jehovah's Witnesses or Scientology are punished, claiming that they are “cults” unworthy of support. This position is wrong. The distinction between “cults” and “religions” is difficult, and most scholars of religion would deny that it is at all possible. Certainly, leaving it to Russian or other courts reduces religious liberty to an empty shell, since declaring that a certain group is a “cult” would be enough to “liquidate” it. Concerning Scientology, some may object that it is not a “real” religion. The Supreme Court of Italy and many other courts of law throughout the world have concluded otherwise, and I believe their conclusions to be accurate. Those objecting to these decisions should first explain what their definition of religion is. But for the Russian case, this is not even really necessary. Remember, it is not the 2016 law against proselytization that is enforced here but the 2002 law against extremism, which does not distinguish between political, philosophical, and religious organizations. And international conventions protect freedom of thought in general, not just freedom of religion.

Some apologists of the Russian decision quote a laundry list of real or alleged wrongdoings attributed to the Witnesses and to Scientology. This, again, is not what is being discussed in Russia now. If individual Witnesses or Scientologists have committed common crimes, they should of course be prosecuted. But by “liquidating” entire organizations, Russia is proscribing ideas and banning books about these ideas as “extremist.” With this definition of “extremism” nobody is safe, as stated after the Jehovah’s Witnesses case by the Russian Catholic Church.

But does this mean that Western religious and political organizations should react by abandoning the dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is so important, for example, for the present Pope? My answer is no, for three reasons. First, the Russian Orthodox Church includes millions. Not all of them, not all priests, and not even all bishops support the “liquidation” of religious minorities, and even less support the lunatic fringe of “cult hunters,” such as the notorious Alexander Dvorkin, who have embarrassed the Moscow Patriarchate and the government by attacking Islam and proposing to ban the Bhagavad Gita as another “extremist” book, causing massive anti-Russian rallies in India. We should not confuse the positions of the various Dvorkins and the position of the Orthodox Church, although the extremist anti-cultists seem to be protected by some high placed members of the Orthodox hierarchy.

Second, we should understand that the Russian Orthodox Church did not have the equivalent of what the Second Vatican Council was for the Roman Catholics, and did not fully elaborate a doctrine of religious liberty. Personal contacts with leaders of the Russian Patriarchate persuaded me that they still confuse freedom of religion with the mere freedom of worship. International conventions subscribed by Russia make it abundantly clear that freedom of religion includes freedom of proselytization. To be more clear, it includes the freedom to approach members of the Russian Orthodox Church and tell them that their religion is false and they need to convert to another one if they want to be saved. This is called “proselytization” and not all religions practice it. The Catholic Church has criticized proselytization, as a way to propose a religion by criticizing other faiths, since the times of Pope Paul VI, and Pope Francis has characterized proselytization as “simply silly.” This may be a good choice, but cannot be imposed by law. The European Court of Human Rights (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the European Union but is part of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member) in cases against Russia, against Greece (inter alia about Jehovah's Witnesses), and against France (inter alia about Scientology), has stated that the right to proselytize is a necessary part of religious liberty and governments cannot curtail it either directly or by the malicious use of tax or other provisions. Some Islamic states did not sign the international conventions about religious liberty or freedom of thought precisely because they include a freedom of proselytization and apostasy. But Russia did. 

The Russian Orthodox Church is not entirely to blame, as it never lived in a situation of real democracy, first with the Czars, second with the Soviet regime, and now with Putin – although even the Putin regime should not be confused with the positions of a Dvorkin, as much as it can use him occasionally for some “dirty work” nobody else would be prepared to do. Because of its lack of practical experience of democracy, the Russian Orthodox Church maintains the anachronistic notion of a “canonical territory,” where proselytization by any other religion should be legally forbidden. This position is incompatible with religious liberty, but we should not demonize the Russian Orthodox Church because of it. On the contrary, we should recognize the uniquely beautiful liturgical, theological, and artistic heritage of the Russian Orthodoxy, and engage it on a dialogue on the difficult ground of religious liberty.

In this dialogue, based again on my experience in dealing with Russian Orthodox authorities, I would recommend to avoid a mistake that is frequent among well intentioned American defenders of religious liberty. They propose to the Russians the American model, where the State regards all religions as equal. This is an excellent model for the United States, but it is clear that it will never be accepted in Russia. The history of the two countries is very much different. Of course, all religions should enjoy the basic religious liberty. But that does not mean that one country’s Constitution and laws cannot recognize the unique contribution of one specific religion (or more than one) to the national history and culture. In England, the Church of England has such a position. In Italy, the American model was supported by a minority of secular humanists but finally was almost unanimously rejected by the fathers of our Constitution. They opted for a different system, embodying in the Constitution the unique status of the Catholic Church guaranteed by a Concordat (which, as signed with a foreign State, the Vatican, rather than with the Italian Catholic Church, is an international treaty, subtracted as such from the jurisdiction of the Italian courts), yet making room to the cooperation of other religions with the government under concordats with a small “c” called “intese,” and granting religious liberty to all religions, including those without a concordat. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly stated that recognizing a special status to a national religion is not against the European principle of religious liberty, provided that the religious liberty of the other religions is not limited (and includes the right to proselytize). It would be perfectly possible to apply to Russia the Italian model, by recognizing the unique status of the Russian Orthodox Church, involving other traditional religions in a special cooperation with the government, and granting the basic religious liberty to all, including the liberty of proselytization. Certainly, the Italian model may appear more palatable to the Russians than the American one.

Versione italiana: Russia 2017, attacco alla libertà religiosa