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RUSSIA: Controversial figure heads the new "Commission on Religion"

Alexander Dvorkin heads the new commission on religion


On 3 April, Alexander Dvorkin, the Russian priest most famous for the defamation of religious groups not belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox faith, was elected Chairman of the Justice Department’s “Commission for the Implementation of State Expertise on Religious Science”, reports Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. This committee had been officially founded a month earlier on 3 March. Dvorkin, a US citizen and according to some reports a 1983 graduate of Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood/New York, is a self-avowed specialist on the cults. He is known for the broken glass and other acts of vandalism committed against religious buildings following in the wake of his public appearances across Russia.

The result of his election was a vociferous and immediate outcry from academic experts on religion and others acknowledging the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of Russian society. Citing Russian literature, the religion expert Michael Sitnikov compared Dvorkin’s election to “authorising the donkey to guard the vegetable patch”.

This commission has replaced an earlier government one of academic experts created in June 1998 to advise it on issues of religion. This committee, which prided itself in its doctrinal neutrality, had played a role in blocking the registration of business interests attempting to enter the market under the guise of a religious organisation. Yet only this new committee operating under auspices of the Justice Department will have extensive powers to introduce and enforce legislation on religious organisations. The sociologist Sergey Filatov concluded: “The state now gets to answer for all the hate and slander spouting forth from Dvorkin.”

Russia‘s Minister of Justice since May 2008 is the lawyer Alexander Konovalov (born 1968), described by some as an Orthodox monk. He is in any case a devoted follower of the 1955-born Dvorkin and was obviously responsible for bringing his former teacher into the Department of Justice. One Commission Vice-Chairman is Roman Silantev, known for his rude insults directed at Russia’s 20 million Muslims. Another Commission member is the journalist Yevgeny Mukhatarov, who – along with Dvorkin – has frequently attacked Pentecostals and Charismatics. One particularly prominent member is the official chief ideologist of the ruling “United Russia” party: Ivan Demidov. Demidov, also a well-known TV showman, is a supporter of the anti-democratic ideology of “Neo-Eurasianism”. Only one member of the original academic committee remains. Roman Lunkin, a Research Fellow for the Russian Academy of Sciences, describes the Ministry of Justice as “on the warpath”. The Justice Minister has replaced the original commission of academic experts with an “Orthodox fighting brigade” of non-experts.

The Response of the Non-Orthodox

In an interview with the dissident Orthodox “Portal-Credo” news service, Yuri Sipko, President of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB), reacted with despair. He decried the inability of the Russian state to defend its own legislation and asked: “To whom are we to turn if even our Constitutional Court is not concerned about defending the Constitution?” He cited humour as perhaps the most appropriate response to current developments. According to him, the government has been involved in a concerted, long-term effort to greatly restrict the freedom of religion in Russia.

His deputy, Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, the RUECB’s Director for External Church Relations, was more optimistic. He – as Michael Sitnikov had also noted – believes that not all government ministries need to follow the strange leading of its Ministry of Justice. “Maybe this has only been a big mistake,” Vlasenko added. “We are not alone in our opposition and we hope the new commission will be expanded to include the voices of Protestants and other faith communities representing the full breadth of Russian religious life.” The Baptist also is concerned about spiritual ramifications. “I fear for the witness of the Russian Orthodox Church. A Christian inquisition would be much more damaging to our testimony than the atheistic one of old could ever have been.”

Perhaps the most convincing Protestant argument was stated by Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith”. As a member of Dmitry Medvedev’s “Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations”, he is known to defend Protestant causes by appealing to patriotism. He accuses Dvorkin, who spent the 20 years prior to 1990 in the US, of importing discord and destabilisation to Russia. “Freedom of conscience and human rights are matters of national interest affecting the security of the Russian Federation. When destabilisation occurs, the state is thereby also destabilised, for it affects millions of citizens.” Essentially, both Ryakhovsky and Dvorkin accuse each other of being American.

Ravil Gaynetdin (Kazan), the Grand Mufti of Russia, reported that the new commission will, due to its lack of an academic expert on Islam or any claim to objectivity, be without any use or authority for the Muslims of Russia. He added: “In view of its scandalous aura, I will not bother to comment further on this organ of government.”

If Russian courts cannot be expected to act impartially, Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights can reckon with an even greater backlog of cases stemming from further east. Moscow’s “Slavic Centre for Law and Justice” has already begun to re-create the commission of experts on religion disenfranchised by the Department of Justice. The Centre has close institutional ties with the Strasbourg-based “European Centre for Law and Justice”. Both are affiliates of the Washington/D.C.-based “American Center for Law and Justice”. Roman Lunkin reports that the Justice Department is setting its sights initially on Moscow’s “Russian Bible Society”, which it accuses of being a non-religious organisation. Though largely Protestant in orientation, the Society avidly distributes the officially-canonized Orthodox version of the Holy Scriptures.

Why do many of the younger players in Russian politics go to such lengths to antagonise the non-Orthodox? The political scientist Anastasia Mitrofanova points out that many of them grew up in secular households with ties to the communist party and were brought up to think dogmatically in terms of black-and-white. Not converted to Christianity and baptised until their adult years, fresh converts such as these tend to be “more papist than the Pope”.


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