COVID-19 Pandemic and persecution of religious and spiritual minorities

Alessandro Amicarelli

Fighting for Freedom

By Alessandro Amicarelli

[from the book ‘People of Faith Rising Above Covid-19’]

Covid-19 has stopped the world, but it did not stop the persecution of minority groups in several countries. Our organisation, the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB) which works with the All Faiths Network, had more work to do denouncing abuses and reporting the perpetrators to protect the victims, whilst keeping on advocating the protection of freedom of religion and belief for everyone.

The coronavirus Covid-19 has turned the world upside down, it has created panic, and activated survival mechanisms in the world’s population.

Scenes of consumers stockpiling, sometimes inexplicably, have characterised the lives of many in different countries around the world.

Together with the fight for survival, we have witnessed and continue to witness the search for those responsible, or suspected to be, for causing of the pandemic, which also reminds us of the witch-hunt against plague-spreaders discussed in the novel “The Betrothed” (“I Promessi Sposi”) by Alessandro Manzoni.

China accused the United States of causing the pandemic, while the United States, along with many other states, has accused China, and so on in a continual tennis match of responsibility, while the world questions who actually caused the pandemic and where it really originated.

These accusations have also been raised at local level, where they have been levelled at individuals or against groups, including religious groups. As a result there have been attacks against Jewish Orthodox groups in the United States and elsewhere, Islamic communities and individual Muslims, for instance in India and other areas.

Roma communities in some countries have been targeted, and above all there have been attacks against a minority religious community in the Republic of Korea, accused of having triggered the mechanism that caused the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic, the Shincheonji religious community.

Shincheonji was singled out as a group and made victim of a extended defamation campaign in the media, a campaign that is still going on and had led to the arrest of its 89-year-old Founder and Leader known as Chairman Lee, on the night between 31 July and 1st of August 2020.

Together with the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) and International Observatory of Human Rights of Refugees (ORLIR), we wrote a White Paper on Shincheonji called “Shincheonji and Coronavirus in South Korea: Sorting Fact from Fiction – A White Paper” to shed light on the real facts behind the persecution of Shincheonji in Korea and denounced the fake news and propaganda behind the persecution of this group and of its members in Korea.

The White Paper was scheduled to be presented in Brussels at the Brussels Europe Press Club on 18 March 2020, but the Coronavirus travel bans to and from most countries, prevented speakers to reach Brussels from Italy, Lithuania and the United Kingdom. Thus the live meeting switched to online alongside most of the world which has eventually done the same, making smart work or working from home the norm for most of the people in the world.

Indeed, we could not imagine that our lives and our work would be affected to that extent when we had planned our activities for 2020. However, as I said, Covid-19 did not stop our work and our plans have all been maintained with even more activities added on to the agenda in the course of the year. At the beginning of 2020, following the activities of the previous year, we were working on issues affecting religious minorities in China, especially The Church of Almighty God (CAG) and the Uyghur Muslim Community, both the subject of harsh persecution in that country on the allegation of being a xie jiao (“heterodox teaching”) firstly and secondly, a terrorist organisation. We reported and denounced, together with a number of like-minded organisations, the phenomenon of the “re-education camps” in Xinjiang (China) which the world was ignoring and the Chinese government was calling an essential means to supposedly ‘de-radicalise’ what the Chinese government labels as terrorists, while they only claim to practise their Muslim faith peacefully.

The European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB) also kept an eye on the development of the complaints I submitted, as the instructed lawyer at the law firm Obaseki & Co, to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) at the United Nations in Geneva on behalf of two members of The Church of Almighty God (CAG) detained in China who may possibly be dead by now. This received attention in the UK Parliament thanks to Lord Alton of Liverpool and also received support from Her Majesty’s Government in the person of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon.

On 20 July 2020 we took part in a webinar on Shicheonji and the Covid-19 and the result of that was a Second White Paper “COVID-19: Scapegoating Shincheonji in South Korea - A Second White Paper” that was published by CESNUR on 29 July and just after that we were informed that Chairman Lee, Founder and Leader of Shincheonji, had been arrested in South Korea, the night between 31st of July and 1st of August 2020 on the same allegations as those of other local leaders who had been arrested, namely that he and his organisation supposedly did not cooperate with the government when the Covid-19 pandemic started and so, according to the prosecutor’s accusations, caused an increase in the spreading of the virus throughout the country.

We also monitored the situation of New Religious and Spiritual Minorities (NRSMs) in other countries such as the Russian Federation where the main concern is for organisations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology and its linked charity groups; other minority groups keep being persecuted without reason thanks to the activities carried out by hate-spreading anti-cult organisations like the French FECRIS ( European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarism), which in Russia is represented by its vice-president Mr Aleksander Dvorkin of the Saint Irenaeus of Lyons Information and Advisory Center which has clear and open links with the Russian Orthodox Church and has as such campaigned against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation was officially banned in Russia in 2017 and all their properties were seized on the allegation of being an extremist organisation, even though reasons for such labelling not being provided.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses case is quite controversial in Russia and President Putin himself stated he could not understand where the persecution came from and his behaviour towards this community was in fact one of empathy and certainly not against them. It should be noted that President Putin awarded the Family Glory Award to a family of Witnesses in 2017 shortly after the Supreme Court banned them in the country.

On 3rd September 2020 we took part in an international Seminar “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Opponents: Russia, the West, and Beyond”, organised by CESNUR, Center for Studies on New Religions), Vytautas Magnus University, Vilnius, Lithuania, and the New Religions Research and Information Center, Vilnius, Lithuania and held online. The event was attended by a large audience and had a number of speakers gathered from several countries and from different scholarly perspectives who perused and analysed the different aspects of the Jehovah’s Witnesses issues, including sociological, legal, anthropological and theological perspectives.

As the representative of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB) I made a presentation on the USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) report on anti-cult ideology, and read a statement of the Conference on the Situation in Russia, in which I spoke about what would later become the Report that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued on FECRIS in July and which caused great consternation in that anti-cult organisation. Their activities were literally unmasked by the US government independent commission USCIRF with their very direct and thorough report on the group.

The anti-cult family, of which FECRIS is a primary representative, present themselves as a benevolent group of people whose main aim is saving the victims of brainwashing and manipulation inside what they label as “totalitarian cults”. However, they forget to say that they themselves have been found in courts of law guilty of a number of crimes including also kidnapping and forced de-conversions of members of religious minorities. They also omit to mention that most of the NRMs (New Religious Movements), which I prefer to call NRSMs (New Religious and Spiritual Minorities), operate freely and legally in most of the democratic countries all around the world and that their rights have been clearly confirmed and reiterated in the same courts of law where members of the anti-cult organisations have been found guilty of crimes committed to the detriment of members of religious and spiritual groups.

The activities carried out by the constellation of anti-cult organizations, which at times are even just anti-religious and anti-spiritual as such and not just “anti-cult”, have been often argued and censured by International organisations and governments that are more keen to protect the lives and activities of members of religious and spiritual communities, advocating their rights at different levels also in conjunction with and with the support of the civil society groups.

The Special Report on The Anti-cult Movement and Religious Regulation in Russia and the Former Soviet Union released by USCIRF starts shedding light on an international phenomenon that has spread from the US anti-cult environment in the 70’s throughout Europe and Russia over the last 40 years.

In fact, it openly mentions and criticises the role of Mr Aleksander Dvorkin of the Saint Irenaeus of Lyons Information-Consultation Center (SILIC) and vice-President of FECRIS who learnt his “trade” in the United States in the 1970’s and exported the model to Russia where the anti-cult propaganda grew fruitfully, unfortunately, with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. This organisation stemmed from the roots of the American anti-cult environment and soon after, in 1992, Aleksander Dvorkin returned to his homeland Russia to launch his own "anti-cult" commitment, and so the European "anti-cult" associations gathered to give birth to the FECRIS in 1994.

The USCIRF Report describes FECRIS as a “French anti-cult organization with pan-European influence”.

In fact, as we can read on their website, today it operates “in more than 30 countries to date, among them 5 are non-European”.

Thus, a private association, funded by the French government, influences the religious freedom policies of dozens of countries through a “disinformation campaign against religious minorities” as the USCIRF Report states.

The USCIRF, through its report has begun to shed light on the true nature of the so-called "anti-cult" movement and its ideology. European and International organisations, on the other hand, inexplicably granted participatory status to FECRIS, while France finances and supports their activities.

The USCIRF has included France in the list of “Countries and Regions Monitored”.

It seems to us that all the countries where FECRIS operates through the “anti-cult” associations federated to it should be monitored as well, if not even added to the “special watch list”.

In fact, it should be noted that, as stated in the Report (quote) “the group regularly disseminates negative propaganda on religious minorities, including in international forums such as the annual conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Human Dimensions conference”.

The Report goes on making some Final Recommendation as follows: The U.S. government should:

  • Publicly censure Alexander Dvorkin and the Saint Irenaeus of Leon Information-Consultation Center (SILIC) for their ongoing disinformation campaign against religious minorities;
  • Promote education about freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) component of regional humanitarian assistance;
  • Counter propaganda against new religious movements by the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism (FECRIS) at the annual OSCE Human Dimensions Conference with information about the ongoing involvement of individuals and entities within the anti-cult movement in the suppression of religious freedom; and
  • Pressure the governments of Russia and Kazakhstan to remove prominent anti-cult figures from their expert councils and bar them from official positions of influence over religious regulation.
  • Publicly censure Alexander Dvorkin and the Saint Irenaeus of Leon Information-Consultation Center (SILIC) for their ongoing disinformation campaign against religious minorities;
  • Promote education about freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in regional diplomacy and offer training and resources as a component of regional humanitarian assistance;
  • Counter propaganda against new religious movements by the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism (FECRIS) at the annual OSCE Human Dimensions Conference with information about the ongoing involvement of individuals and entities within the anti-cult movement in the suppression of religious freedom; and
  • Pressure the governments of Russia and Kazakhstan to remove prominent anti-cult figures from their expert councils and bar them from official positions of influence over religious regulation.

We note that the FECRIS representatives were quite unhappy to be publicly denounced and humiliated by the USCIRF Report and started talking nonsense about a more than one year-old court case, relating to Jehovah’s Witnesses, occurred in Switzerland, totally manipulating the content of the case and the nature of the judgment itself. Prof. Massimo Introvigne of CESNUR and I have explained in the White Paper “The New Gnomes of Zurich: The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Spiess Case, and Its Manipulation by Anti-Cult and Russian Propaganda” which we wrote to counter-propaganda the nonsense statement made by some FECRIS representatives following the issue of the USCIRF Report.

On 27 October 2020 the CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions) and and HRWF (Human Rights Without Frontiers) published a Third White Paper on Shincheonji “Who is Afraid of Chairman Lee? The Crackdown on Shincheonji in South Korea: A Third White Paper” in which we, the same team of authors who wrote the First and Second White Papers, have denounced the activities of the counter-cultists of South Korea against the Shincheonji community and the misuse of information relating to supposed illegal activities or supposed embezzlement of funds to damage this community making false claims against them. Shinceonji is persecuted for being a successful minority religion.

We made this point clear in the Third White Paper as follows:

“On August 5, 2020, Michael Breen, a British-born journalist based in Seoul, and an authoritative commentator on religious and political issues in South Korea, wrote in the Korea Times that, “For a lot of people I know, Lee in jail equals justice. Like Al Capone finally being nailed for tax evasion, the actual charge is a pesky technicality. Among all the world’s religions, it’s normal to like only one. Most of us tolerate a few more. But nobody likes someone who starts one, even in civilized society. That’s Lee’s real crime.”

Breen commented that, given the 97 percent conviction rate in South Korea for criminal cases, being indicted is remarkably close to being sentenced there.

He went on to say that, “It seems obvious to me that the only reason prosecutors are going after the Shincheonji founder, or that they would go after the Itaewon [LGBT] clubbers [who were also accused for the pandemic], is because they are unpopular. Had the cluster been the main Jogye Temple or the Myeondong Roman Catholic Cathedral or at the Protestant Full Gospel Church in Seoul’s Yeouido, this wouldn’t be happening. For politicians and others who comment in public, Shincheonji is a safe target. You may remember that when media reported that Shincheonji was dragging its feet with the member lists, two presidential hopefuls, Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung and the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon attacked the church quite forcefully and found their approval ratings boosted for it.

But the best evidence that this is a witch-hunt is that the prosecutors have thrown in a financial charge for good measure in case the obstruction of government charge doesn’t stick,” as they have historically done to get rid of “cult” leaders and did in the case of the Olive Tree, the Victory Altar (Introvigne 2017), and several others (Breen 2020).

We do agree with Michael Breen that the action taken against Chairman Lee and other Shincheonji leaders are a “witch-hunt,” that they are really being punished because they established a new religion and antagonized Korean mainline Protestants, and that the unpopularity of Lee and Shincheonji is such that they cannot expect a fair trial in South Korea. (Third White Paper pages 25-26)

In 2020, rather than acknowledging that Shincheonji and HWPL had been at the receiving ends of acts of intolerance and discrimination, the South Korean prosecutors blamed the victims, and filed criminal charges against Chairman Lee for cases where local authorities had already concluded that no crime had been committed (Third White Paper page 22)

The most recent novelty, that has been on all the world’s media, is the new French law proposal (at time of writing) against separatism, whose declared aim would be to prevent or fight against Islamic inspired extremist actions and separatism caused by radicalised groups for instance through home-schooling. Recent new provocations have been made by the French magazine Charlie-Hebdo against the Islamic faith as a whole, not targeting extremists but an entire faith instead, by depicting, again as in the past, images of the Prophet of Islam Muhammad, and also by disrespectfully deriding in a gross way the Turkish President Recep Erdogan; whilst radicalism is certainly not acceptable nor compatible with the democratic values of Europe, which France in principle shares, likewise the intentional visual or written violence used by Charlie-Hebdo is not condonable either, arguing on principles such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press or other basic fundamental freedoms. It is apparent to many that the new legislation is being used as a weapon against the whole Islamic faith and also against hundreds of other minority groups labelled as cults by high officials of France, a country sadly well-known for disliking minority spirituality groups and minority religions actively fought against by the government and its associated non-genuine NGOs, actually directly funded by the government, one for all the FECRIS.

As Massimo Introvigne reported

Anti-cultism is back in France. Media around the world have covered President Macron’s announcement of a new law against “separatism,” explaining it as a measure against radical Islam. It is surely true that Islam is targeted but, not for the first time, a law introduced to fight Islamic radical groups is then used against other religious movements. The Russian law against extremism is an obvious example.

And Introvigne went on saying that

“The draft announces the “end of home schooling” in general, “except in cases justified by medical conditions.” Obviously, this provision will target a number of Christian communities and not the Muslims only. (…) Hidden in a law ostensibly aimed at Islamic radicalization is a provision that allows religious and other associations to be dissolved (…)”

And that

Minister Marlène Schiappa in an interview she gave to the newspaper Le Parisien confirmed, regarding the new law on separating that “we will use the same measures against the cults and against radical Islam”[1]

It is obvious that the real intent of the new French law, which stems from an old French tradition to oppose or persecute religious groups as such, and minority groups labelled as cults, is to reinforce the Frenchstyled form of secularism called “Laicite” as a national and official form of republican religion, in clear violation of the French motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), and in violation also of the fundamental human rights and liberties enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and in the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950 whose content constitutes legal obligation for the “République Française” just like for all signatories.

In conclusion, we hope that, while we are fighting against two viruses, the covid-19 and the virus of intolerance, the actions recommended by the USCIRF Report may be implemented very soon and also be only the beginning of a series of further actions to contrast these hate ‘experts’, and finally guarantee everyone their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief.

The International Human Rights and Religious Freedom Movement is now more united than ever before, thanks also to top-level initiatives like the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in the world. Neither the Covid-19 nor the intolerance viruses will stop our Fight for Freedom and we will keep working for the good!

[1] ⬆︎ France: The “Law Against Separatism” Targets “Cults” as well as Islam, 11 October 2020,