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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trying to Define Sects Is a Troubling Tradition

The issue of giving preference to "traditional" religions and banning "sects" comes up regularly in political discussions and the media. The nature of these discussions inevitably leaves much to be desired.

The deputy chief of the Interior Ministry's Moscow branch, Alexander Melnikov, has told the Moscow City Duma that current legislation does not define what sects are, making it difficult to deal with them. Melnikov is right: The definition of a sect is not legal but religious. It is clearly not the police's job to deal with this. Their job is catching people who break the law.

The law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations does not mention sects or traditional religions at all. The preamble to the law stresses the historical role of the traditional religions: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. But the preamble has no legal bearing. Attempts to impose interpretations on the law arise from time to time. In 2002, State Duma Deputy Alexander Chuyev proposed defining whether a confession was traditional on the basis of the number of adherents, how long it had existed and its recognition as "an integral part of the spiritual, historical and cultural heritage of the peoples' of Russia." The last consideration is tough to label objective.

Whatever the case, this is the terminology that has come into circulation. Politicians speak of supporting traditional confessions and the media highlight the dangers posed by sects. The public is clearly listening. In a December study by the VTsIOM polling agency, respondents who identified themselves as Orthodox Christians said the greatest threat to their confession came from sects (26 percent), followed by the occult and astrology (9 percent), representatives of non-Christian religions (5 percent), atheists (4 percent) or other branches of Christianity (2 percent).

Concern about sects was greatest among respondents who said they regularly attend religious services, who accounted for 11 percent of those surveyed.

The term that is used in the West -- new religious movements -- has no emotional coloring. And cases of fraud or psychological and physical pressure on the part of cults correspond to specific articles of the Criminal Code. It is the job of law enforcement bodies to investigate them. It's the same case with economic offenses and other crimes committed by members of the "traditional" religions.

Granting special status to traditional faiths is the equivalent to giving them a monopoly on truth. More accurately, we could call it a cartel. It should not be up to the state to define who is and who is not allowed to decide what the truth is.

This comment appeared as an editorial in Vedomosti.