Saturday, April 4, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Kirill’s Restrictive View on Religious Freedom Backed by Russian Justice Ministry

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 4 – Patriarch Kirill’s support for what he calls “the traditional religions of Russia” – Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism – against all others has been institutionalized at the Russian justice ministry with the selection there of a specialist notorious for his hostility toward Roman Catholics, Protestant Evangelicals, and other groups.
Yesterday, the justice ministry’s experts council charged with providing guidance on religious questions to Russian courts and other bodies met for the first time in Moscow and in “a unanimous decision” chose Aleksandr Dvorkin, who describes himself as a specialist on “sectology,” as council head (
In reporting this event, Interfax underlined that the newly constituted council includes representatives of Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, as well as civil specialists on relations between church and state, new religious movements and “pseudo-religious criminal and extremist structures” (
The inclusion of representatives from these four faiths but from no others is a victory for Kirill, who has been pushing the concept of “traditional religions” of Russia since the late 1990s, but the installation of Dvorkin is even more disturbing given his attacks on other religions and his extremely restrictive view on just what religious organizations should be permitted in Russia.
The council was mandated by a federal law adopted in July 2008 and formed by a decree of the justice ministry in February. Its tasks include, first, it is to provide “a definition of the religious character of organizations on the basis of their constituent documents and reports about their faith and corresponding practice.”
Second, the council is responsible “checking and assessing the reliability of information contained in documents offered by any religious organization.” And third, it is charged with evaluating whether what the religious group declares to the government that it believes and is doing in fact corresponds to reality.
That gives this body enormous power, because if its members decide that a group is not in correspondence with its declarations, the Russian government is free to close it down, with few chances that the group will be able to win in a Russian court although a great likelihood that it will then appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
That is a likely outcome given the direction the council is likely to take under Dvorkin, one of the more remarkable and controversial figures in the Russian religious firmament over the last 15 years. Born in Moscow in 1955, he participated in the hippy movement in the Soviet Union. Then, taking advantage of the right of Jews to emigrate, he moved to the United States.
There, he received a bachelor’s degree at Hunter College in 1980, a masters degree at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary in 1983 after being baptized in 1980, and, after acquiring American citizenship in 1983 received a PhD from Fordham University with a dissertation on “Ivan the Terrible as a Religious Type” (
During the 1980s, he worked as a journalist for the Voice of America and as an editor for Radio Liberty. But at the same time, he became involved with groups investigating religious cults in the United States and Western Europe. And when he returned to Russia at the end of 1991, he continued that activity.
In March 1992, he went to work for the department of religious education of the Moscow Patriarchate and in 1993 formed and assumed the leadership of the Information-Consultative Center of the Holy Martyr Iriney of Lion. And in 2006, he formed and still heads the Russian Association of Centers for the Study of Religion and Sects.
During this period, he closely cooperated with the outspoken Orthodox Deacon Andrey Kurayev and became known for his attacks on Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, the Mormons, and other groups that as Kirill would say must not be considered “traditional” for people in the Russian Federation.
His presentations in various cities around the country often sparked protests both by religious rights activists and members of groups he opposed, and his statements sometimes landed him in court when those he had attacked demanded that he provide evidence for his assertions, something that he was in many cases reportedly not able to provide.
In 2004, he was named a professor at the Orthodox Humanitarian St. Tikhon University and heads that institution’s “sect studies” chair. Some Russian nationalists consider him “an American spy” because of his time in the US, but many Orthodox activists see him as a defender of the Moscow Patriarchate against all comers.
Now that Dvorkin has been given a government position, he seems likely to continue his campaign against those he denounces as “sects,” and even some of Kirill’s “traditional” religions may be in trouble. While one of Dvorkin’s deputies is himself a mufti, the other is Roman Silantyev, who lost his position at the Russian Inter-Religious Council for his attacks on Islam.

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