ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK
ReligioPolis, 14 August 2017
How, in the legal space of one state and in one time, can reasonable initiatives for recognizing the dignity of the original Christian tradition in the country and a systematic campaign for discrediting and then liquidating peace-loving and law-abiding religious denominations be combined by means of news media and administrative and judicial resources? Religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko discusses with a representative of one of the religious organizations, Nina De Kastro, three significant events, the combination of which testify to the inexplicable paradox of the current administration.
Sergei Ivanenko: Esteemed Nina Mikhailovna! I will put to you several detailed questions which touch upon various aspects of religious life in Russia and whose answers will permit readers to understand better the position of Scientologists on critical problems of the relations between the state and religious associations.
Three significant events have occurred in the religious life of the Russian federation. The first of them (not chronologically, but in significance) occurred on 31 May 2017, when Russian President V.V. Putin visited the ecclesiastical administrative center of the Russian Orthodox Old Believers Church (Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Staroobriadcheskaia Tserkov—RPSTs) in Moscow, located in the Rogozh cemetery. The significance of this event consists in the fact that V.V. Putin became the first head of the Russian state who visited the ecclesiastical center of Old Believers; met with the primate of the RPSTs, Metropolitan Kornily Titov; and promised to provide governmental support to the Old Believers. One can draw the conclusion that this symbolic gesture brought to a close the epoch of persecution of Old Believers, which began in the 17th century, and that the Old Believers will receive the possibility to live a full-fledged religious life.
After the visit by the Russian president to the ecclesiastical administrative center of the RPSTs in Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church (RPTs) expects progress in a dialogue with the Old Believers, which in the long term may culminate in the reunion of the RPSTs with the Russian Orthodox Church. As is known, after V.V. Putin's visit to the building in New York of the Bishops' Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia on 15 September 2005, the dialogue about reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia took on a more intensive character and culminated in the reunification of the ROCOR and the RPTs on 17 May 2007.
It is difficult to foresee just how relations of the Old Believers and the Russian Orthodox Church will develop in the future. It is obvious that at the present time the government is providing the Old Believers significant support. A massive restoration of the ecclesiastical administrative center of the RPSTs in Moscow is underway with the use of state budget means. The Ministry of Culture of Russia, in accordance with the instructions of the president of the Russian federation, is participating in the planning of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Archpriest Avvakum (2020). Measures are being taken to facilitate the resettlement of Old Believers from abroad to their historic motherland.
Do you agree, Nina Mikhailovna, that the establishment of normal, constructive cooperation of the state authorities and the Old Believers is the most important event of contemporary religious life, an unconditional "step forward," opening the prospects of the positive development of state-confessional relations in relationship to other religious associations?
Nina De Kastro: I consider that the visit by the president of our country, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, to the Old Believers and other religious organizations is a good sign and it is high time that the tradition of schisms and religious persecutions be left in the past, and I am happy that the president is making steps in this direction, which is also symbolic for the head of a secular state.
For me, as a religious person, who was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, freedom of religious confessions lies at the very foundation of not only the education but also the traditions founded by Peter I. For me, such steps by the president strengthen trust in the constitution, of which he is the guarantor, and also leave the hope for an equal relationship of the government to all religious confessions, both those created a thousand years ago and those formed recently. It seems to me that many citizens of our country have paid attention to this.
Sergei Ivanenko: The second significant event occurred on 17 July 2017. The Supreme Court of Russia turned down the appeal of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and left without change the decision made by the Supreme Court on the lawsuit of the Ministry of Justice of 20 April 2017 for the liquidation and ban as extremist every one, without exception, of the registered religious organizations of this religion. Thereby the freedom of religious confession of 175 thousand citizens of Russia, who profess the religion of the Jehovah's Witnesses, was restricted. Inasmuch as they have no effective means within Russia of legal defense, the Jehovah's Witnesses will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights and other international organizations.
The Jehovah's Witnesses themselves see the explanation for what has happened in the words of Jesus Christ, who was executed on the false charge of inciting sedition. He warned his disciples: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 20).
The contemporary organization of Jehovah's Witnesses takes its beginning from a circle for the study of the Bible that arose in the early 1870s in the city of Allegheny (now part of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.). The history of this religion proves the nonextremist nature of their views. Jehovah's Witnesses never will bear arms and will not resort to violence. In the U.S.S.R., while being subjected to cruel repressions, Jehovah's Witnesses did not harbor hatred for their persecutors. Nowhere in the world, except Russia, have Jehovah's Witnesses been accused of extremism. Congregations of this religion operate freely in more than 200 countries of the world. Jehovah's Witnesses enjoy a reputation of law-abiding and peace-loving citizens.
The judicial recognition of the Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist religious organization shows that in the contemporary situation, any law-abiding organization may be declared extremist, if this is seen as useful by sufficiently influential forces. One of the reasons is the extremely general and vague concept "extremist activity (extremism)," used in article 1 of the federal law of 25 July 2002 "On combating extremist activity."
Do you, Nina Mikhailovna, share the point of view that declaring the religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses as extremist is a serious "step back," which may lead to substantial restriction of the rights of religious minorities?
Nina De Kastro: For me it was personally very distressing for the trials to decide on the Jehovah's Witnesses to recognize their activity on the territory of Russia as extremist and to ban their activity. It in no way falls into place how it was possible to make such a decision. People who study the Bible and even refuse to bear arms—as I understand, the Bible does not permit them—suddenly are recognized as extremists. This is all the same as to look at white and make the decision that it is black, when it is really white.
It seems to me that nobody among those who made the decision to prohibit the Jehovah's Witnesses had seriously engaged in investigation of the activity of this religious organization. Jehovah's Witnesses themselves declared that during searches literature was planted on them that was recognized as extremist and that they have videos of this, but this topic did not receive any development in the trial. The reasons that they were banned and their property was confiscated are not at all obvious. This decision, in my view, was a substantial step backward in the sphere of religious tolerance and freedom.
Sergei Ivanenko: A substantial "step back" was the opening of criminal cases against several St. Petersburg Scientologists on articles of "Illegal entrepreneurship involving drawing out income in especially large measure," "Inciting hatred or strife along with demeaning human dignity," and "Participation in an extremist community." In early June 2017 active members of the religious group "Scientology Church of St. Petersburg" were taken into custody: Ivan Matsitsky, Galina Shurinova, Anastasia Terentieva, and Sakhib Aliev, and Konstantsia Esaulkova was placed under house arrest. In early August the court extended the term of detention until 20 October, while the Scientology Church of St. Petersburg is called an "extremist organization" in the petitions for detention announced in court.
In connection with this criminal case a natural question arises: whether to consider the goals of Scientology, which were formulated by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, in 1965 to be extremist: "A civilization in which there is no insanity, crime, and war; where the able can flourish and where the honest can have rights; and where a person is free to rise to great heights." Nina Mikhailovna, you have worked in your time in the Scientology Center of the city of St. Petersburg and you know the defendants in the criminal case as well as the real activity of the St. Petersburg Scientologists. Are they really law-abiding and worthy people?
What is reprehensible in the desire of Scientologists to explain to people about the harm of drugs?
For whom is it profitable to declare religious minorities, who do not encourage violence and are not caught in any violent crimes, to be extremist organizations?
And finally, how can it be achieved that the religious situation in Russia not change in accordance with the principle of "one step forward, two steps back," but conform to the principles of freedom of conscience and equality of religious organizations before the law?
Nina De Kastro: First I want to say that these people are very dear to me. They have always been ready to come to my aid and their goals are positive. Ivan Matsitsky was the first person who helped me figure out and understand Scientology and its principles. I recall how in 1995 I came with the goal of learning how to help others and to deal with my own problems. I began studying books about Scientology and I recall how he patiently and carefully helped me clarify the concepts of integrity and honesty from a desire to understand good and evil. I also talked much with Galina Petrovna Shurinova. I have been acquainted with her many years now and I know her as a person who is unusually benevolent and profoundly likeable. Thanks to her energy and sincere desire to cooperate in helping people, the religious group provided help to residents of the city, both those who were interested in the new religious movement and attended the group and those who in some way faced an irresolvable problem in their family or at work and found a solution and aid.
And the rest of the detainees—it seems to me this is just the right way to designate them—in my view they have nothing to do with what they are accused of. I am sure that it is in the interests of society not to allow such a violation of rights, and we will continue to call for justice. We are a part of the society of our country; we were born here and we live here, and we experience its difficulties and grieve its losses and rejoice in its victories and we work so as to do everything possible for improvement of the life of our neighbors and the environment.
If one only looks at the activity of the Scientologists of St. Petersburg—their activity in educating youth about the harm of drugs, in providing aid in disasters, in enlightening society about human rights and fundamental rights and freedoms—then the desire to smother this group will not arise.
Achieving a situation that is not "one step forward, two back" can only be done, I think, together, paying attention to what is happening and raising in public discussion the importance and severity of what has happened and what the future can be.
It is rather difficult to understand how and why it is necessary to take into custody people who call for peace and harmony in society and who try to resist the wave of lack of spirituality, immorality, and drug addiction.
I do not understand why, at a time when real criminals blow up peaceful citizens in the subway, law enforcement agencies for some reason pursue Scientologists. Two days before the explosions in the subway in my city, the F.S.B. Directorate for St. Petersburg and Leningrad province conducted searches among Scientologists in the suburbs of Moscow. Something similar had happened already in Belgium, when law enforcement agencies kept Scientologists under surveillance and investigated them for more than 20 years, but terrible terrorist acts came from a completely different direction. And who knows whether they would have happened if some of the law enforcement personnel had not been occupied with Scientologists? In the end, a Belgian court acquitted our fellow believers and I believe that we will also attain justice in Russia.
I want to note especially that all accusations are based on a broad interpretation of the concept of extremist activity in the law, and because of such an interpretation there arises the possibility of charging any person with extremism, which in my view can be very dangerous for our country.
I believe that the founder of our city, Peter I, understood the importance of maintaining the idea of freedom of religious confession for ensuring the conduct of religious rituals for all skilled workers who were recruited from various countries. He treated with respect people of any faith and he valued more their usefulness for the country. In the end, on Nevsky Prospect alone there were built several churches of different religious denominations. This facilitated the common goal of building a new city and triumphing in the Great Northern War. I think that it would be good to follow his example. After all, it was successful in the past and most likely would facilitate success now. Only then will peace and calm be preserved in our country.
In conclusion, I want to add that the society of Scientologists of St. Petersburg has placed on change.org a petition in defense of the defendants in the "Case of the Five." This petition will be sent to the director of the F.S.B. of the Russian federation, Alexander Vasilevich Bortnikov, and the prosecutor general of the Russian federation, Yury Yakovlevich Chaika.
On 8 August 2017, the laureate of the Russian Federation government's prize for contribution in the development of culture and art of Russia, the script writer of the children's serial "Luntik," the author of the novel "Train of Hopes," and co-founder of the Committee for Children's and Youth Literature in St. Petersburg, Anna Sarantseva, registered the petition on the website change.org. The petition is collecting votes in defense of freedom of conscience and religious confession; now more than 3,000 signatures have been collected under it.
We ask everybody who reads this interview and talks about it to sign this petition, because the pressure on religious associations threatens all of us, Orthodox, Muslims, Scientologists, atheists, and all others.
Sergei Igorevich Ivanenko is a Russian religious studies scholar, Ph.D., and author of a number of popular scientific publications on religious denominations and movements existing in Russia.
Nina Mikhailovna De Kastro is a Scientologist responsible for public relations of the Church of Scientology in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
(tr. by PDS, posted 16 August 2017)
Scientologists appeal to federal officials
August 17, 2017
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