Religious Freedom Problems in Russia and Hungary: A Case Study of the Church of Scientology


15 February 2018 – Video and text of the paper by Professor Massimo Introvigne, sociologist of religions and director of CESNUR, at the International Convention Law and Freedom of Belief in Europe, an arduous journey, held in Florence on 18-19 January 2018.

Religious Freedom Problems in Russia and Hungary: A Case Study of the Church of Scientology


In 2017, the Supreme Court in Russia confirmed the “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” group (Arnold 2017a). Steps were taken towards a similar “liquidation” as “extremist” of the Church of Scientology, whose churches were raided and whose leaders in St. Petersburg were arrested (information about the case of the Church of Scientology in Russia is derived from copies of court documents in the archives of CESNUR, Torino, Italy).

“Extremism” is a broad notion in Russia. Based on anti-cult propaganda, the prosecutor in Tomsk asked a local court to band an ISKCON Russian translation of the Bhagavad Gita as “extremist.” The case caused widespread protest in India, which the Russian ambassador to India tried to placate describing those trying to ban the Gita as irrelevant “madmen” (Corley 2012). Although the prosecutor lost the first-degree case in 2011 and the appeal in 2012, accusations of extremism against the Bhagavad Gita are still heard in Russia (Corley 2012).

Banned in Russia as “extremist” were also the works of renowned Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi (1878-1960), including his famous Risale-i Nur (Arnold 2016a). Nursi’s books are also quoted by some Muslim fundamentalists, but so is the Quran, and most of Nursi’s followers are certainly not radical (Vahide 2005, Markham and Pirim 2011).

On July 14, 2017, the District Court of Sochi also banned as “extremist” the book Forced to Convert by the German rabbi Marcus Lehmann (1831-1890), on forced conversions of Jews to Christianity in Poland and Lithuania in the Middle Ages. The decision was strongly condemned by Boruch Gorin, the spokesperson for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (Arnold 2017c).

In 2016, as part of the so called Yarovaya laws, Russia introduced provisions prohibiting proselytization on behalf of religious minorities outside of religious buildings. They were condemned by most international organizations but are now systematically enforced, as shown in the following table (compiled based on Arnold 2017b and listing cases prosecuted between June 2016 and July 2017):

Religious Groupings Cases Prosecuted
Protestant/Evangelicals (excluding Baptists) 58
Jehovah’s Witnesses 40
Baptists 26
ISKCON (Hare Krishna) 12
Muslims 9
Miscellaneous Jews/Kabbalah 3
Seventh-day Adventists 3
Unidentified Christians 2
Dissident Orthodox 2
Salvation Army 1
New Apostolic Church 1
Mormons 1
Neo-Pagan 1

However, even more dangerous for religious minorities are the anti-extremism provisions of 2002, amended in 2006 and originally intended as a weapon against radical Islamic fundamentalism. With the amendment of 2006, “extremism” can be found even without actual violence or incitement to violence (Arnold 2016b).

Four Criteria for “Extremism” in Russia

By moving from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the second main target, Scientology, four criteria for identifying “extremism” emerged (other than violence or incitement to violence, which are admittedly absent in these cases):

  1. Exclusiveness. According to the Russian “experts” and courts, “extremist” movements claim that they preach the only way to salvation, and that all the other religions (including Christianity as taught by the Russian Orthodox Church) are false or limited.
  2. “Breaking Families.” Second, the Russian interpretation is that “extremist” groups “break families,” because if only one spouse joins, or leaves, the movement, divorce is the outcome in most of cases. True or false information about divorces of celebrities, such as Tom Cruise (a Scientologist) is also mentioned as evidence.
  3. Mistreating Ex-Members. Third, “extremist” groups “violate the dignity” of former members, by suggesting that members avoid any contact with them, even when they are close relatives.
  4. Economic Crimes. Fourth, under the guise of religion “extremist” movements commit economic crimes, including systematic tax evasion.

The main problem is not that the accusations are false. It is that they can be applied to almost any religion:

1. Most religions proclaim that they offer the only path to salvation. This is obvious for Islam but was reiterated by Catholicism in the Vatican declaration Dominus Iesus of 2000 (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 2000), although it is perhaps less emphasized by the present Pope. And it would not be difficult to collect statements by dignitaries of the Russian Orthodox Church claiming that all other religions are false, and some are in fact directly controlled by the Devil.
Critics insist that Scientologists emphasize that theirs is the unique “technology” capable of saving the planet. While this is true, Scientology clearly teaches that one can become a Scientologist and maintain his or her previous religion, although there may be theological problems in reconciling different beliefs. As it has been observed, from a strictly religious point of view Scientology is one of the less exclusivist movements in the world (Neusner 2003, 221-236).

2. When only one spouse changes his or her religion, divorce is frequent – in all religions. This can be documented through the case of India, where family law allows for automatic divorce in case of conversion of one spouse to a different religion, and tens of thousands of applications for “conversion divorce” are filed every year (see e.g. Garg 1998).

3. Until a few years ago, the Catholic Church regarded those excommunicated as “vitandi,” a Latin word meaning “persons to be avoided” (Testo and Turchi 1936). Many religions have policies of forbidding any communication between members and “apostate” ex-members, including groups we normally regard as nice and peaceful such as the Amish (Wiser 2014). And for some Islamic schools, political parties, and governments, the “apostate” who has left Islam may be punished with the death penalty (Pew Research Center 2013).

4. Almost all religions have been accused, in one country or another, of greediness and tax evasion, a perpetual argument used in anti-religious propaganda by atheists.

Galina Shurinova, executive director of the Church of Scientology in St Petersburg, was arrested and accused inter alia of selling courses and books without having properly registered Scientology as an organization. In fact, Shurinova had repeatedly tried to incorporate the Church, but registration was denied, despite a 2015 decision by the European Court of Human Rights condemning this refusal (European Court of Human Rights 2015: Shurinova herself was a petitioner in that case).

In Russia, it is also argued that Scientology is not a religion because it registered its name as a trademark in the United States. But several hundred other religious organizations have registered their names as trademarks there, including Orthodox Judaism, the Roman Catholic Church and the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the U.S.A., the umbrella Orthodox organization including the American affiliates of the Russian Orthodox Church (Zoccatelli 2017).

The use of the category of “extremism” in Russia may seem irrational. But it is important to understand how it has been socially and politically constructed, and by whom. Russia’s main anti-cult organization, the Saint Irenaeus of Lyons Centre, has worked for more than twenty years to promote the notion. Its leader, Alexander Dvorkin, became the president of the Justice Ministry’s Expert Council for Conducting State Religious Studies Expert Analysis, a key actor in the cases for banning groups and books as “extremist” (Human Rights Without Frontiers Correspondent in Russia 2012).

Although Dvorkin’s extreme methods and his cavalier attacks against (inter alia) the Mormons, the Baha’is, Hinduism, and Islam have often embarrassed the government and the Russian Orthodox Church, he has also been used by circles promoting “spiritual security” as part of the Russian concept of national security. In the Russian National Security Concept (2000), we read that “Russian Federation’s national security also includes protecting the cultural and spiritual-moral legacy and the historical traditions and standards of public life and preserving the cultural heritage of all Russia’s peoples. There must be a state policy to maintain the population’s spiritual and moral welfare, prohibit the use of airtime to promote violence or base instincts, and counter the adverse impact of foreign religious organizations and missionaries” (“National Security Concept of the Russian Federation” 2000, IV).

Ironically, Russian judges sat in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-1946, where Nazi leaders were accused of having persecuted Jews and members of religious minorities based, inter alia, on a concept of German “spiritual health” to be preserved and protected against “foreign” spiritual influences (Gonen 2000, 31).

Dangerous Exports: The Case of Scientology in Hungary

The Russian approach is being exported to “friendly” countries. Dvorkin became the vice-president of the European anti-cult federation FECRIS. As economic support to FECRIS by other countries is drying out, Russian hegemony on European anti-cultism is a concrete possibility. It is also paradoxical, because most European anti-cult organizations are deeply secular, while Dvorkin represents a radical faction of the Russian Orthodox Church (Human Rights Without Frontiers Correspondent in Russia 2012).

Recently, the nationalist ideology of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and its government has put Hungary at odds with the European Union and brought it closer to Russia. Orbán has adopted the same hostile attitude prevailing in Russia, inter alia, against George Soros’ educational institutions, and those advocating more rights for immigrants and refugees, Roma and Sinti, the LGBT community, and non-traditional religions, justifying all this with the argument that Hungary should protect its identity as “a country fundamentally based on traditional values” (Rohac 2017).

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén stated in 2011 that “as long as I am in the government, Scientology won’t be recognized as a religion.” In 2016, he found “outrageous that the Scientologists could build headquarters in Budapest,” showing that he considered the fight against Scientology a test case of protecting Hungary’s “traditional” identity” (this and following statements, and legal developments, are quoted in legal documents filed in connection with Scientology’s cases in Hungary, copies in the archives of CESNUR, Torino, Italy).

Both Mr. Semjén and Hungary’s Minister of Prime Minister Office, Janos Lazar, publicly stated that the restrictive Hungarian law on religion of 2011 (which obviously affected many other groups, too) had among its aims “to restrict the activities of Scientologists.”

As happened in other countries, laws not originally intended for controlling religions were uses as weapons against Scientology. The first action was started on December 5, 2016 by the Data Protection Authority (DPA) and personally conducted by his chief, Mr. Attila Péterfalvi (whose appointment was deemed by the European Court of Justice in 2014 as contrary to the EU-mandated principle that data protection agencies should be genuinely independent from the governments: European Court of Justice [Grand Chamber] 2014).

Two days after the investigation was started, Péterfalvi conducted a raid against the Budapest Church of Scientology, seizing numerous files. Raids were repeated on December 22 and extended to Scientology’s mission in Nyiregyhaza, in northeastern Hungary. Other raids were conducted by different State agencies throughout the country, with media invited to cover the events.

Susan Palmer and Stuart Wright in their 2016 book Storming Zion discuss raids against groups labeled as “cults” in various countries, invariably carried out by a disproportionate number of agents, mostly for the benefit of the invited media (Wright and Palmer 2016). Most raids had meager results in terms of collecting evidence and are best interpreted as a sort of pedagogical baroque theater. Those hostile to “cults” are reassured, and those attracted to alternative spiritualities are intimidated by a powerful public statement that “cults” would not be tolerated.

Another extraordinary feature of the DPA action was that an anti-cult clinical psychologist, Noémi Császár-Nagy, was appointed as an expert to confirm that the auditing files collected by Scientology about its members were tools for a larger operation of mental manipulation. Whether Scientology is a “cult” engaged in “mind control” seems to go well beyond the very technical scope of data protection laws.

On the other hand, the DPA needed the anti-cult expertise, as evidenced in its decision of October 13, 2017. Scientology was found guilty of breaching data protection laws because it kept files on the auditing of its parishioners, including sensitive personal information. If Scientology is a religion, this should be covered by a religious liberty exception. Only by claiming that Scientology is not a religion, but an “unauthorized form of psychotherapy” or a “cult,” was DPA able to conclude against the Church, and instigate a criminal action that started immediately after its decision, with yet another raid.

On October 19, 2017, when the police were concluding its raid on the criminal data protection case, fifty agents of the Tax Office showed up to conduct yet another raid against the Budapest Church of Scientology, which was repeated another three times and extended to twelve Scientology missions throughout Hungary.

Obviously, tax offices have a duty to fight tax evasion. On the other hand, the European Court of Human Rights found in several different cases – concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses (European Court of Human Rights 2011), the Aumist Religion of the Mandarom (European Court of Human Rights 2013a), and the Evangelical Missionary Church (European Court of Human Rights 2013b) – that the misuse of tax laws to restrict the activities of groups labeled as “cults” is a gross violation of religious liberty.

In 2016, Scientology was denied a certificate of occupancy (COO) for its new Budapest headquarters because of problems with the electrical system. The Church both appealed the decision and undertook corrective work. Although the State Office had confirmed that this work was adequate, the Prime Minister’s Office transferred the appeal to the Southern city of Szeged, where it was denied. A new appeal, based on the fact that a new law no longer required this kind of COO, was also denied.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the concomitancy of the actions based on data protection, taxes, and electrical issues is not a coincidence. It is an expression of the publicly stated official hostility to Scientology, against which Scientologists protested twice in the streets of Budapest in 2017 (EIFRF 2017). Like in Russia, and in part under Russian influence, Scientology is perceived as foreign to Hungarian national identity.

Doctrines of “spiritual security” have no place in the European Union and are also incompatible with international conventions on human rights and religious liberty that Russia and Hungary have executed and ratified. Religions should be able to compete freely and to proselyte, without undue state restrictions. Non-traditional religions cannot be discriminated because they do not fit within the boundaries of a nationalist/traditionalist ideology.

At the same time, I believe that a dialogue should be promoted, reassuring nations that went through the tragic experience of Communism, that nobody wants to impose to them a secular model dismissing traditional identities or religions as irrelevant. Creative solutions exist, guaranteeing both the recognition that certain religions are uniquely part of the history of their countries and the liberty mandated by the international convention for the religious minorities.


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