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26 Jan, 2010 05:41

Russia may restrict destructive cults

Russia is considering changing laws that would restrict missionary activity. Officials say the measure is to protect people from damaging cults, but there are serious fears over how it will impact on religious freedom.

With the number of followers estimated at well over ten thousand, a man named Vissarion in Eastern Siberia claims to be the Messiah.

And just two years ago, 29 devoted members of a group locked themselves in a bunker in the Penza region, convinced that the end of days was near.

These are just a couple of the examples of what the Duma says is cult activity in modern Russia.

“There are about 80 or 90 cults which are well known and active in at least several provinces of Russia. But if we are talking about local cults that act within one town, or one province or one area of a town, then those can be counted in the thousands,” says cult expert Aleksandr Dvorkin.

In an effort to better protect the people from predatory cults, the State Duma is considering a draft proposed by the Ministry of Justice that limits the ways that religious sects can communicate with people.

“This draft defines what correct missionary activities are. For example it forbids missionary activity on the territory of some other faith or other religious organization, and it forbids recruiting from places where people would be more susceptible – for example in hospitals, mental institutions or the army, for example,” Aleksandr Dvorkin adds.

Ilya Arkhipov, a journalist from Russian Newsweek, expects misinterpretations with the new law.

“There is a danger of misinterpretation and misuse of this legislation as there is no legal definition of a dangerous cult or sect in Russian law,” Arkhipov says.

Opponents of the draft say that it is nothing more than religious persecution.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses faith is banned in three regions in Russia already. They, like other groups such as the Mormons, the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology say there's no need for a law change.

“Such amendments are aimed at tightening religion-related legislation which is already strict enough. They will only lead to more persecution,” says Yaroslav Sivilsky from the Jehovah’s Witnesses church. “Now, if those amendments are passed, one can be held accountable just for preaching on the streets, or for sharing their beliefs among co-workers.”

Supporters of the draft amendment say this is what people want and through this proposal they are making regional laws on the subject legitimate.

The most dangerous thing that can happen from this law is that it would outlaw many religious activities and then some local bureaucrats will be deciding that ‘these missionary activities we like and we’ll overlook them but others we’ll persecute,” says Andrey Zolotov, editor in chief of Russia Profile magazine.

At this point there has been no action on the draft, but those who stand much to lose say they are prepared to fight.

“They corner themselves when they talk about banning missionary activities. It is absurd to call a speaking person with a book in his hand a criminal, as well as requiring him to have special papers in order to preach. This road takes us straight to the Strasbourg Court,” says human rights expert Lev Levinson.