Eye on Eurasia: Russia fears growing sects

The Russian government and leaders of Russia's four "traditional" religions -- Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism -- are combining forces to combat the growing influence of sectarian creeds. But their plans may not have the results that either side of this bargain hopes for.

On Oct. 22, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree creating a new federal registration service within the Justice Ministry. In addition to handling the registration of property, social organizations and political parties, the new body will also deal with the registration of religious groups and exercise "control" over them by ensuring that they live within the terms of their own statutes -- a clear expansion of existing registration requirements.

Also on Oct. 22, the Interreligious Council of Russia held a press conference at which various officials and religious leaders noted that as many as 5,000 sectarian groups now influence 2 percent to 5 percent of Russia's population and hence threaten the country's national security.

Putin's announcement represents a significant victory for the Russian Orthodox Church and at least a qualified defeat for the three major Muslim spiritual directorates because it almost certainly puts off into the indefinite future the possible restoration of a special government body like the one that existed in Soviet times to oversee the country's religions.

The Orthodox hierarchy has opposed the creation of such an office because its members felt that it would have the effect of reducing Orthodoxy's special status by implying that it needed to be controlled just like other faiths. Muslim leaders, on the other hand, have sought its creation both to confirm their rising status and to provide a place for the resolution of disputes among their directorates.

Now, both the Orthodox and Muslim leaderships -- together with those of Russia's main Jewish and Buddhist groups -- apparently will operate with a body that seems more likely to be concerned with denying registration to non-traditional religious groups than with direct intervention into their own affairs.

At the Oct. 22 press conference reported by ITAR-TASS, Roman Silantyev, the secretary of the Interreligious Council of Russia, explained why. Together with other speakers, Silantyev outlined both the nature of the sectarian threat to Russia's traditional religions and the reasons why state intervention against these groups is needed now.

According to Silantyev, somewhere between 200 and 5,000 religious sects operate in Russia. They are especially active in Primorskiy kray, in the Khanti-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets districts in the Russian North, in Krasnodar and Stavropol krays, and in the North Caucasus. Curiously, Silantyev reportedly said there were no sects operating in Chechnya or Ingushetia.

The largest sect in Russia, Silantyev continued, is the Jehovah's Witnesses. Other groups he suggested are increasingly active are the Scientologists, the followers of Satanists and Neo-Pentacostalists. These groups routinely "program" their followers to the point that they become social isolates, "internal emigres" within Russia and a threat to its way of life, other speakers said.

But Silantyev indicated that the most dangerous sects in Russia today are those that operate under the cover of Islam. Currently, there are "tens of thousands of so-called Wahhabis" in Russia. And despite all the efforts directed against them by the government and by the Muslim establishment, he said, they are likely to be active for the foreseeable future.

Another participant in the press conference, Oleg Stenyaev, who heads a deprogramming group, said that ethnic Russians who convert to Islam are not all that numerous but that they are particularly dangerous. Wahhabis and other extremists actively recruit them, he said, to carry out terrorist acts because "law enforcement organs are less likely to suspect those with a Slavic visage."

Other speakers at the session called for representatives of Russia's traditional religions to help the government to expose all sectarian groups but especially those who try to operate under the cover of the traditional faiths.

Such an approach is consistent with the general bureaucratization of Russian life under Putin, but just as in Soviet times, it is likely to prove counterproductive. Ever more people are likely to turn to unregistered faiths, seeing them as more genuine than those working so closely with the authorities.

On the other hand, the open use of government power against sectarian groups, while likely to be popular with many in today's Russia, almost certainly will further inflame inter-confessional and, hence, interethnic tensions in many parts of the country.

Consequently, an institution intended to rein in religious activity in Russia may have just the opposite effect, driving ever more of it underground and making it that much more difficult for the state or society to control or even regulate.