Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Jehovah’s Witnesses Only the First Denomination Kremlin Plans to Ban, Panchenko Suggests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 4 – Aleksandr Panchenko, a St. Petersburg anthropologist who specializes in popular religion, says that the ban Moscow imposed on the Jehovah’s Witnesses was “the first complete prohibition of a completely respectable religious organization on the territory of the Russian Federation in post-Soviet times.”

            This official move is serious and has created problems for “hundreds of thousands of people,” the scholar continues. Indeed, he says, he has “the sense that in fact there exists a list of ‘harmful sects’ or ‘harmful movements’ which has been developed by someone and which the authorities are trying to drive out of Russia completely. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first.”

            Panchenko’s comments came in an interview the Meduza news agency made with him after he was dismissed from one of his academic posts, a decision the scholar says came from outside the university and appears to be the result of his support for groups the authorities want to suppress (meduza.io/feature/2018/12/03/est-oschuschenie-chto-suschestvuet-spisok-vrednyh-dvizheniy-kotorye-budut-vydavlivat-iz-rossii).

            The anthropologist says that he has many other academic positions and consequently isn’t trying to defend his own rights but rather is speaking out so that others will know what is going on and how it threatens an ever larger circle of people.

            According to Panchenko, the so-called Yarovaya packet is not the only problem. Indeed, “anti-extremist legislation existed before it” and gave the authorities enormous opportunities of misuse and abuse.  The scholar says that in his view, all of Russia’s anti-extremist laws should be “completely annulled.”

            He admits that he has no direct knowledge of a list of objectionable religious groups the authorities want to exclude from Russian society but says there are many indirect indications that suggest such a list does exist and that its composition reflects ideas that have been circulating among Soviet and now Russian officials for more than 50 years.

                “We have an anti-sectarian mythology which in a certain sense is a legacy of Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Panchenko says. “To it have been added survivals of the Western anti-cult movement which was active in the 1970s and 1980s but now has practically disappeared. Plus, there are certain uniquely Russian developments of the 1990s.”

            Russians also have “a myth about totalitarian sects which in reality do not have any basis but are quite popular in society,” Panchenko says. “Undoubtedly, many government officials are infected by this mythology given the role they have played for the special services. In addition, we have the Orthodox lobby,” and more primitive notions in the FSB and MVD who are making careers with anti-sectarian actions.

            It is impossible to say just who was involved in compiling a list of those groups the authorities most want to eliminate, the anthropologist says.  But it seems clear that it was developed not in the last several years but rather “in the second half of the 1990s.”  At that time, there was “a religious boom,” and the authorities and traditional faiths were concerned.

            That was especially the case for the Orthodox Church which was not prepared for the competition that various Christian groups. such as the Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and many others, presented by their missionary activity. Instead of changing its approach, the Orthodox Church sought the aid of the state against these threats.

            The state was concerned not only because these various religious groups had foreign roots but also because they challenged the government’s ideas about how Russians should form a single community. Moreover, it often happened that one half of a couple accepted the new and the other did not, thus creating social problems as well.

            This led to the rise of what people call the “anti-sectarian movement,” something based on completely “unscientific” ideas and myths. Some have their roots in the Soviet past, but many are “a home-grown post-Soviet invention,” with Russians using the word sect in the ways that Westerners use the word cult.

            It is impossible to say just which groups will be attacked next, Panchenko says; but “we see that even now pressure is being applied on the Scientologist church,” likely the next target. “Beyond that,” he says, “I do not know but perhaps it will involve some of the Pentecostal churches.” 

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