Religious Cults Demand Day in Court

The freedoms of religion and information are clashing in a Moscow court in what could be the first major test of the two concepts in Russia.

The Committee to Defend Freedom of Conscience is suing Alexander Dvorkin and the Department of Religious Education of the Moscow Patriarchate for slander, after it printed his brochure on "destructive" religious cults.

In the brochure, Dvorkin attacks a number of controversial foreign religious organizations, accusing them among other things of using rape and violence to subdue their recruits.

The Committee to Defend Freedom of Conscience, headed by Gleb Yakunin, a former dissident and defrocked Russian Orthodox priest, has taken up the cause of the religious groups and maintains that the Church's pamphlet aims to whip up public hysteria against foreign religious orders.

Yakunin's case involves five religious groups -- the Scientologists, Aum Shinri Kyo, the Mother of God Center, the Unification Church of Reverend Moon and the Hare Krishnas -- all of which are mentioned in Dvorkin's brochure.

The pamphlet, titled "Ten Questions for an Obtrusive Stranger or a Handbook for People Who Do Not Want to be Recruited in a Destructive Cult," aims to warn Russians against the dangers of religious cults.

What makes the case unusual is the notorious nature of some of the targets of Dvorkin's attacks, some of which have been involved in highly-publicized criminal and civil cases elsewhere in the world.

An Aum Shinri Kyo leader, for example, has confessed to spraying lethal gas in the Tokyo subway system. The Scientologists have been prosecuted for brainwashing members. The Unification Church has been sued in St. Petersburg by parents who claim that their children were taken away from them, and had their health placed in jeopardy.

"I tried to explain to people outside the Church the difference between legitimate religious organizations and destructive cults, and how to recognize the difference and how to act when one is approached by a cult recruiter on the street," Dvorkin said.

The suit, however, states that the brochure has damaged the business reputations of these groups and contains slanderous material not based on fact. Yakunin argues that while the "cults" may have been convicted of crimes abroad, they have not been convicted of anything in Russia.

Dvorkin maintains that the information he published is based on documented material he gathered from Western sources, including Stephen Hassan's book entitled, "Combating Cults & Mind Control."But according to Yakunin, the effect of Dvorkin's pamphlet is to put members of these religious groups in physical danger.

Yakunin said that, two months ago, the Hare Krishnas contacted his committee after 25 members of their group were beaten up by Cossacks in the Rostov region following a newspaper report containing excerpts from Dvorkin's brochure. The newspaper report stated that Hare Krishnas have used rape and violence in the past to subdue members.

Dvorkin's brochure does not accuse any particular group of rape or violence, but rather lumps them all together.

It is consequently slanderous, Yakunin said, because no Russian court has proven that these fringe groups have violated national law. "When you read this brochure you get the impression that these are criminal groups which are using rape and violence here," he said.

Dvorkin finds ridiculous the claim that he is inciting hatred; his brochure states that the cultists are victims of mind control techniques and must be treated with patience and compassion.

"Members of destructive cults suffer physical abuse during their involvement," states the brochure. "Some in the form of beating and rape, while others suffer the abuse of grueling monotonous work 15 - 18 hours a day, year in and year out."

Aum Sinrike, the Japanese cult which made headlines around the world after its leader was imprisoned after a gas attack in the Tokyo metro that killed 11 and injured thousands, is currently embroiled in criminal cases in Russia and Japan. While the court proceedings have not yet concluded, Shoko Asahara, the leader of the group, has admitted to issuing orders to spray the gas in the Japanese metro.

Dvorkin and the St. Irinaeus Center, which he heads, have been gathering information on what he calls "destructive" cults. One of these, he wrote, is the Scientologists, a group which has been involved in numerous court cases in addition to run-ins with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation over its activities around the world. Also at issue is Dianetics, the Scientologists' method of psychological therapy which some critics say involves mind control.

The Scientologists have acknowledged that the late founder Ron Hubbard developed a system called "fairgame" in which members seeking to leave the organization could be "destroyed." While the Scientologists say the practice was abandoned almost 30 years ago, some experts claim "fairgame" continues. Many Russians know little about the history of groups like the Scientologists.

In Dvorkin's brochure he writes that though all people have freedom of choice, it is impossible without freedom of information. And because destructive cults never provide complete information about their organizations, he wrote, people join them with insufficient information.

Dvorkin said his book's position is supported by all traditional Christian denominations, and that a statement published at the end of the book has been accepted by Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants from 19 churches in 18 countries around the world.

Yakunin, however, believes Dvorkin's work is creating a mass hysteria that will doom religious freedom in Russia.

A hearing in the next few weeks will determine if this case will go to court. Dvorkin's lawyer, Geralina Lyabarskaya, said that Yakunin -- as a third party -- has no right to sue. Neither he nor his committee are mentioned in the brochure.