Judges find that arguments that Scientology is not a religion are unpersuasive, and its literature is not “extremist.”
by Massimo Introvigne
It is becoming almost a mathematical law. Every time Russia crosses swords with Scientology at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Russia loses. In 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2014 the ECHR repeatedly ruled that Scientology had been recognized as a religion (until 2014) in Russia and cannot be banned nor denied registration in Russian republics or cities. This year, the ECHR ruled against Russia for its detention and harassment of a Scientologist, Vladimir Leonidovich Kuropyatnik. Scientology has won every single case at the ECHR where it has complained that its religious liberty has been infringed in Russia.
The ECHR ruling of December 14, 2021, Church of Scientology of Moscow and Others v. Russia, which decided together three separate complaints by Scientologists and their organizations, is however the most comprehensive examination of the issue by the Strasbourg judges to date.
The decision discusses two separate issues, whether Scientology literature can be banned as “extremist,” and whether Scientology organizations can be denied registration as religious and dissolved in Russia based on the argument that Scientology is not a religion. To both questions, the ECHR answered in the negative.
On the first issues, the ECHR noted that books by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, were deemed “extremist” and banned on the basis of the analyses of “experts” whose credentials were as “linguist psychologists,” and which exhibited obvious anti-cult prejudices. Expert reports by scholars of religion submitted by Scientology were declared not admissible.
The “experts” of the prosecution applied to Scientology a definition of “extremism” that the ECHR had already found objectionable in cases regarding the Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses. These “experts” stated that any religion that claims to be superior to others and tries to convert members of other religions, incites religious dissent and hatred against other religious organizations, and is thus “extremist.” Hidden in this definition is the idea that any religion that tries to convert members of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), thus implicitly arguing that its beliefs are superior to those of the ROC, should not be allowed to operate in Russia, a theory and practice that the ECHR has recently declared incompatible with freedom of religion in two cases decided on November 23 where it ruled in favor of the ISKCON, the Hare Krishna Movement, and the Unification Church.
In fact, all religions, including the ROC, argue that their teachings are superior to those of other religions and, if the Russian definitions were applied fairly, should all be banned as “extremist” in Russia. The ECHR told Russia that freedom of religion and of expression can be limited by national concepts of security “only on an exceptional basis and in extreme cases,” when religious literature includes “a direct or indirect call to violence or as a justification of violence, hatred or intolerance.” The ECHR did not find such violent content in Scientology literature (including when it deals with “suppressive persons”), and was skeptical about the competence of the Russian “experts” who had concluded otherwise.
Once again, Russia was lectured on the need that it should accept religious pluralism and proselytization of ROC members by other religions. Majority “religious groups, the ECHR said, cannot reasonably expect to be exempt from all criticism; they must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs and even the propagation by others of doctrines hostile to their faith.” As for Scientology literature, “There is no evidence before the Court that the impugned texts insulted, held up to ridicule or slandered persons outside the Scientology community; nor that they used abusive terms in respect of them or of matters regarded as sacred by them.”
Concerning the registration of Scientology organizations, the ECHR noted that until 2014 Russian courts agreed that Scientology was a religion, although one accused of “religious extremism.” Registration was denied based on technicalities, with the obvious intent to prevent Scientology from operating legally in Russia. When in 2013 Scientology asked the Justice Department for instructions how to prepare its applications for registration in a way that would avoid the technical objections raised, it was told that its violations were “irreparable,” that it would never be registered as a religious organization, and that it should voluntarily dissolve. The Church of Scientology of Moscow was then dissolved by the Moscow City Court in 2015, with the Supreme Court upholding the decision in 2016.
The ECHR noted that, while until 2014 Russian courts regarded Scientology as a religion (although one they did not like), from 2014 the Justice Department and the courts relied, in addition to expert reports declaring Scientology extremist, on a report of 2013 of the Committee of Experts on Religion of the same Justice Department, which had concluded that Scientology is not a religion. Although this is not mentioned in the ECHR decision, this so-called Committee of Experts was an active promoter of the anti-cult ideology, and the notorious anti-cultist Alexander Dvorkin was a main force in the committee.
The ECHR found the Russian attitude contradictory. “The applicant church had been officially recognized as a religious organization since 1994, the ECHR wrote, its religious nature was not challenged for several years even after initial unsuccessful attempts to re-register between 1998 and 2000s… During the entire period of its lawful existence the applicant church and individual members had never been found responsible for any criminal offence or dangerous conduct. There is no evidence that the nature of the applicant church’s activities has changed since that time. The authorities grounded their conclusion in this respect on an expert opinion prepared by an expert panel at the Justice Department. It does not seem that they took into account any alternative expert opinions, in particular, those which could be provided by the applicant church.”
The ECHR concluded that the dissolution of the Church of Scientology of Moscow was an illegitimate and “disproportionate” measure.
Russia keeps losing key cases on religious liberty against groups Dvorkin and the anti-cult movement call “cults,” including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Hare Krishna movement, the Unification Church, and Scientology. In 2015, Russia passed a law authorizing its non-compliance with ECHR decisions, opening a dispute with the Council of Europe that has not been settled to-date. It is, accordingly, not certain that Russia will follow the ECHR and recognize to Scientologists their rights to religious freedom. That they are entitled to them is, however, a solemn affirmation by European judges, and one other countries should also take note of.
Correction December 24, 2021: Alexander Dvorkin kindly pointed out to us that the 2013 opinion mentioned in the ECHR decision was not by the Committee of Experts on Religion of the Federal Ministry of Justice but by the Committee of Experts of the Moscow City Department of Justice, of which Dvorkin was not a member. He states, however, that he fully agrees with the Moscow opinion.