Vienna, July 7 – Under pressure from military commanders, the Orthodox Church, and various nationalistic groups, including the Cossacks, some groups with close ties to the Russian government appear to be preparing for a new campaign against “totalitarian religious sects” in particular and “non-traditional” religions more generally.
Such an effort would focus first on groups like the Scientologists who enjoy little support in either Russia or abroad but then could spread to other groups like Catholics and Protestants who are not members of what Russian officials, including President Dmitry Medvedev, call the country’s “traditional” religions – Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
An effort targeting only the former would touch the estimated 800,000 Russian citizens who are members of what some call “the sects,” but official moves against the latter could affect many millions more and make a mockery of the Russian Constitution’s commitment to religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Moreover, in some parts of Russia, any such campaign once begun would almost certainly spill over into attacks against all non-Orthodox groups, possibly triggering precisely the kind of inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts that the powers that be in Moscow say that they want to do everything to avoid.
At a Moscow conference last week on ideological threats to Russia’s national security, General Anatoly Kulikov, who earlier served as Russian interior minister and now is president of the Russian Military Commanders Club, called for greater efforts to protect the country from religious extremists (www.pravoslavie.ru/news/080702123944).
Pointing to the extraordinary power of religion to affect behavior and the current spread of religious radicalism “among the unemployed, uneducated and poor … especially among the young and especially in the North Caucasus,” Kulikov said that the government must impose greater controls “to prevent the dissemination of extremism and xenophobia.”
As a first step, Kulikov called for “strengthening [official] control over religious activities in the [Russian] armed forces,” an appeal that echoes one issued on July 1 by the Assembly of Orthodox Intelligentsia. (For the appeal, see www.rusk.ru/st.php?idar=113032; for a discussion of its implications, see www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=177528.)
This appeal, which was sent to the Kremlin and the Duma, calls for giving the country’s “traditional” faiths greater access to service personnel not only in order to promote patriotism and inter-religious cooperation but also and clearly more immediately to block the rise of “non-traditional” sects.
Russia’s “experience in the 1990s shows that if Orthodox priests are not allowed access to military units and vessels, then sectarians will take their place and agitate against service in the armed forces and for the destruction of [Russian] statehood and [Russian] national traditions.”
And yet another group is “gathering its forces” to fight “totalitarian cults,” today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reports. That includes the Cossacks, including those of the Don who have, the paper said, “decided to declare war on the sectarians who are acting on the territory of Rostov oblast” (www.ng.ru/ngregions/2008-07-07/11_sekta.html).
Working with the local eparchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Don Cossacks have set up a Cossack Anti-Sectarian Information and Consultation Center to coordinate the struggle with what it calls “the subversive, anti-social and anti-state activities of the totalitarian sects.’
To that end, the center has assembled “a large quantity of information about the places where the sectarians meet, including addresses, telephones, the names of the leaders, and also about the arrival and departure of foreign ‘missionaries,’” who blames for much of the growth of such subversive groups.
The local ataman, Aleksandr Shepelenko, told “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that his men “will not permit the construction of doubtful cult buildings” there and in particular will block any efforts by sectarians to open religious training centers, employing “popular referenda” if necessary to force the authorities to agree.
But Shepelenko made it clear that his forces were prepared to move against at least one of Russia’s traditional faiths, Islam. Because mosques are “not simply places of prayer” but organizing centers, he said, the Cossacks will work to block the construction of mosques, a reminder of just how quickly any campaign against sectarians could grow into something else.
“Nezavisimaya gazeta” concludes its report with the observation that “far from everyone shares the position of the Don Cossacks.” But recent statements by President Dmitry Medvedev on behalf of the traditional faiths and by the Patriarchate on behalf of Orthodoxy have energized them, even though the Russian Constitution guarantees everyone freedom of religion.