By Andrei Zolotov

Ecumenical News International

ENI News Service / 23 May 1997

Moscow, 23 May (ENI)--In a landmark case that brought into the open long-standing hostility between Russia's new mushrooming religions and the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, a Moscow judge has ruled that the church did not libel the new groups in an "anti-sect" brochure.

At issue was a brochure by Alexander Dvorkin of the Russian Orthodox Church's educational department warning of the dangers of "totalitarian sects", including the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church (Moonies), Jehovah's Witnesses, the White Brotherhood and the Hare Krishna organisation.

The seven-week court case was presented by lawyers as a battle between supporters of freedom of information, on the one hand, and freedom of religion, on the other. Cult experts from around the world, as well as Russians whose children had joined sects, were among key witnesses in court.

The trial was covered in depth by the Russian media. Often the courtroom was filled to capacity as members of the various new religious groups jostled for space with Orthodox churchgoers.

Since the liberalisation of Russia's religious laws in 1991, both foreign and domestic minority religious groups have flourished across the country, and throughout the former Soviet Union. Their growth has been watched with consternation by the Russian Orthodox Church and other traditional religious organisations, and even by many senior officials of the Russian government. In 1994, the Council of Bishops, supreme governing body of the Orthodox Church, issued an official warning concerning the dangers raised by the growth of "cults", and attached a list of religious movements which the church insisted belonged in this category.

Dvorkin was sued by the Public Committee to Protect Freedom of Conscience, a human-rights organisation led by a dissident former priest, Gleb Yakunin. The committee argued that references in Dvorkin's brochure to the "criminal character" of sects, along with allegations that their practices involved violence, rape and extortion, were baseless, and that his brochure violated Russia's freedom of religion.

In her judgement on 21 May, Judge Lyudmila Saltykova, of the Khoroshevsky Municipal Court in northwestern Moscow, ruled in favour of freedom of information.

"The brochure expressed an opinion, and the sources that [Dvorkin] used gave him the right to speak those words," Judge Saltykova said in an interview published after her ruling.

Dvorkin called the court ruling a "triumph of justice", but said he was sorry that the case took up seven weeks of his time and had all but paralysed the work of the cult research group he directs within the Russian Church's educational department.

The brochure includes information about recruitment practices and other activities of the new religious groups. The plaintiffs claimed that the leaflet contained no proven cases of criminal activity, and that Dvorkin's assertions therefore amounted to libel. They also argued that the brochure damaged the religious organisations' "honour, dignity and business reputation".

During the case, Dvorkin had official support from two leading organisations within the Russian Orthodox Church's Moscow Patriarchate - the Department of Religious Education and the Publishing Council.

"The goal of the suit is to stifle the truth about the cults," Bishop Tikhon of Bronnitsy, chairman of the Publishing Council , said on 3 April, the opening day of the trial. He said that "manipulating information" was the key strategy used by sects to entice "spiritually hungry but ignorant" Russians.

Experts on cults travelled from Britain, the United States, Greece, Germany and Denmark, to join their Russian counterparts in giving evidence.

Though the court decision has no direct effect on Russia's laws concerning religious organisations, the trial took place as Russia's government and churches debate plans to amend the law on freedom of conscience to restrict the activities of "non-traditional" religions.

The Russian Orthodox Church is lobbying heavily for amendments along these lines, and amendments are already being drafted by officials of the State Duma (parliament). Many within the church believe that human rights activists wrongly supported the cults because they were "blinded" by their traditional advocacy for the rights of minority groups.

Judge Saltykova, who stated that there was no political pressure on her, said she had been profoundly moved by the testimony of parents whose children had joined sects. "I had no idea that such a problem exists in our country," she said.

Lev Levinson, a human-rights activist who was one of the plaintiffs, said after the judgement that "religious organisations that conduct legal activities in Russia should not be the whipping boys". His committee intends to appeal to the higher Moscow City Court. "It is important that there is a public force in Russia to stand up for freedom of conscience," he said. Dvorkin claimed that Yakunin's recently formed committee needed the case to raise its profile so it could attract donations from foreign sources.

Yakunin, a dissident priest in the Soviet era, has long been at odds with the Russian Orthodox Church which defrocked him in 1993 and excommunicated him earlier this year.

Judge Saltykova said the plaintiffs' weakest point was that they did not have the right to speak directly on behalf of the cults. For legal reasons, the plaintiffs - Levinson and Mikhail Osadchy - had to declare that they belonged to all the new religious movements simultaneously, a claim that many observers said was absurd from a religious point of view.Thomas Gandow, a Protestant pastor and cult expert from Berlin, said Levinson "maybe has an idealistic opinion, but he is being misused by cults".

"It was a battle against the Russian Orthodox Church," Gandow said. "Everybody has a right not only to have a religion, but also to criticise a religion," he added, referring to Dvorkin's brochure.

Yury Rozenbaum, a law professor who drafted the 1991 law on freedom of conscience, testified on behalf of Yakunin's group. He argued that because there was no specific case in which cults had been proved to be involved in violence, rape and other crimes mentioned by Dvorkin, the brochure amounted to libel. He said he believed the plaintiffs would have won if they had prepared properly for the trial. Rozenbaum said the main force behind Dvorkin was the Russian Orthodox Church's wish to curb the activities of non-Orthodox religious groups. "The logic [of the Russian Orthodox Church] is such: Today they conduct such a policy regarding Jehovah's Witnesses and Moonies; tomorrow it will deal with Baptists," Rozenbaum said. [1060 words]

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Ecumenical News International