Hatred and religious intolerance: sign of the times or desired effects?


In these days the international press reports about tortures suffered in Russia by members of the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Washington Post of March 2 speaks of “Russia’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is reviving dark practices of the past”.

The last two years have been really difficult for the Jehovah's Witnesses (even if the discriminatory acts against them date back to at least the 90s) since, implementing the controversial Yarovaya law, the Russian Supreme Court has labeled them "extremist organization". Since then they have suffered arrests, kidnappings, violence, total prohibition to practice their beliefs, and now also physical torture. Draconian and largely illicit measures, if one considers the recognized pacific nature of those belonging to this confession which, as well known, also refuse to serve in the army.

According to information leaked in Western media, in fact, the FSB security police, heir of the KGB of Soviet memory, "behaves as if Joseph Stalin were still around”. According to a spokesperson, seven Jehovah's Witnesses, imprisoned following some massive police repression operations in the Siberian Khanty Mansi region, were tortured in an attempt to have the names of the elders, the passwords of cell phones, and to get them to disclose where the meetings of the congregation were held.

Stefania PezzopaneHaving learnt these gruesome news, on  February 21, the MP of the Democratic Party Stefania Pezzopane tabled a parliamentary question asking the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation what initiatives he intends to undertake, including in the European Union, to put an end to all this.

Here is the full text of the parliamentary question no. 4/02323

To the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. — To know – given that: we learn from the press (Moscow editorial office of Ansa, February 20, 2019) that at least seven Jehovah's Witnesses detained in Russia would be tortured by investigators in Surgut, Siberia;

the complaint comes from Jarrod Lopes, spokesperson of the religious group who was questioned by the Moscow Times. According to Lopes, the agents would have stripped the men, put a bag on the head of every suspect and wrapped it with ribbon. After having tied their hands behind their backs, they would have broken their fingers and would have hit their necks, feet and hips;

the legal basis from which this discrimination takes place is found in the so-called Yarovaya law, adopted by the Duma in August 2016 and signed by President Putin, which further reduces the protection of fundamental freedoms;

this law introduces new criminal offenses, imposing to telephone and internet operators to store traffic data between users and to provide it, if requested, to the Federal Security Service (FSB); it also provides for considerable restrictions on religious freedom;

in a letter to President Putin, some representatives of the Protestant Churches in Russia, spoke of "violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms on the subject of religious freedom";

recently, with the accusation of "extremism", the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses was banned in the territory of the Federation following a Supreme Court ruling that also ordered the confiscation of every property of the group, which will be transferred to the State;

the situation in Russia calls into question not just a religious confession, but fundamental human rights. A law initially aimed at fighting terrorism, in a short-run, has been transformed into a very effective instrument for combating – and possibly annihilating – everything considered not "orthodox" in the Russian Federation;

according to the legal definition of "extremism" as modified by the Russian Federation in 2006, the "incitement to religious discord" is put on the same level as violence and incitement to hatred. The OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has often condemned the "state-sponsored persecution campaign" against Jehovah's Witnesses, initiated in the 1990s and made of searches, vandalism attacks, confiscations and raids, in addition to criminal investigations;

according to Human Rights Watch, the Yarovaya law is "an attack on freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to privacy";

the representatives of the Protestant community in Russia called it "unconstitutional" and warned against the risk that the new measures would create "the basis for the mass persecution of believers" as in Soviet times –:

if he is aware of the facts described in the introduction and what his intentions are with regard to the subject matter; what initiatives he intends to put in place - and when - to stop persecution and violence and to re-establish guarantees to protect the human rights of those who profess religions other than the Orthodox one in the Russian Federation;

what initiatives he intends to undertake, also towards the Government of the Russian Federation, in order to obtain information and assurances about the respect for religious freedom and freedom of thought of non-majority faiths;

what initiatives he intends to undertake, at European level, for the Union to take an active part in re-establishing full protection of the rights of Jehovah's citizens and the citizens living in the Russian Federation.

Unfortunately, the odyssey of Jehovah's Witnesses is not an isolated fact, so much so that in this same period the organizations for the defense of rights report to the international community that even the faithful of other Russian religious groups are being harassed, unworthy of a country that should be a civil one.

For example, the online newspaper New Europe, titled in a February 27 article “Concerns grow on the legal lot of the incarcerated Russian Scientologist”. Apparently, Ivan Matsitsky would have been jailed for 18 months under the application of the infamous Yarovaya law. Although the terms for preventive detention have largely passed, the man, with a clean criminal record and never involved in violent activities, is held in prison, no one knows under what conditions.

Human rights activists of HRWF (Human Rights Without Frontiers) report that when the terms of detention expired, the FSB would falsify documents to avoid his release and that "the three appeal judges who reviewed the case on December 6, 2018, ‘are afraid’ of the FSB, feared successor of the Soviet KGB ".

The residual mentality of the recent Soviet past (next November runs the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall) does not seem to be the only ingredient of this culture of intolerance. Although it is known that the Orthodox Church exerts pressure on the Kremlin to safeguard its supremacy in the care of the souls of the Russians, not even this seems to be the cause of the events described above.

Patricia DuvalAs well illustrated by Patricia Duval, member of the Scientific Committee of FOB, in her recent article “The concept of spiritual security and the rights of religious minorities”, “The responsibility for the growing religious tensions that then culminated in the adoption of the 1997 law are largely attributable to the Russian anti-cult movement, in particular to its leader Aleksandr Dvorkin. Indeed, he is credited with the popularity of the neologism "totalitarian cults", used against peaceful religious minorities. Aleksandr Dvorkin is the vice president of FECRIS and president of the association Saint Irenaeus of the Lyons Center for Religious Studies, founded in 1993 with the blessing of the patriarch of Moscow and of Russia, Alexey II ”.

The details of this worrying statement are provided in the long article of Duval and a quick search on the web it is sufficient to confirm them, if you have the foresight to overcome the first two or three apologetic results provided by Google.

For the outsiders, the acronym FECRIS stands for European Federation of Centers for Research and Information on Cults and Sects, a controversial association based in Marseille.  Although it enjoys consultative status with the Council of Europe, FECRIS has always been funded by the French government, which would make it incompatible with this accreditation. They have representatives in dozens of countries, and in Italy are connected to it two small associations named FAVIS (Rimini) and CeSAP (Noci di Bari), mainly active on the media in spreading the alleged "cults alarm".

Those who do not deal with these events and have no direct experience of the gravity of the situation may think that this can only happen in Russia because of its recent totalitarian past that still affects sectors of society, at least in terms of human rights, civil freedoms, police reminiscences and a justice partially subject to old Soviet logic. But Russia is not the only country with limited or fictitious democracy that gives life to these medieval-style persecutions. The example of today's China is even more macroscopic, we have repeatedly denounced it almost in chorus with numerous other bodies and associations that deal with human rights.

In addition to the numerous articles, our President's call to the Italian Minister of Economy, Mr. Giovanni Tria is still available on our website. Last Summer he was preparing to visit that country to discuss economic issues. At the time we reminded him that "Academic sources estimate that 1.5 million Chinese people are detained in fields of "transformation through education" because of their religious beliefs, including Muslims of Uyghur ethnic and other ethnic groups, Tibetan Buddhists, Christian of various denominations and members of new religious movements classified as "heterodox teachings" (xie jiao) and defamed with persistent fake news campaigns, including the Church of Almighty God and the Falun Gong. Numerous non-governmental organizations have documented mass arrests, extra judicial executions, torture. Even in religious communities controlled by the government, religion is treated like pornography, in the sense that every religious activity, including simple access to places of worship, is forbidden to minors.

Only a few months went by, but the news tell us that the situation of unaccepted religious believers (those not admitted by the Chinese Communist Party) has become increasingly tragic and speaks of deaths, organs explants, torture, disappearances, re-education camps.

To the point that FOB, pressed by the requests for help of Chinese believers refugees in the West, has started an urgent petition addressed to the President of the People's Republic of China "For the respect of all religions and for the protection of freedom of belief in the People's Republic of China".

The petition is still ongoing and there are over 64,000 signatures collected so far.

Also in the Chinese affair, FECRIS peeps in: on September 1, 2017 the Chinese online media www.sxgov.cn, expression of the Communist government, speaking of the "problem of cults", presented the "patron " of the French anti-sectarianism, the former Member of the French Parliament Alain Vivian, former head of MILS (Interdepartmental Mission for the Fight against Sectarianism) and creator of FECRIS, which then describes as the French example to be followed and adopted in China. It is not too surprising that the author of the article has come to mention the member of the Executive Board of FECRIS "Dr. LUIGI CORVAGLIA (in capitals in the original) director of the Center for Psychological Abuse Studies "(editor's note: CeSAP). The article is a long and enthusiastic description of the activities and of the main associations linked to FECRIS and it calls for "international collaboration for effective prevention and fight against cults".

Russia and China are macroscopic examples, both in demographic and geopolitical terms, but there are many other nations in the world in this third millennium where hatred towards religions reaches excesses often worthy of the darkest centuries. Also in the Western civilization, even though less conspicuous and less bloody, but equally pernicious, the mechanism of instigation to hatred and religious intolerance is daily at work. It is no coincidence that the network of "anti-cult" instigators has developed and thrived right in the heart of old Europe. We already said it in June 2017 when we published the article “The erosion of people's rights in Russia starts from Europe”.

In countries where humanism, renaissance and enlightenment have been lacking and where totalitarianisms are still a living reality or a too recent one, it is likely that the lethal union that leads to religious hatred comes into existence. A poorly enlightened government, influenced by a state hegemonic clergy, driven by anti-cult groups and a press enslaved by partisan interests, can give rise to true religious persecutions that should be part of ancient history.

This is why in other countries, for example in Italy, campaigns of hatred against religious groups, once intolerance is generated thanks to the spreading of more or less unfounded alarms, are able to give rise to episodes of discrimination, although the actual discrimination does not manifest itself with physical violence that elsewhere is the norm. The persecution manifests itself through continuous harassment, groundless lawsuits and limitations of civil rights.

It should be remembered that even Western Europe has freed itself from totalitarianism just over seventy years ago. Even less, if we think that the circular letter against the Pentecostals of the Fascist minister Buffarini Guidi remained in force in the republican Italy for almost three decades after the fall of the regime. Moreover, in the “Bel Paese” – only example in the Western world – religious affairs are still today assigned to the Ministry of the Interior, as if it were matters of public security. Not surprisingly, in 2006, the then Chief of the Police Gianni de Gennaro established an anachronistic "religious police", i.e. the Anti-Cult Squad (SAS), which, not by chance, has among its  collaborators the Italian correspondents of the FECRIS (FAVIS and CeSAP) and the Catholic "anti-cult" priest and exorcist Don Aldo Buonaiuto.

It's time for culture to change. Governments, institutions and the media should take the correct information from qualified sources, not from apostates or instigators of hatred and intolerance. Information on religious issues must be seriously evaluated, mediated by academics and scholars who are competent and free from prejudices.

Because a society where freedom to believe (and not to believe or to change belief) is missing, it is a society in which the other rights are unlikely to be achieved.