In Japan and South Korea, deprogramming continued for decades. In Russia and China, anti-cultism was sponsored and organized by the state.
by Massimo Introvigne
While in the West anti-cultists had to confront criticism by mainline scholars, and sometimes opened a dialogue with them, their counterparts in South Korea and Japan stuck to a crude “brainwashing” theory and to deprogramming, which in these countries was mostly practiced by conservative Protestant ministers. They combined a counter-cult theological criticism of heresies with anti-cult theories of “brainwashing.” In Japan, deprogramming was not stopped by courts of law until the seminal decision of the Tokyo High Court in the case of Unification Church member Goto Toru in 2014, who was detained against his will for more than 12 years. The advocacy in favor of Goto by the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers had an impact on the decision, which was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2015.
In South Korea, deprogramming continues to this day, despite massive street demonstrations in 2018 after a female member of the new religious movement Shincheonji, Gu Ji-In (1992–2018), was strangled to death by her father while she was trying to escape deprogrammers. South Korean Christian deprogrammers even produce propaganda videos, proposing a unique mix of secular “brainwashing” theories and sectarian criticism of “unbiblical heresies,” targeting both newly formed groups and older organizations they regard as unorthodox, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In post-Soviet Russia, anticult activities were initially promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and based on theological criticism against unwelcome competitors in a religious market that was just opening after decades of state-enforced atheism. The ROC’s criticism of the heretics, however, was largely perceived as old-fashioned and unpersuasive. It failed to effectively contain the growth of new religions coming from both Asia and the United States.
In 1992, Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian who had become an American citizen, returned to Moscow from the United States, where he had spent fifteen years, converted to Orthodox Christianity, and obtained college degrees in Theology and Medieval Studies. In the United States, Dvorkin had been exposed to the theories of the anti-cult movement. Upon his return to Russia, he sought employment with the ROC, which quickly came to see in him a man of providence, sent to modernize the dusty anticultism of the Church and make it palatable to the secular authorities.
Just one year after he had arrived in Russia, Dvorkin became the head of the newly established countercult branch of the ROC, the Saint Irenaeus of Lyon Information and Consultation Center, and a professor of Cultic Studies at the ROC University of Saint Tikhon. He started advocating for the official repression of religious organizations he accused of “stealing sheep” from the ROC, targeting in particular the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
While firmly grounded in Russian Orthodox theology, Dvorkin’s theories about the danger of the cults aimed at persuading the officially secular (but deeply indebted to the ROC for electoral and political support) Russian politicians that action should be taken against the “cults.” After 9/11, and several terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on Russian soil, the Russian Parliament passed increasingly severe laws on “extremism.” Dvorkin managed to persuade the authorities that “religious extremism” was at work even when there was no violence nor incitement to violence, and that peaceful groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses were in fact “extremists” because they advocated for the superiority of their organization over the ROC and tried to convert ROC members.
In 2009, Dvorkin was appointed head of the government’s Council of Religious Experts, with a crucial role in designating which groups should be regarded as extremist and banned. Although he occasionally embarrassed both the government and the ROC for his violent language and attacks against mainline religions such as Hinduism and Islam, which caused international problems for Russia, in 2017 Dvorkin managed to have the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned in his country as “extremist.” He also lectured in other countries, advocating similar measures.
While the main financial support of European anti-cultism had traditionally come from the French government, Russia started to court anti-cult organizations in various countries, and promoted Dvorkin as an international expert on “cults” and “extremism.” In 2009, Dvorkin was elected vice-president of the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism (FECRIS), a position he maintained until 2021. Apparently, none of the more secular European anti-cult leaders—some of them self-styled atheists—objected to having a ROC employee in this position.
In 2020, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan commission of the U.S. federal government, identified both Dvorkin and FECRIS among the main threats to the global cause of religious liberty, denouncing them for their promotion of “pseudo-scientific concepts” about “cults.” USCIRF particularly singled out Dvorkin’s and FECRIS’ role in the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Dvorkin and other European anti-cultists, including American deprogrammer Rick Ross, also visited China. There, in 1999, a new nationwide campaign had been launched to eradicate “cults” after the start of the conflict between the authorities and Falun Gong, a new religious movements based on the practice of qigong that had grown rapidly in the 1990s. Eventually, China organized the largest and best-funded anticult association in the world. In its repression of religious movements it labeled as xie jiao, it started using the Western rhetoric against “cults.”
In fact, xie jiao is a notion dating back to Fu Yi (555–639), a court scholar of the Tang dynasty who created the expression, literally meaning “heterodox teachings,” to designate Buddhism and call for its eradication. The notion of xie jiao as groups both theologically heterodox and politically subversive was used in China for the following 14 centuries, and was institutionalized as a legal concept in the late Ming period, in the 17th century. It was inherited by both Republican and Communist China, where currently the law makes being active in a xie jiao a crime, punished by Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code.
Official contemporary Chinese documents in English translate xie jiao as “cults” or “evil cults.” This is both linguistically questionable and anachronistic, considering the early historical origins of the term. Chinese Marxist scholar Zhang Xinzhang has recently suggested that xie jiao should not be translated at all into English, and left as it is as English texts normally do for qigong or kung fu. However, the Chinese government started translating xie jiao as “cults” after Chinese and Western (and Russian) anti-cultists started interacting with each other.
The translation also has political meaning and consequences. On the one hand, it enrolls Western anti-cultists among the supporters of the Chinese repression of the xie jiao. On the other hand, claiming that “cults” and xie jiao are one and the same allows the Chinese authorities to apply analogically the anti-xie-jiao article 300 to religious organizations that are not included in the official list of the xie jiao, which is periodically updated, but are indicated as “cults” by Western anti-cultists.
One example is the decision of the People’s Court of Korla City, Xinjiang, of June 30, 2020, which imposed heavy jail sentences against 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are not included in the official list of the xie jiao. Yet, the legal statute against the xie jiao, article 300, was enforced against the defendants.