Reportedly, the Russian affiliates were quietly “expelled” or “suspended” after the war started in Ukraine. But FECRIS’ Russian and Chinese connections are not institutional only.
by Luigi Berzano (University of Torino, Italy), Boris Falikov (Moscow State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia), Willy Fautré (Human Rights Without Frontiers, Brussels, Belgium), Liudmyla Filipovich (Department of Religious Studies, Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences, Kiev, Ukraine), Massimo Introvigne (Center for Studies on New Religions, Torino, Italy), and Bernadette Rigal-Cellard (University Bordeaux-Montaigne, Bordeaux, France).
Article 1 of 7.
Last year, we published a White Paper on the anti-cult ideology and FECRIS, the European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Cults and Sects. We concluded that there are no criteria accepted by the mainline community of scholars of religion to distinguish “bad” “cults” from “good” “religions,” and that anti-cultism is just an ideology used to deny religious liberty to minority religions labeled “cults” by their opponents.
While we will not repeat here what was already included in the 2021 White Paper, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which had some consequences also inside FECRIS, and the continuing deterioration of the situation of religious liberty in China under Xi Jinping, have persuaded us that a supplemental White Paper, presented here as a series of seven articles, is needed to address a complementary issue. To what extent Western anti-cultists, including those associated with FECRIS, support the bloody repression of religious minorities in Russia and China?
Some preliminary observations and disclaimers are in order. We have read statements by individuals anti-cultists, some of them associated with FECRIS, condemning the war of aggression waged by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. FECRIS itself has published a short statement where it “joins in the condemnation of the Russian military aggression against the Ukrainian population and legitimate authorities.” We have not read anything similar condemning what the most recent report of the bipartisan and bicameral U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China described on March 31, 2022, as “the horrors the Chinese government and Communist Party perpetrate against the Chinese people,” but perhaps we missed something.
We have also noticed that the Russian organizations that are, or were, part of FECRIS, still listed as such on March 31, 2022, disappeared from the list of its member organizations on its Web site in early April. Seeking clarification, one of us (Introvigne) emailed FECRIS’ board member Luigi Corvaglia, who kindly answered on April 6 that “we [FECRIS] voted on March 8 the expulsion of CRS [Center for Religious Studies, the umbrella organization federating the Russian FECRIS affiliates].” Another FECRIS activist we contacted used the word “suspension” rather than “expulsion.”
We have no reasons to doubt the sincerity of the organizations or individuals associated with FECRIS who have condemned the Russian aggression in Ukraine. As for FECRIS itself, we await an official position, which should also address the question of the presence on its board of directors of Alexander Dvorkin, which is not only the most notorious Russian anti-cultist but, as we will demonstrate in this series of articles, one who has consistently supported the politics of the Putin regime on Ukraine.
This series of articles, however, is largely about a broader problem. We argue that the position of Russia about “cults” cannot be separated from the Russian position about civil society, dissent, and democracy in general. Decades of support by FECRIS and other anti-cultists for Russian anti-cult policy also supported its general ideology of “spiritual security.”
Similarly, the Chinese position on “xie jiao” (an expression translated by the Chinese authorities in English documents as “evil cults” but in fact meaning “heterodox teachings”) cannot be separated from the Chinese position about controlling religion and surveilling the daily life of citizens in general. Whover supports Chinese anti-xie-jiao policy supports, implicitly, its broader persecution about all forms of dissent. How this support by organizations that proclaim their love for democracy became possible is the subject matter of this White Paper.
A final disclaimer is that we are aware that not all anti-cultists are members of FECRIS. We agree that FECRIS as an organization is not responsible for statements by anti-cultists who are not affiliated with it. We know, for example, that Canadian anti-cultist Gerry Armstrong is not a member of FECRIS, and his statements do not represent FECRIS. However, articles by Armstrong appear on the official FECRIS’s web site, and he has spoken at conferences organized both by FECRIS and by its affiliates, including in Russia. Even such a bizarre character as American deprogrammer Rick Ross, whom we will mention here because of his connections with China, gets a link to his website on FECRIS’s links page.
We know, a note has been included that “FECRIS is not responsible for the contents of the following websites.” However, why would they include Ross’ website if they did not share a common ideology with him? Our purpose here is to note that the Western anti-cult movement, a broader camp than FECRIS, supports totalitarian repression of religion in Russia and China. When we will mention in the next articles anti-cultists not affiliated with FECRIS, we will direct the attention of our readers to this fact.
Two terminological precisions should be first offered. The first is that as scholars of religion we all struggle with translators who try to translate the English “cult” with the Italian and Spanish “culto,” the French “culte,” and similar words in other languages—or, vice versa, they translate the Italian “setta,” the Spanish “secta,” the French “secte,” the German “Sekte,” the Russian “секта” (sekta), and so on, as “sect” in English.
These translations may be at first sight regarded as correct, but they are substantially wrong. In contemporary English language, “cult” is a negative word, indicating an organization that manipulates and harms its followers, and whose activities are objectionable and perhaps even criminal. “Sect” is not a negative word. Several Buddhists would indicate in English that they belong to a certain “Buddhist sect,” i.e., one among the many Buddhist schools. They would strongly object if somebody would accuse them of belonging to a “Buddhist cult.”
In France there is a “Bureau central des [Central office of] cultes,” and in Italy a “Direzione generale per gli affari dei [Central Direction for the affairs of] culti,” both parts of the Ministries of Internal Affairs in the respective countries. They deal with mainline religions recognized by the governments, including the Roman Catholic Church. Both in France and in Italy, there are also official agencies keeping a watch on supposedly dangerous religious organizations called “cults” in English. However, the name used by these agencies for the targets of their surveillance is “sectes” in French and “sette” in Italian, not “cultes” or “culti.”
The unavoidable conclusion, and one reached by academic scholars decades ago, is that the English word “cult” should be translated as “setta,” “secte,” “секта,” and similar, and these words in turn should be translated into English as “cult,” not as “sect.” For the same reasons, the organizations called in English “anti-cult movements” are designated in French as “mouvements anti-sectes,” and the same, again, happens in other languages where the words designating “bad” religions are similar to “secte.”
The second terminological precision concerns the Chinese expression “xie jiao.” As we will see, how this expression is used is at the center of the anti-cult ideology prevailing in the People’s Republic of China. In official Chinese documents in English, “xie jiao” is translated as “cults” or “evil cults.” This translation is in itself political, and is used to attract the sympathies of those hostile to “cults” in democratic countries. In fact, “xie jiao” has been used since the Middle Ages, should be more correctly translated as “heterodox teachings,” and is traditionally interpreted as indicating religious movements hostile to the regime or government in power. This is different from what “cult” normally means in English.
After reading articles by Western scholars criticizing the translation of “xie jiao” as “cults,” Zhang Xinzhang, a professor at the School of Marxism of Zhejiang University regarded as an authority on “xie jiao” in China, stated that he agreed that the translations “cults” and “evil cults” should not be used. To him, these translations are misleading. He recommends not to translate “xie jiao,” and to simply transliterate it, as is normally done for qigong, kung fu, and similar. We agree, although political reasons may prevent Chinese authorities from following his suggestion.