by Massimo Introvigne
On July 17, 2020, the USCIRF, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, unveiled a new document, whose title is “The Anti-cult Movement and Religious Regulation in Russia and the Former Soviet Union.” The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Its Commissioners are appointed by the President and by Congressional leaders of both political parties.
The title may indicate that the document does not concern China, and in fact its main focus is Russia. However, there are three important connections between the new USCIRF report and China.
First, the report offers a detailed and accurate analysis of the activities of Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian activist who has led for almost thirty years campaigns against religious movements he has labeled as “cults.” As the report documents, he has been instrumental in preparing the repression of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, and has attacked many other religious minorities. The USCIRF asks the government of the United States to “publicly censure Alexander Dvorkin and [his organization], the Saint Irenaeus of Lyon Information-Consultation Center (SILIC), for their ongoing disinformation campaign against religious minorities.”
The report mentions Dvorkin’s activities outside of Russia. Although this part of his “disinformation campaigns” is not mentioned by the USCIRF, Dvorkin has regularly supported the CCP in its repression of movements labeled as xie jiao. Dvorkin went repeatedly to China and Hong Kong to offer his support to the persecution of Falun Gong, to deny that the CCP is harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, and to applaud the repression of The Church of Almighty God. In turn, the CCP has supported Dvorkin’s campaigns against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, and “imported” them to China. While the CCP has introduced Dvorkin as an authoritative “Russian expert in sect studies,” the USCIRF report exposes him as a pseudo-expert “relying on discredited theories” and promoting religious intolerance and discrimination.
Second, Dvorkin, as the USCIRF report notes, has been active internationally as vice-president of a transnational anti-cult organization known as FECRIS, the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism. FECRIS is also notorious for the support several of its members, in addition to Dvorkin, have offered to the CCP’s persecution of Falun Gong in China. In turn, the CCP’s Anti-xie-jiao association has advertised and republished reports by the FECRIS against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups. The more one investigates, the more one discovers a two-way relationship between FECRIS (and Dvorkin) and Chinese organizations who promote and justify the bloody persecution of Falun Gong, The Church of Almighty God, and other religious movements.
Third, the USCIRF document is an important indictment of the anti-cult ideology in general. Dvorkin, the report says, absorbed when he was in the United States, between 1977 and 1992, the ideas of an “anti-cult movement informed by pseudoscientific concepts like ‘brainwashing’ and ‘mind control.’” The anti-cult movement “described new religious movements as ‘fanatic’ or ‘bizarre,’ and portrayed individual members as helpless victims without their own free will or ability to save themselves. This rhetoric enabled groups to justify the forced removal of friends and relatives from the religions of their choice, and even advocated for ‘deprogramming.’” As the USCIRF notes, while “claiming to be experts in academic fields like religious studies, psychology, and sociology, [Dvorkin and the anti-cultists] are rarely qualified in any of them and often rely on discredited theories and methodologies to promote their ideological agenda.”
This is, again, important for China as well. While the persecution of movements labeled as xie jiao started in the late Ming era, the CCP has tried to justify and promote it abroad by translating xie jiao as “cults,” or “evil cults,” and claiming that the repression of the xie jiao in China is part of an international effort against “cults,” which are perceived as a problem in other countries as well. In fact, xie jiao means “heterodox teachings,” and “heterodox” in Chinese history has been interpreted both as ideologically deviant and not approved by the government in power.
Translating xie jiao as “cults” is not a mistake. The CCP hopes to be able to jump on the bandwagon of international anti-cultism, and convert those Western media that are sympathetic to the anti-cultists into supporters of its repressive campaigns against the groups it lists as xie jiao, particularly The Church of Almighty God and Falun Gong. Occasionally, this campaign was successful, although the fake news produced by the CCP against these movements are now increasingly exposed as lies by quality Western media.
But it remains true that the ideology of anti-cultism is similar to the repressive anti-xie-jiao ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Wherever the former is promoted, the CCP easily finds friends. It is, thus, very important that, for the first time, an official U.S.federal government commission exposes anti-cultism as an “ideology” based on discredited pseudo-science and aimed at “the suppression of religious liberty.”