Jul 16, 2018

How to tell if you’re in a cult

Sherab Wong shares telltale signs of a cult.

Melanie Chalil
July 16, 2018

PETALING JAYA, July 16 — Following the success of last year’s Malaysia Dharma Stream Forum, a forum that aimed to raise awareness on the rise of cult movements in Malaysia, organisers are back with a second edition with hopes of addressing cult issues and fostering intra-faith and inter-faith dialogues.

“There are more than 20 cults in Malaysia and we are seeing an influx of cult organisations masking as yoga or meditation centres, but have a sinister agenda,” said eastern and western metaphysics trainer and speaker Sherab Wong.

“This forum focuses on highlighting worrying issues within Buddhist organisations because the religion has been misappropriated and this is increasingly rampant,” said Durian Asean FM founder Jamaluddin Ibrahim, who organised the forum.

Wong and Jamaluddin wanted to warn the public about these dubious establishments — they believe prevention is better than cure.

“Victims tend not to speak out because they feel scared, some have depression and mental issues. There’s also shame attached to it especially women who have faced sexual violation,” Wong explained.

“These problems are never exposed in Malay and English-speaking societies and we want these issues to be highlighted,” said Jamaluddin.

He explained that on top of a lack of background checks, religious cults are relatively free to roam around as long as they don’t encroach into the official religion.

The good news is, there are ways to tell if you’ve gotten yourself involved with a cult.

Wong gave some pointers, such a charismatic leader who says only his teaching is the best and is the absolute truth.

“It’s a red flag when they don’t let you go to other centres and they try to pull you away from your family members, saying you are unique. When you are in your most fragile state, they say they are your saviour.

“What they want you to do is distance yourself from your community, so no one knows what you are doing. You start giving them money and believe this is the only way of redemption,” cautioned Wong.

Several workshops will be held at the forum throughout the day, including the future of Malaysian Buddhism, sharing sessions and how to train leaders to deal with cult issues among other pressing matters, all conducted in an informal discussion style.

The organisers also plan to launch the Integral Cult Awareness Network (iCAN), a national awareness campaign that collects data and experiences from victims.

“We hope victims will speak out, so we can find a way to help them emotionally and legally,” said Wong.

The Malaysia Dharma Stream Forum 2018 will take place on Sunday at Nexus Connexion Conference and Event Centre, Bangsar South from 8am to 6pm.

The forum will be attended by Buddhist group representatives from Malaysia and Singapore, social and religious scholars, community services providers, legal professionals, commentators, university students, media and the public.


Jul 15, 2018

Courts Are Rarely Kind to 'Brainwashed' Victims

Allison Mack in 'Smallville'
Allison Mack in 'Smallville'
Months ahead of the NXIVM sex trafficking trial, we take a look at how juries react to cults.
Sarah Berman
July 9 2018

Though we’re still months out from a trial that will test whether or not alleged cult leader Keith Raniere and former Smallville actress Allison Mack broke sex trafficking and forced labour laws, there’s an uncertain buzz surrounding the case. To an outsider the details sound pretty intense—nude photos kept as “collateral,” a dude’s initials burned into women’s skin, texts about wanting a “fuck toy slave”—but perhaps the most incomprehensible part is that so many women seemingly chose to submit and some even felt “empowered” by the group’s chilling controls.

If you ask cult researcher Janja Lalich, there are many reasons why victims of alleged crimes would think or act in strange and contradictory ways. We’ve all heard of “brainwashing”—the idea that through a mix of threats, isolation and indoctrination people can be made to do things that no free-thinking human would otherwise do. But while we’re familiar with the concept and may even feel some sympathy, court cases of the last few decades show juries are rarely kind to so-called brainwashing victims. VICE reached out to some experts to shed some light on why that is.

Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta told VICE the West’s first wave of “brainwashing” panic came in the 1950s when American soldiers captured in the Korean War reportedly came back with communist ideas. The term gained some traction as it was applied to new North American religious and political sects through the 1970s. For a short time, brainwashing expert Margaret Singer was “winning a lot of cases hand over fist,” says Lalich, who was mentored by Singer.

But the public soon turned on the concept of brainwashing, which at the time was based on new and admittedly much simpler psychological theory. Religious studies experts began giving counter-testimony arguing there was no such thing, and that brainwashing claims undermined religious freedom and free will. This set a more critical tone for decades to come.

One of the most high-profile brainwashing cases involved an heiress to a newspaper fortune who was kidnapped, confined and allegedly abused by a radical militia trying to start a revolution. Within weeks Patty Hearst joined her captors, who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, and was seen holding a machine gun during a bank robbery. Hearst’s conviction on robbery charges, according to Kent, turned out to be “the first and biggest failure of the brainwashing argument to get someone exonerated from a crime.”

Ever since, the people who study high-control groups have been trying to present the phenomenon in a way that more fully accounts for free will and our natural skepticism. “It became kind of a problem to use the concept of brainwashing in court,” Lalich told VICE. “That’s part of the reason I’ve developed this new framework in my book Bounded Choice, where we get around the brainwashing and still get a point of view across.”

Today, Lalich provides expert testimony on cults in court cases across the country, though she now talks about coercive influence—a concept that more closely resembles US laws around undue influence. Even so, she’s found that juries are inconsistent and sometimes harsh in how they judge victims (and perpetrators) who act against their own self-interest.

Modern cases vary from efforts to shut down gay conversion therapy in New Jersey to a defence of the young, abused follower of a Washington, DC sniper. In the latter case, Lee Malvo was 17 years old when he helped kill 10 people—a plot he believed would earn them $10 million in ransom to start a commune of young black orphans in Canada. He was convicted on murder charges, but avoided the death penalty thanks in part to testimony by psychologist Paul R Martin.

Lalich has testified about why the wives of a charismatic leader in El Dorado named Ulysses Roberson didn’t call police the night he murdered his four-year-old child. She’s also argued for damages in a civil case against an Arkansas Walmart distributor, which required employees to participate in bizarre New Age training exercises that included walking across hot coals. According to Lalich, victims of cult abuses tend to see more success with civil trials, as ex-Scientologists have won tens of millions.

What lessons can be taken across all these trials? For one, there’s rarely enough time in court to fully explain less obvious coercive dynamics. Kent calls the cult indoctrination process a “series of acquiescences” that gradually take away a person’s ability to meaningfully change course. Cult members often fear shunning, humiliation, and calamity if they go against the will of their leader. In some cases they’ll even defend their abusers on the stand. “You know exactly what you have to choose to stay in the group,” Lalich said. “I think that can be the issue with a jury, to get them to understand these rather complicated concepts.”

Kent says it’s clear that in all these cases, coercive influence can get a sentence mitigated, but not dismissed entirely. For someone like Allison Mack, who has been charged with serious crimes while a long-term member of a high-control group, that means she may not face a very sympathetic New York courtroom. As for the other women who may take the stand—who may not have reported alleged abuses in a timely or straightforward way—Lalich says there’s a chance. “I think women jurors tend to get it more than male jurors,” she told VICE. “And anyone who’s been in the military gets it. So surprisingly having vets on the jury can help.”

As we’ve seen with sexual assault cases, Lalich says ex-cult victims of crimes are often too embarrassed to pursue charges in the first place. “Cult people will get discouraged by others from doing that,” she told VICE. “It’s very traumatic to go through a trial, as they’re just going to trash you. Ex-members will often say screw it—I’m just going to cut my losses and get on with my life.” On top of that, lawyers are generally reluctant to take on such messy cases, which means even fewer cult abuses go to trial.

For perspective, it’s worth noting that authorities outside the United States courts tend to be more open to the concept of brainwashing and coercive influence, and prosecuting the people responsible. “They’re not hung up on religion like we are—we don’t hold religions accountable in this country like we do any other organization. Just because you’re a religious group doesn’t mean should be able to break the laws,” Lalich said. “I think most other countries take a harder line.”

With months to go before Mack and Raniere stand trial, and more charges expected, it’s still too early to speculate on how US prosecutors will present NXIVM’s alleged sex trafficking victims in court. But like other high-profile sexual abuse victims before them, we know they won’t have an easy time explaining their actions to a jury.


Watch: Jehovah's Witnesses official says to destroy records because 'Satan's coming after us'

Shawn Bartlett, the records management overseer for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, explains the organization’s new record-keeping policies during a 2017 seminar in Britain.
David Gambacorta
July 9, 2018

A Jehovah’s Witnesses official delivered an urgent message to a group of elders at a 2017 seminar in Britain: The time had come to rethink the record-keeping policies of the organization, which has come under fire for its handling of child sex abuse complaints.

Shawn Bartlett, the Witnesses’ record management overseer, explained that handwritten notes and drafts of internal documents needed to be destroyed because of the potential legal harm they posed to the organization, which has eight million followers worldwide and more than a dozen congregations in the Philadelphia area.

“The question is: Why has this come up?” Bartlett said, according to a video recording of the seminar that was leaked online earlier this year by an anonymous insider.

“Well, we know that the scene of this world is changing, and we know Satan’s coming after us, and he’s going to go for us legally. We can see by the way things are shaping up. So the organization has said, ‘We’ve run into difficulties in the past because of the records we have.'”

A judge in California fined the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, the Witnesses’ corporate nonprofit, more than $2 million last year for refusing to turn over a secretly compiled list of 775 suspected child molesters within the organization.

The Watchtower also has settled multiple lawsuits filed by former members across the country, many of whom claimed that they were sexually abused as children — and that their abusers were protected by elders who enforced the millenarian religion’s rules, like one that requires sexual assault victims to find two eyewitnesses to support their allegations.

Publicly, Watchtower leaders insist that they abhor child abuse, and don’t provide cover for predators. In the video, Bartlett never mentions the sex abuse lawsuits directly, but he explains the need for elders to be mindful of handwritten records and other files that could prove to be a liability.

At one point during the seminar, Bartlett told the attendees that they should destroy drafts of any documents in their possession. “And the reason is, is because there’s many comments that are sometimes made on drafts,” he said. “Those are the ones that get us in trouble.”

The Witnesses declined to make Bartlett available for an interview, or to discuss his comments from the video.

The footage is no longer available on YouTube. A message on the website notes that the material was removed at the request of Watchtower.


Faith-healing parents plead guilty in death of newborn twin

Sarah Elaine Mitchell, 25, and Travis Lee Mitchell, 22, the parents of a twin girl who died hours after her home birth last year with dozens of people attending from the faith-healing Followers of Christ Church pleaded guilty Monday to negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment. July 9, 2018. Beth Nakamura/Staff
Sarah Elaine Mitchell, 25, and Travis Lee Mitchell, 22,
the parents of a twin girl who died hours after her
home birth last year with dozens of people attending
from the faith-healing Followers of Christ Church
 pleaded guilty Monday to negligent homicide and
 criminal mistreatment. July 9, 2018. Beth Nakamura/Staff
Maxine Bernstein (mbernstein@oregonian.com)
The Oregonian/OregonLive
July 9, 2018

The parents of a twin girl who died hours after a home birth attended by dozens of people from the faith-healing Followers of Christ Church pleaded guilty Monday to negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment.

It marked the fifth criminal case in Clackamas County after a child's death in the church community over the last nine years but the first to end in a plea deal. The mother, Sarah Elaine Mitchell, 25, and father, Travis Lee Mitchell, 22, each were sentenced to prison for six years and eight months.

In an unusual development, the Mitchells not only acknowledged their failure to provide necessary medical care for their newborn but also said in a statement read aloud by one of their lawyers that "everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children.''

Sarah and Travis Mitchell are members of the Followers of Christ, which traces its origin to the Pentecostal movement of the late 19thcentury. Sarah Mitchell is a granddaughter of the church founder, Walter White. Her father is also named Walter White.

Sarah Mitchell's father signed the statement, which will be prominently posted inside the church for all to read, under the terms of the plea agreement.

The couple's newborn, Ginnifer, died March 5, 2017, from complications of premature birth. Her lungs appeared to be "airless'' and she suffered from acute respiratory distress syndrome, the state medical examiner found.

The guilty pleas came in a Clackamas County courtroom before more than 50 church supporters and Multnomah County Circuit Judge Eric J. Bergstrom, who who helped the parties reach a settlement.

Travis and Sarah Mitchell, dressed in black-and white-striped jail jumpsuits, sat beside each other, between their defense lawyers. They chose not to address the court when given an opportunity during the sentencing.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Bryan Brock called the outcome of the case, with the couple accepting responsibility and issuing a public statement, a "landmark resolution.''

"These are senseless and avoidable deaths, and we keep asking ourselves what will it take'' to convince others in the church to get the right medical care for their children, Brock said.

He said he hoped the message will be for church followers to "seek medical attention and prayer. They're not mutually exclusive.''

Sarah Mitchell's lawyer Stephen Houze called the couple "utterly sincere, decent, caring human beings,'' who have suffered with the loss of one of their children while separated in custody.

They have had in-jail visits with their surviving daughter, who is now 16 months old and bonding with each parent, Houze said. She remains in foster care.

The parents are accepting responsibility for their actions "knowing a price must be paid,'' Houze said.

The Mitchells' baby died in the master bedroom at the Oregon City home of Sarah Mitchell's parents. It was the same place where Sarah Mitchell's older sister Shannon Hickman delivered a premature baby boy who died eight hours after birth in September 2009.

The Mitchells each initially were charged in June 2017 with murder by neglect and two counts of first-degree criminal mistreatment, accused of withholding medical attention from both daughters.

"This was not a murder case,'' Houze said.

According to prosecutors, Sarah Mitchell learned she was pregnant on Aug. 24, 2016, through a home pregnancy test. She estimated her delivery date to be April 23, 2017.

Seven weeks before her expected delivery, her water broke about 2 a.m. on March 5 and she went into premature labor. She and her husband drove to her parents' home to deliver what they believed would be a single baby. Having never had a prenatal ultrasound, Sarah Mitchell was unaware she was pregnant with twins.

Had she had an ultrasound, it would have revealed that one of the babies hadn't turned in utero, according to prosecutors.

The first of the twins, Evylen, was born in a breech position -- bottom first, a significant potential complication -- at 2:30 p.m., weighing only 3 pounds, 8 ounces, nearly two months premature. Twenty-three minutes later, Ginnifer was born at 2:53 p.m., weighing only 3 pounds, 6 ounces.

Breathing problems persisted for both newborns but no one called 911 or took the girls to a hospital.

At 4:36 p.m., a relative texted others, asking, "R u guys hearing that the second baby is dark and they r wanting prayers?'' according to investigators.

Over four hours, Ginnifer fought for her life, trying to take oxygen into her underdeveloped lungs. At 6:05 pm., Travis Mitchell "laid on hands'' and the family took turns praying for healing as the baby continued labored breathing and changed colors.

Ginnifer died at 7 p.m. that day. "I knew she was dead when she didn't cry out anymore,'' her father said, according to court documents.

Both Sarah and Travis Mitchell admitted in interviews that their daughter's death was just like the Hickman case, Brock wrote in court papers.

A jury convicted Hickman and her husband of second-degree manslaughter and they were sentenced to six years and three months in prison for not seeking medical treatment for their son born at 32 weeks.

"The Mitchells were more knowledgeable of the risks and consequences to their newborns from having experienced the Hickman case,'' Brock wrote in court documents.

Also present at the birth were Sarah Mitchell's in-laws, three mid-wife birthing assistants and other family, including Sarah Mitchell's eldest sister, Stephanie Edwards, and her husband, Brian, as well as church members.

During seven months of pregnancy, Sarah Mitchell received no prenatal care and took no supplements, though the couple have medical insurance with Kaiser Permanente through Travis Mitchell's job. The sole extent of her preparation was reading the best-selling pregnancy primer "What to Expect When You Are Expecting.''

In contrast, the couple sought regular veterinary care, including wellness checks, medications and vaccinations, for their dog and cat, prosecutors wrote in court papers.

"We hope that this office is never again forced to prosecute parents in the Followers of Christ Church for neglecting the medical care of their children,'' the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office said in a statement. "However, we continue to stand ready to do so if the members of that congregation do not heed the call of this family.''

The couple showed no emotion in court. As each stood to be handcuffed by sheriff's deputies before they were led out of the courtroom, Travis Mitchell, a 2014 graduate of Oregon City High School, mouthed "I love you'' to his parents.

The Mitchells will get credit for the 13 months they've already been in custody and credit for good time served. They'll face three years of post-prison supervision.


The cult that's infiltrated NZ schools, campuses and churches

Former “Moonie” Jeong Myeong-seok was paroled from South Korea’s Daejeon prison in February this year, having served nine years for raping and molesting his followers.
Former “Moonie” Jeong Myeong-seok was paroled
 from South Korea’s Daejeon prison in February
 this year, having served nine years for raping and
molesting his followers.
Rosel Labone
July 15, 2018

A religious sect based on the teachings of a South Korean “messiah” and convicted sex offender has quietly infiltrated university campuses, schools and mainstream churches in New Zealand. Rosel Labone investigates.

Mark* was in his second year of a psychology degree at Victoria University in Wellington when he met Crystal in 2007. She was vivacious and outgoing; the kind of person who seemed to know everyone. Crystal was class representative, and made herself available for study-related questions. So Mark plucked up the courage to say hello. They started corresponding by email. Crystal invited him to dinner, then asked him to join her Bible study group.

Two years later, Mark was deeply involved in a religious movement with its origins in Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Reflecting on how he was drawn into the sect, he talks first about the friendships he made, the sense of camaraderie. And, as the first New Zealander evangelised, he had status in the group. When Mark was asked to move to Auckland to help recruit new members, he had to move from accommodation he shared with other sect members to stay with “secular relatives”.

“I woke up one Sunday morning at my relatives’ and just felt burnt out. I decided not to go to church that day. Then I skipped the next service. I think if I’d gone back to Wellington, I might still be involved because I’d have been surrounded by members and would have been indoctrinated every day,” he says.

“Looking back, I feel I was spiritually violated. I lost all trust in religion and I’ve never been able to go back to church – any church – since.”

Couples take part in a mass wedding ceremony in South Korea in February, 2013 – six months after the death of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon. Providence church (also known as Jesus Morning Star) is an offshoot of Moon’s “messianic” movement that has surfaced in New Zealand. Led by Jeong Myeong-seok, its beliefs – among them, that sexual intercourse with the Messiah (Jeong) allegedly cleanses Original Sin – can be traced back to Moon.

Sam* was a professional athlete when his best friend died in a car accident. In 2009, he was looking for something to fill the void after losing a couple of years “cruising through life”. Like Mark, he was first invited to dinner by a woman. She then asked him to join her at a church service in Wellington’s Cuba St.

For both young men, these innocent-sounding gatherings were the start of recruitment into Providence – also known as Jesus Morning Star and Christian Gospel Mission – led by former “Moonie” Jeong Myeong-seok.

Providence was founded in 1978 by Korean-born Jeong, now 73, known by members as “Joshua”. South Korea remains its stronghold, where it claims to have more than 100,000 followers. It also boasts of having more than 10,000 followers worldwide, including small but growing memberships in both New Zealand and Australia.

In 1999, following an investigation by South Korea broadcaster SBS that included allegations of rape, Jeong fled the country. A string of accusations followed and rape charges were filed against him in 2001. Alleged victims in Japan claimed he would initiate contact with women under the guise of performing “health checks”, then sexually assault them. In Taiwan, former Providence members told police they were ordered to have sex with Jeong to “wipe away their sins”.

In May 2007, after eight years on the run, Jeong was arrested in Beijing by Chinese police. He was extradited to Korea and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of raping four female members of the sect. The sentence was extended on appeal to 10 years. Jeong was paroled from Daejeon prison on February 18 this year; he will be monitored via an electronic ankle bracelet for seven years.

Former “Moonie” Jeong Myeong-seok was paroled from South Korea’s Daejeon prison in February this year, having served nine years for raping and molesting his followers.

Sam became friends with Mark when they were living at the Nikau Church premises on Wellington’s Cuba St (Nikau was a front for Providence). They were both 19 when they met; both are of European descent. The young woman who introduced Sam to the church later became his wife. “One minute you’re in a Bible study group – 30 lessons later, you’re part of a church,” he says.

Providence members are expected to tithe 10% of their earnings. Full-time workers often give more as their “service to God”, says Sam. Mark adds that students are expected to spend a lot of time scouting for converts – evangelising at campuses and shopping malls, and infiltrating mainstream Christian church congregations. The sect also operates behind groups such as dance classes, sports groups and modelling agencies.

Mark’s rise through the ranks resulted in him travelling to Korea and Japan in late 2009, helping evangelise English speakers in those countries.

Mark had been raised in an open Brethren family. As he progressed in his Providence studies, the contrast between the Korean sect’s beliefs and those he’d grown up with began to widen. Providence’s teachings are based on the so-called 30 lessons, or 30 principles, which state that only a Messiah – Jeong – can lead people to heaven. Female believers are taught they are brides of God and by inference, brides of Jeong.

Providence’s entry-level doctrine was “deliberately vague”, says Mark, and it was only after a number of lessons that the group started exposing him to their core beliefs. “Ten to 15 Bible studies in, you learn how Jeong was persecuted and jailed. At that point your mentality is that this guy could do no wrong... You’re encouraged not to Google. You’re told everything online is posted by people who are against [the church]… You go on what they tell you as gospel.”

Mark says that Jeong’s personal backstory – poor, disowned by his family, wrongfully accused – was used to further the teaching and make him appear more Christ-like. “They’d say, ‘Look, Jesus brought the truth and they didn’t believe him: they beat him, put him in prison. Jeong went through what Jesus went through. Can you see this is the truth?’”

Sam was raised an Anglican. Leaving a mainstream Christian faith to follow Providence meant not only “worshipping” Jeong, but also adhering to strict guidelines around study and social behaviour. There were restrictions around dating within the church, he says. Sam and the woman he was attracted to were not allowed to be together because of the group’s belief in arranged marriage. “You can only get married within the group, and it has to be approved.”
Indeed, Sam was expected to devote every waking moment to Providence, which affected his relationship with his partner. “She was in the cult from the age of 16 to 20. She now feels the church took away her youth.” In mid-2011, the couple left Providence, but the marriage unravelled in early 2017. Sam blames the stress of emerging from the sect.

Mark says the church preached no sex before marriage. “There was a Christian girl I was seeing; nothing had happened but I would sneak out to meet her. I felt so guilty; I told them about it and had to fast for a few days.” His two-hour prayer sessions moved from a 5am start to 3am. “I had to meet special conditions to get forgiveness for spending time with this girl, because in my heart I’d sinned.”

Mark was also asked to give up playing rugby, which he loved. One day, he chose to play sport rather than attend a Providence activity. He was injured, and church leaders told him it was God’s judgment for his actions.
Sam says the group systematically took control of his daily routine: “I didn’t even realise it was happening. I’d wake up at five, phone into the morning prayer sessions... work all day as an automotive technician, have an hour to myself, before going to the gym for two hours, then to sleep. Wake up and repeat.”

At university, Mark says it was common to see Providence members in class struggling to stay awake. “It was all about your mental toughness, conquering your body. People were living on very little. Some started going a bit mental, not being themselves.”

Sleep deprivation is a classic indoctrination tool because of its power to impair critical thinking, says Australian-born Peter Daley, who teaches English at a women’s university in Seoul and launched his cult-watch website JMSCult.com 13 years ago. “Providence members are pressured to get up earlier and earlier,” he told North & South.

Some parents report finding their children in trance-like states. One family interviewed by North & South said their child became psychotic due to sleep deprivation. Having been taught the phrase “Say no to food and sleep”, he went into psychosis and was twice admitted to a psychiatric ward.

Worldwide, Providence targets attractive young women, especially those already with a Christian faith. The strict dating and no sex before marriage rules don’t apply to the sect’s “spiritual brides” chosen to meet the prophet; the ultimate experience for female members is to be “purified” by having sex with Jeong.

A Providence modelling show at an American university in 2005.
A Providence modelling show at an American university in 2005.

Daley has seen sexually suggestive, Korean videos of near-naked cult members, and a video titled “cult education” where a Wellington-based member discloses her romantic love for Jeong. He says a Korean video about heaven and hell produced by the group portrays a “fascination with warped female sexuality. There are violent, graphic sexual images of what awaits women in hell [if they disobey the tenets of Providence]. In contrast, the trip to heaven is like a child’s vision... full of department stores, shoes, gold and diamonds.”

In 2013, Daley helped a female member of the Australian branch of the sect escape via an intervention. He says the experience was extremely stressful for him, the young woman and her family. “I was nervous. An intervention attempt, if unsuccessful, typically drives members deeper into the cult and further from family and friends outside the group. [Providence] usually moves members into group housing under the direction of a senior member. Once they’re in cult-controlled housing, opportunities to conduct interventions vanish.”

So far, no New Zealand members have come forward as victims of sexual abuse, but a number have travelled to Wolmyeong dong in South Korea – the cult’s base and Jeong’s birthplace. Daley says young people can be damaged by the group – with or without sexual abuse – and there are real threats of violence for some members who try to leave.

“Liz [a former member of Providence who spoke to Australian broadcasting network SBS] says she had suicidal thoughts over the stress of indoctrination and leaving. My own roommate, an Australian in Korea, suffered post-traumatic stress. She was told God would kill someone in her family if she left. I’ve had death threats and legal threats from American members: ‘You’re on a sure path to death...’ with a picture of a skull and crossbones next to a sentence, ‘This is what awaits Peter Daley.’”

Reverend Dr Carolyn Kelly works as a chaplain at the University of Auckland, where she says Providence was “recruiting under my nose”. She describes the sect’s modus operandi as “an entire faith fabric and intense friendships built on manipulation and misrepresentation of Christianity”.

Kelly became aware of Providence in 2014 after a young woman turned up at the university chapel, asking to borrow a guitar. “I got to know her a bit, and asked her about her faith. After hearing her speak about the ‘leader-pastor’ and visits to his birthplace in Korea, I remember saying to her, ‘That to me sounds like a cult.’

“In mid-2016, a student came to me and said she’d been involved in a strange Bible study via a bogus modelling school, and had noticed the same people active on the Auckland University campus. She confirmed [the young woman] was involved. I discovered she was running a ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ lunchtime group and was employed in a campus-related service, so I alerted the appropriate channels. The next time she came into the chapel, I spoke to her directly about my concerns. She didn’t deny her involvement.”
Kelly began following Providence through social media; she talked to ministers at local Presbyterian and other mainstream churches and discovered they were having a problem with Providence “recruiters” operating in their congregations.

She describes the Providence member she met as a “personable young woman” who was ostensibly studying at the university, “but I have no evidence she was studying seriously. I warned a couple of students off friendship with her. I found out later this intense friendship approach is called ‘love-bombing’. I also noticed a couple of the student women were dressing differently – behaving out of character when they were with her. The connection was with this modelling thing… I realised [Providence members] were particularly keen to befriend tall, beautiful young women.”

Kelly says the university followed up her concerns and the young woman was asked to leave. The university also issued a written warning to its student clubs saying the Providence/Morning Star/Nikau Church group used modelling schools as a front. Providence-run Kotuku Models operated in New Zealand for several years, but is now defunct. The modelling was mostly for shows put on by Providence on university campuses and other venues.

A former Providence member from Canada, Barbara, who recruited young women to be “models”, told North & South her task was “to find women who are beautiful on the outside and help them be beautiful on the inside as well”. However, she was actively discouraged from persuading less physically attractive women, including some with disabilities, to join the dance and modelling groups. She said chosen “models” from Providence’s international offshoots would visit Jeong in Korea.

Providence members have also infiltrated a Wellington high school and Victoria and Massey Universities, by presenting to assemblies and setting up dance, sports and modelling groups. In Auckland, the sect ran a dance group called Make Wings Dance for children as young as three. Social media associated with the group was used for recruitment, with special language for young members; it refers to teenagers as “shining stars” and younger children as “milky ways”. This language is consistent across Providence’s child-friendly front groups – and in their sermons – around the world. Daley says while young children are not usually being directly recruited, they are being introduced to the sect’s terminology and doctrines.

Massey University religious studies specialist Professor Peter Lineham says the “sexual element mixed with religion” is the aspect of Providence that particularly worries him. “It’s a dangerous combination. The potential for damage, especially in minors, is huge.” He notes the sect appears to be associated with sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women worldwide.

Fringe religious groups are fearful of the outside world, Lineham says, and know people will try to use the law or “strong-arm tactics” to get members out. He believes it’s highly likely Jeong was operating from behind bars – and poses a threat to the community now he’s released. He adds there may be a power struggle within the upper echelons of the sect. “Groups like this have power structures with tensions we don’t understand. I think it will be an important moment for [Providence], like Gloriavale’s Neville Cooper [Hopeful Christian] leaving prison.”
Over the months of my investigation into Providence’s New Zealand activities, I put questions to the church leadership several times. Providence declined to answer specific questions about their operations in New Zealand, their recruiting methods and leader Jeong Myeong-seok.

I approached Taiwanese-born Nikau Church leader Crystal several times for answers. In response, she sent translated material from four Korean publications and websites, questioning the testimony of Jeong’s alleged victims and claiming evidence showed the women had not been sexually assaulted. I sent Crystal’s letter and references to Dr Ji-il Tark, a professor of theology at South Korea’s Busan Presbyterian University; he’s also an expert on Korean cults. He was not familiar with any of the publications, questioned the reliability of the sources and the English translations, and said, in his view, the magazines were “promotional advertising rather than reporting”.

Sometimes, those asking questions about Providence’s activities internationally have found themselves on the receiving end of threats. I got a sense of this when I received the following email from Providence. By then, Crystal had stopped communicating with me, and news of my investigation had reached head office:
Dear Rosel, Good morning. I am Andrew Choi who is now working at CGM HQ [Christian Gospel Mission, another name for Providence]. It came to our attention that you are writing an article about Providence, with plans to have it published by a New Zealand news outlet.
It has been our experience so far that the media is not interested in reporting on truths about Providence. News were [sic] produced with the agenda to ridicule and defame the organisation, by relying on unverifiable, sensationalist claims. Journalists deliberately chose to not investigate the accuracy of these claims...and turned a blind eye to the truth…

We are very concerned that the article you are writing falls into the same category. We strongly ask that you do not write such an article and submit it for publication. The list of claims you produced to Crystal in a set of questions are extremely unfair, distorted/untruthful and they misrepresent Providence... Where the reputation of Providence is unfairly damaged, we will pursue all necessary courses of action to ensure reparations for that damage, as we have done in the past against other major media companies and journalists. This case would be no exception.

We wish you all the best.

Today, Mark works for a government agency in Auckland. Sam is a successful businessman who splits his time between New Zealand and Russia. While neither received threats of violence after leaving the sect, they asked to remain anonymous for this interview as they fear the impact on their livelihoods if their identities are revealed.

“It’s not so much a fear of being attacked or threatened legally by these guys,” Sam says via email. “I have armed guards in my business in Russia and an in-house lawyer to deal with their nonsense if needed. It’s more that I don’t want to shake people’s confidence in my ability to make sound decisions.”

Both Sam and Mark “lost their faith” as a result of their Providence experience. Their trust in people was rattled. Mark says the year that followed his 2011 departure from Providence was “the hardest time of my life. When I joined, I thought I’d found the truth, 100%. I truly believed Jesus had returned through the Providence leader. I had extreme feelings of guilt when I left. I felt like Judas, Jesus’ betrayer. And Providence teaches that people who leave the church are going to hell.

“Evangelism in Providence is very much about ‘making friends’, making people feel loved, by cooking for them – they’re excellent cooks – or giving massages to newcomers, for instance. While members may genuinely care for people, the only reason they go out of their way to be so nice is to evangelise them. As soon as they decide a person is not worth recruiting – mentally weak, too much baggage, etc – they cut them off.

“I needed Providence members around to keep me believing. When I didn’t have those members around me, I slowly came back to reality. Time heals and, although I’ve not returned to any faith, I feel I have greater empathy for people who have come through mentally traumatic situations.

“I never witnessed anything in the church that made me think the pastor was a sexual predator, and I get why members stay with the church. But I now see many different cults around the world, where the followers believe Jesus has returned in spirit and is working through their pastor... 99% are cults.”

Mark says that while he misses the “euphoric spiritual moments” of Providence, he’s found happiness in a secular life. “I’m at peace; I’ve moved on.”

Sam describes falling into a “state of depression” after leaving Providence. “The world’s a mixed-up place after something like that. I didn’t know what was real anymore. Young, vulnerable people can become dependent on [groups like Providence]. It’s not always easy to get your life back on track. I see the damage Providence caused everyone I know – mentally, in terms of their spirituality.”

For those who leave the cult, the road home is a long one. Peter Daley says the stigma of victim-blaming stops people coming forward, allowing the group to continue to operate and to manipulate people. The only remedy, he says, is to keep talking about it. “I don’t want to say some people are immune from this kind of exploitation. So many psychological tricks just work. What a lot of people are looking for are the things sects like Providence present to newcomers; they’re appealing to everyone.

“I would be wary of unsolicited invites and sudden friendships or groups that look too good to be true. These groups cast their net as widely as possible. And they’re out there: in your community, even next door.”

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.


Jehovah's Witnesses must ask permission before collecting personal data on the doorstep

Jehovah's Witnesses
Olivia Rudgard, religious affairs correspondent
July 15, 2018

Religious groups must comply with data protection laws, the European Court has warned, as it rules that Jehovah's Witnesses must ask permission before collecting personal data on the doorstep.

In a ruling made following an appeal by the Finnish arm of the religious group, the Court of Justice of the European Union said that they must gain consent from householders before collecting their data.

It comes after the Church of England told members not to distribute people's personal data in written prayer requests following the introduction of GDPR, the EU's new data privacy law, earlier this year.

The case was brought amid confusion over whether the Jehovah's Witnesses information gathering was exempt from privacy lawsbecause the data was not filed centrally and was used by a religious group in the act of door-to-door preaching.

The judgment said that the group keeps a list of people who have asked not to be contacted, known as a "refusal register", as well as "the name and addresses of persons contacted, together with information concerning their religious beliefs and their family circumstances".

The information is "collected as a memory aid and in order to be retrieved for any subsequent visit without the knowledge or consent of the persons concerned".

Religious groups can be exempt from data protection requirements when communicating with believers within their own community.

However, the court ruled that door-to-door proselytising is "directed outwards from the private setting of the members who engage in preaching" and therefore is not exempt.

It added that even though the information is not held centrally in a conventional "filing system", such as a set of databases, it is still covered by the law.

Andrew Charlesworth, of the University of Bristol law school, said the judgment showed that religious groups were "not exempt in total" from GDPR.

He said the law gave religious groups leeway to process data without having to conform to the regulations but this was limited to "current members, former members and people with regular contact."

"What the Jehovah's Witnesses are doing of course is going out and talking to random people, so that really doesn't fall within that," he added.

"When they process personal data, and particularly special categories of personal data, they are required to comply with exactly the same legal requirements as everyone else."

He added that the ruling showed that keeping records on paper instead of in structured databases on computer systems did not exempt organisations from complying with the law.

"The Court of Justice of the European Union has been increasingly inclined to tighten what a filing system is," he said.

A spokesman for the British arm of the Jehovah's Witnesses said: "The European Court of Justice has issued a judgment on what is a complex area of law.

"Jehovah’s Witnesses will analyse the decision carefully and look at how governments within the European Union interpret that judgment."

A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner's Office said the ruling applied under the previous law as well as under GDPR.

"Religious organisations and political parties must ensure that they comply with the GDPR when collecting personal data," she said.

Earlier this year there was confusion among Church of England clergy as the church issued guidance warning them that permission would be needed from someone who was to be prayed for "if the information were to be published on a website, leaflet or social media".

In response the ICO said: "If, as an organisation, you have an existing relationship with someone, for instance that person is part of your church congregation or volunteers for your sports team, you would not need their consent to use basic personal information."


EU court says Jehovah's Witnesses must comply with data privacy laws in door-to-door preaching

Foo Yun Chee
July 10, 2018

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Jehovah’s Witnesses must obtain consent from people before they take down their personal details during door-to-door preaching in order to comply with EU data privacy rules, Europe’s top court ruled on ... [July 10th].

The case arose after Finland in 2013 banned Jehovah’s Witnesses from collecting personal data during door-to-door visits.

The U.S.-based Christian denomination, which says it has more than 8 million followers worldwide, challenged the decision, saying that its preaching should be considered a personal religious activity and as such the notes taken down during such visits are also personal.

A Finnish court subsequently asked the Luxembourg-based Court of the Justice of the European Union (ECJ) for advice, which said on Tuesday that such religious activity is not covered by exemptions granted to personal activity.

“A religious community, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is a controller, jointly with its members who engage in preaching, for the processing of personal data carried out by the latter in the context of door-to-door preaching,” judges said.

“The processing of personal data carried out in the context of such activity must respect the rules of EU law on the protection of personal data.”

Under EU data protection rules, a controller determines how and why the personal data is processed.

Jehovah’s Witnesses differ from mainstream Christianity in a number of their beliefs, including rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity and opposing blood transfusions and military conscription.

(Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)


Quebec Court Evicts Hasidic Jews From Vacation Property

CJN News
July 10, 2018

A group of Hasidic Jews in the Laurentians have until July 26 to leave a residence they have been using in violation of local bylaws.

The move came after the Quebec Superior Court ordered the group out of a residential complex in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., which is situated about 100 kilometres north of Montreal.

The town sought the court order after between 30 and 60 mostly young people came to stay in some of the duplexes and triplexes on the property, as they had done for several summers.

The town said they generate excessive garbage, hold loud gatherings that disturb neighbours and use the residence as a house of worship and religious school, in defiance of local bylaws.

While the court ordered the house to be vacated as of July 8, municipal officials say they reached a deal with the residents, who have agreed to leave no later than July 26.

“We spoke to the owners and we collaborated well with them. We need to think that there are children that will need to be relocated,” Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts Mayor Denis Chalifoux told The Canadian Press. “It’s pretty much final that we’ll give them until July 26 to leave the premises.”

He said the group creates “a nuisance, there’s garbage all around the house, they go to bed at 2 a.m. and bang drums.”

Chalifoux told CP that the neighbourhood is zoned for residential use and that buildings are not permitted to be used as places of worship, dormitories or summer camps.

He said the town has sent numerous letters, warnings and citations since 2015, to try to resolve the conflict, but had no success.

In court filings, the town said the buildings in question were being used as a religious school, a place of worship and a dormitory for young people from Quebec, Ontario, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Chalifoux denied that the eviction order is based on anti-Semitism, noting that the area is home to a large Jewish population.

“The Jewish community has been here for 100 years or more,” he said. “They founded the city with us and we have a very good relationship with them.”
We don’t have any issues with the Jewish community, but these people are not obeying the regulations and the law.– Jean-Léo Legault

Neighbours complained mainly about the noise, Jean-Léo Legault, the deputy mayor of Sainte-Agathe, told Radio-Canada.

“The buildings are not well maintained,” Legault added, and they “are not supposed to be used for that (religious) purpose.”

He also denied any anti-Semitic motives.

“We don’t have any issues with the Jewish community,” Legault told Radio-Canada. “But these people are not obeying the regulations and the law.”

He said the injunction issued by the court is temporary for now, but that the town is seeking to make it permanent.

The latest conflict took place on the same street – Rue des Bouleaux – on which members of the Hasidic Lev Tahor community once lived. In 2013, some of them went to Ontario to flee Quebec child protection authorities who had been seeking to place about 120 of the community’s children in foster care, following allegations of abuse.

Eventually, the Lev Tahor members settled in Guatemala.


Call for Papers – ICSA International Conference

International Cultic Studies Association Info-Secte/Info-Cult of Montreal Submission Deadline: October 31, 2018.

Call for Papers – ICSA International Conference

Coercive Control and the Psychology of Influence across Comparative Contexts – Implications for Policy, Practice and the Criminal Justice Process
University of Salford, Greater Manchester, UK  -- July 4 – 6, 2019

The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is conducting its 2019 Annual International Conference jointly with Info-Secte/Info-Cult of Montreal and the Directorate of Psychology and Public Health and the Criminal Justice Hub and Connected Lives Diverse Realities Research Group at the University of Salford, UK, from July 4 – 6, 2019 (preconference workshops on Wednesday July 3, 2019).

The conference theme is coercive control and the psychology of influence across comparative contexts and the implications for policy, practice (across psychology, counselling, social work, public health, law and other professions) and for the criminal justice process (across jurisdictions). Papers and panels will focus on subjects such as coercive control, abuse and persuasion in domestic and familial settings, human trafficking, and gangs, and in radicalization, extremist groups, and cults/sects. The conference will also focus on community-based solutions to prevent and reduce extremism, violence, and oppression and will examine contemporary practice developments in the prevention of and exit and recovery from coercion, abuse, and extremism across a range of cultural contexts.

The conference committee is especially interested in proposals related to the conference theme. However, the committee will consider proposals on all aspects of the phenomenon of coercive control and cultic influence, including victims' perspectives, psychological and social manipulation, religious fanaticism, domestic abuse, trafficking, radicalization, terrorism, law enforcement, treatment, prevention, and legal, social, and public-policy aspects of manipulation and victimization. The conference will address the needs and interests of ICSA's four main constituencies: former group members, families, helping professionals, and researchers

ICSA is firmly committed to freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. Consistent with these values, ICSA's policy with regard to conferences has been to encourage a wide range of viewpoints. Opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICSA's directors, staff, or supporters.

Attendees and speakers at past conferences have been diverse, including academicians, researchers, helping professionals, former and current group members, families, clergy, educators, and others. Individual presenters at ICSA's annual conference will have up to 45 minutes for paper delivery and audience discussion. Panel organizers have 90 minutes for the panel and audience discussion. It is recommended that no more than three people will normally speak on a panel.

If you wish to submit a proposal for a paper or panel, complete and submit the Call for Papers form. Go here and look left for a link to the submission form: www.icsahome.com/events/callforpapers

Submission Deadline: October 31, 2018.

PO Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 34133, USA ◊ icsahome.com ◊ mail@icsamail.com ◊ PH: 1-239-514-3081 ◊ FAX: 1-305-393-8193

Wilmington psychic's future: 1 year and 1 day in prison

Esteban Parra
Delaware News Journal
July 13, 2018

A Wilmington psychic reader busted for filing false tax returns was read her future: one year and a day in prison.

Forty-year-old Candy Miller, whose business was located on Concord Pike, was sentenced Thursday on charges she filed false tax returns for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012, under reporting her total income by more than $1 million.

The unreported income was received from her clients, who were told by Miller that she was removing the negativity from their lives by anonymously donating their money to charities she had selected.

"In fact, Miller made no donations and spent all the money on personal expenses," said Kim Reeves, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wilmington. "The offense resulted in a total tax loss of $337,430."

Prosecutors presented an example in which a client of Miller's, whose annual income was about $5 million, gave more than $1.1 million to the psychic. This came after the client reported family- and business-related problems to Miller.

Following Thursday's sentencing, U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss said Miller's unreported income came from unwitting customers whom she had duped.

"My office will continue to fight against abuse of our tax system and to seek sentences that serve to act as deterrents to would-be tax cheats and those who defraud the public," Weiss said.

"We should not forget that the ultimate victims in tax fraud cases are the people of the United States; those honest taxpayers who diligently file and pay their taxes each year," said IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent-in-Charge Guy Ficco. "Miller’s sentence is a reminder that IRS-CI is working to make sure that all taxpayers file and pay their fair share of taxes."


Psychic’s future includes a year and a day in federal prison

Associated Press
July 13, 2018

WILMINGTON, Del. — A federal judge has sentenced a Delaware woman to a year and a day in prison for tax fraud related to her psychic readings business.

Forty-year-old Candy Miller was sentenced Thursday after pleading guilty in March to one count of filing a false tax return. Prosecutors dropped two other counts.

Miller admitted filing false tax returns for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012, underreporting her total income by more than $1 million.

The unreported income was received from clients who were told by Miller that she was removing the negativity from their lives by anonymously donating their money to charities she had selected.

Prosecutors say Miller instead kept all the money for herself.

Authorities say the scheme resulted in a tax loss of $337,430.


Family feud rises over remains of executed Aum Shinrikyo guru

July 9, 2018

A family dispute is brewing and concerns about renewed cult activities are growing over the cremated remains of Chizuo Matsumoto, the Aum Shinrikyo founder and convicted mass murderer who was executed on July 6.

The body of Matsumoto, who went by the name of Shoko Asahara when he masterminded a series of crimes by his followers, including the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo, was cremated in the capital on the morning of July 9.

Just before he was hanged at the Tokyo Detention House, Matsumoto requested that his remains be given to his fourth daughter, who is estranged from the cult and her family members, according to sources.

However, Matsumoto’s widow and some of his other children jointly submitted a formal letter to the Justice Ministry on July 7, requesting that they be given custody of the remains. They argued that it was “impossible” for Matsumoto “to name a particular person as a recipient (of the remains), given his mental condition.”

Meanwhile, the Public Security Intelligence Agency, an external bureau of the Justice Ministry, fears the remaining bones could end up becoming “sacred” objects of worship among cultists who never abandoned their faith in Matsumoto, despite his multiple convictions over crimes that killed 27 people in total and sickened thousands in the 1980s and 1990s.

On July 9, Taro Takimoto, attorney of the fourth daughter, said on his blog that the daughter gave the go-ahead for the cremation of her father’s body, but she “will not immediately accept the remains.”

The ministry intends to fulfill Matsumoto’s request about his remains, but it will store them at the Tokyo Detention House for the time being, taking the fourth daughter’s intentions into account.

In November 2017, the daughter held a news conference to announce she had abandoned her faith in Aum Shinrikyo and severed all ties to her family and the cult’s succeeding groups.

She also said she took legal action to prevent her parents from receiving her assets upon her death.

The cult renamed itself Aleph in 2000 and has been under surveillance by the Public Security Intelligence Agency. Aleph itself has split up.

For the release of the body of an executed prisoner, priority is given to the wishes of the death-row inmate. But if the person named refuses to accept the body, the detention house will seek family members to receive the body, starting with the spouse, then the children and the parents.

The detention house will cremate the body on the request of the recipient before the handover.


Turkish 'cult leader' Adnan Oktar detained on fraud charges

Turkish police detained a televangelist notorious for propagating conservative views while surrounded by women he refers to as his "kittens". Picture: Wikipedia
Independent OnlineAFP REPORTER
WORLD / 11 JULY 2018

Ankara, Turkey - Turkish police on Wednesday detained on fraud charges a televangelist notorious for propagating conservative views while surrounded by scantily-clad women he refers to as his "kittens".

Adnan Oktar, who also denies evolution and is regarded by critics as the leader of a cult, was detained alongside almost 80 alleged supporters on accusations of fraud, bribery and sexual assault, reports said.

Oktar is a controversial figure in Turkey who gained notoriety for his programmes on the online A9 television channel and had regularly been denounced by Turkey's religious.

He presented programmes surrounded by scantily-clad and heavily made-up women -- who appeared to have had plastic surgery -- who he dubbed "kittens".

He was taken into custody in Istanbul as part of a probe by the city's police financial crimes unit, state-run Anadolu news agency said. A total of 235 arrest warrants were issued in a major crackdown on the group.

Oktar was caught as he was trying to run away, the Istanbul public prosecutor said in a statement, quoted by the Hurriyet daily.

In raids supported by helicopter in Istanbul and three other provinces, officers have already detained 79 people, the newspaper reported.

His female companions -- the "kittens" -- are believed to be among those sought by police including 106 women in Istanbul, Ankara as well as the southern cities of Mugla and Antalya.

Oktar is a creationist who rejects the Darwinian theory of evolution and has written a 770-page book "The Atlas of Creation" under the pen name, Harun Yahya.

Oktar first came to media attention in the 1990s when he was the leader of a sect caught up in multiple sex scandals. As a result, he had faced similar criminal charges of setting up a criminal organisation.

The head of Turkey's Diyanet religious affairs agency Ali Erbas said earlier this year that Oktar had "likely lost his mental balance", prompting a war of words with the televangelist.

In February, workers from the Turkish Diyanet and Foundation Workers' Union (Diyanet-Sen) launched a legal complaint against Oktar over various allegations including insulting sacred values.

In the same month, Turkey's audiovisual authority RTUK ordered a programme presented by Oktar to cease broadcasting five times and handed down a fine because it violated gender equality and belittled women.


Russia pursues Jehovah's Witnesses as 'extremists'

Channel NewsAsia
July 11, 2018

MOSCOW: With masks and rifles, police came to Anatoly Vilitkevich's door in the early morning and made him pack a bag. He was wanted for religious extremism - as a Jehovah's Witness.

"Forget it," they told his wife, Alyona, taking away the couple's tablet devices, computers and phones. "Go and find a new phone, a new tablet and a new husband."

Vilitkevich, who lives in the industrial city of Ufa, was one of more than 20 members of the US-founded Christian movement detained across Russia in recent months. They risk up to 10 years in jail, according to Human Rights Watch.

Various groups have been targeted under a 2016 anti-extremism law. An additional 2017 Supreme Court ruling targeted the Jehovah's Witnesses specifically, ordering their dissolution in Russia.

"Officially, it's a totalitarian sect of extremists. But in fact, these are people who because of their faith are not susceptible to propaganda," said a man identified as a Russian FSB secret service officer by Radio Liberty.

"The system sees them as a threat because they are organised and independent. One day they may seek power," he told the station in an interview this year.


The Jehovah's Witnesses told AFP that 22 of their members were in jail in Russia, including a couple detained together on Jul 4.

Human Rights Watch said police threatened the Jehovah's Witnesses in raids, in some cases holding guns to people's heads.

"We don't see any reasonable explanation for it," said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a senior Jehovah's Witnesses representative in Russia.

"But we do not forget the words of Christ: 'Just as I have been persecuted, so will you be persecuted'. For us, that explains it."

Alyona Vilitkevich, 35, said investigators classed their Bible readings and prayer groups as "extremist activity".

"It is humiliating. It is unjust. We are peaceful citizens, far from any kind of extremism. But they consider us criminals," she told AFP by phone from Ufa.

"I talk to people as the constitution permits. I share with them what I have gained from the Bible as I think it can help them."


Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian denomination that originated in the United States in the late 19th century.

They have spread worldwide, seeking converts and giving out leaflets.

They say they number nearly 172,000 in Russia, an Orthodox Christian country of 144 million.

"They are close to the people, they preach and promote their religion openly, so that makes for competition and rivalry with the Russian Orthodox Church," said Maria Kravchenko, an expert at the SOVA Centre, a civil research group.

A senior Russian bishop, Hilarion Alfeyev, said Jehovah's Witnesses "destroy people's minds and destroy families".

But he insisted the prosecutions were a judicial matter, not a religious one.

"The Church generally does not call for the prosecution of heretics, sectarians or dissidents," he told television channel Russia 24 in April.

"Such a decision is made by the state, not on the basis of any doctrinal guidelines, but because the sect is engaged in extremist activities."

Kravchenko noted that the crackdown has come at a time of high tension between Russia and the West.

"Maybe this decision of the Russian authorities to ban all Jehovah's Witness organisations in Russia could be connected with this recent anti-Western trend," she told AFP.


In a report last month, Human Rights Watch accused the Russian authorities of a "sweeping campaign" of "harassment and persecution" against the movement.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses are simply peacefully exercising their right to freedom of religion," said Rachel Denber, the NGO's deputy Europe and Central Asia director.

"Authorities should stop this religious persecution of its worshippers now."

The Jehovah's Witnesses say about 200 of their members have fled from Russia to Finland and thousands more to other countries.

Anatoly Vilitkevich, 31, was held for nine days in April and then transferred to house arrest pending trial. He is not allowed to talk to journalists.

His wife Alyona said they are appealing his case at the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

"I will not renounce my faith. It is my life, my principles," she said. "I cannot live any other way."


Buddhist leader facing sexual misconduct allegations is 'embarrassed and thoroughly apologetic'

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, left, and his bride Princess Tseyang Palmo. The spiritual leader of an international Buddhist organization based in Halifax is stepping back from his duties pending the outcome of an independent investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against him.  (ANDREW VAUGHAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
July 10, 2018

HALIFAX—International Buddhist leader Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is apologizing for the “pain, confusion and anger” sweeping through the Shambhala community amid sexual misconduct allegations against the Nova Scotia-based spiritual leader.

Mipham, who has stepped back from his duties pending the outcome of a third-party investigation, said in a letter Tuesday that he takes responsibility for the pain the Buddhist community is experiencing.

“In a state of complete heartbreak, I write to you, humble, embarrassed, and thoroughly apologetic for disappointing you,” the 55-year-old guru said.

“I am committed to engaging with women and others in our community who have felt marginalized, beginning this week. I will be using this time of self-reflection to deeply listen and to better understand how the dynamics of power, gender and my actions have affected others.”

He added: “I feel tremendous regret and sadness, and I commit myself to continuing this healing.”

Mipham is the head of the religious organization, which is headquartered in Halifax.

Inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, Shambhala is one of the largest western Buddhist movements with more than 200 meditation centres around the world.

The spiritual leader’s apology comes after a former Shambhala community member, Andrea Winn, published a report last month with statements from women alleging sexual misconduct by Mipham.

In the report, multiple unnamed women accuse the him of heavy drinking and using his attendant to “procure women students for his own sexual gratification.”

The women alleged Mipham would identify a woman during a teaching session or other event, and then use his attendant to bring her to his lodgings late at night for sex.

“Women were brought to (Mipham) in the middle of the night and pushed out the door before dawn to stumble back to their beds,” a woman described in a statement included in the report.

The women said they were concerned they would face repercussions if they rejected his advances.

None of the allegations has been proven in court and no charges have been laid.

Members of the Kalapa Council, the Buddhist organization’s governing body, will also be stepping down through a “phased departure.”

The leadership council has hired Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm to investigate the allegations.

Mipham, who is often referred to as the Sakyong, was unavailable for an interview Tuesday.

In his letter, the spiritual leader shares “some of the challenges” he has gone through.

“After the passing of my father, I took on the leadership role of Shambhala at a young age, followed by my enthronement in 1995,” said Mipham, considered royalty within the Shambhala community.

“During this period, I struggled to find my way, and fumbled with unhealthy power dynamics and alcohol. I failed to recognize the pain and confusion I was creating.”

He said a group of senior students expressed concern with his drinking, and he began to realize how his actions were affecting others.

The Shambhala leader says he cut back his drinking, began running, and developed a healthier lifestyle, both physically and spiritually.

In 2005, he met a woman and they later married. They now have three daughters.

“Since then, I have consciously worked on improving my relationship to alcohol as well as trying to improve my general behaviour and my relationship to others as a teacher and as a person,” Mipham said.

The most recent allegation against Mipham detailed in the report is from August 2011.


The Japanese Death Cult's String of Futility

Aum Shinrikyo

Scott Stewart

July 10, 2018

  • From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Aum Shinrikyo launched the most ambitious weapons-of-mass-destruction program ever by a non-state actor. 
  • Despite devoting years of effort and tens of millions of dollars, the program met with only limited success. 
  • Using more readily available weapons such as guns and explosives remains far cheaper and more effective in causing mass casualties.

On July 6, Japanese authorities executed Shoko Asahara, the founder of the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult, and six of his followers, closing the book on one of the most high-profile acts of terrorism in modern Japanese history. Aum Shinrikyo is best known for the March 1995 attack in which the group released the nerve agent sarin on five different trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people and sickening hundreds of others. But the group's most infamous action was far from its first attempt to inflict mass casualties on an unsuspecting public.

Not many people are aware that before the subway assault, Aum Shinrikyo used a variety of biological and chemical agents to conduct a number of assassination attempts and other attacks. It was responsible for 20 confirmed attacks or attempts between 1990 and 1995, 13 using chemical agents and seven using biological agents. The Japanese government further suspects that Aum Shinrikyo was behind another 13 attacks that remain unsolved. In addition, there were six others that are believed to be the work of individual members or copycats. The group also reportedly executed 20 or so dissident members using VX nerve agent.

The Big Picture

Despite the hype that the potential terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons generates in the media, the production of large quantities of these deadly agents is quite difficult. Weaponizing and delivering them for an effective attack also require overcoming significant hurdles.

Aum Shinrikyo's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program even had a nuclear component. Its members attempted to purchase Soviet nuclear warheads, hired nuclear scientists and purchased a vast sheep station in Western Australia, where it apparently attempted to mine uranium. The group also used the station to carry out chemical weapons research and reportedly set up a laboratory where it used sheep to test the effectiveness of its chemical weapon recipes.

Aum Shinrikyo spent tens of millions of dollars on its WMD program, recruiting scientists and even building significant modern research facilities in Japanese industrial parks, where it produced thousands of gallons of biological and chemical agents. Under Asahara's guidance, Aum Shinrikyo created the largest non-state WMD program in history as it tried to bring about a global apocalypse. The doomsday cult's efforts thus offer many lessons, including the difficulty of applying chemical or biological weapons to deadly mass effect.

An Early Focus on Biological Agents

In its efforts to kill significant numbers of people, Aum Shinrikyo first focused on developing biological weapons. The group's scientists experimented with botulinum toxin, anthrax, cholera and Q fever. Asahara and about 40 of his followers even traveled to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in October 1992 under the guise of rendering medical aid to Ebola victims in what is thought to have been an attempt to acquire samples of the Ebola virus for use in their biological weapons program.

Between April 1990 and August 1993, Aum Shinrikyo used liquid biological agents to carry out seven large-scale attacks. Three of these attacks involved botulinum toxin and four the release of liquefied anthrax. In their first attempt at mass death, the group's members used trucks equipped with aerosol sprayers to release liquid botulinum toxin at a variety of sites including the Imperial Palace, the National Diet Building and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. They also targeted two U.S. naval bases and the Narita International Airport. Despite spraying thousands of gallons of the agent, no casualties resulted — and, in fact, nobody outside of the cult even knew the attack had taken place. Two subsequent botulinum attacks, one of which targeted the June 1993 wedding of Prince Naruhito, likewise had no effect.

After those failures, Aum Shinrikyo's scientists shifted their focus to producing liquid anthrax. By the middle of 1993, they had stockpiled enough to attempt another round of attacks. Between June and August, the group dispersed thousands of gallons of aerosolized liquid anthrax inside Tokyo, using its sprayer trucks. It also unleashed the agent using sprayers mounted on the roof of its Tokyo high-rise headquarters building. Nevertheless, the results were the same: no casualties and zero attention from the public. In fact, it was only when the group's leadership was arrested after the subway attack that a Japanese government investigation even uncovered the series of biological attacks. These investigations discovered that the group had used a strain of anthrax spores that had been weakened for vaccination purposes to create its agent.

A Shift to Chemical Weapons

In the wake of the anthrax failures, Aum Shinrikyo took another tack and began to produce chemical weapons in late 1993. Of the group's 12 confirmed chemical weapons attacks, there were four using sarin, four using VX nerve agent, three with hydrogen cyanide gas and one with phosgene. Several other suspected hydrogen cyanide attacks occurred in which neither the perpetrator nor the agent used were ever identified, and it's possible that the group was behind some or all of them.

Aum Shinrikyo was thought to have used chemical weapons beginning in late 1993 or early 1994 to target enemies such as rival cult leaders, reporters, attorneys, judges and dissident members. They were largely ineffective and involved such tactics as applying VX to doorknobs, keyholes or car door handles; spraying sarin into auto ventilation systems; or pumping phosgene through a mail slot in an apartment door. The group found more success when it began to attack people directly by squirting them with VX or injecting it into victims with a syringe.

In June 1994, the group rigged a van to disperse sarin and parked it near an apartment building where three judges it had been targeting lived. The judges were not harmed, but the release of sarin left seven dead and seriously sickened 140 others in the area. Beyond directly targeting its enemies, however, Asahara and the Aum Shinrikyo leadership had not lost sight of its larger goal: 
conducting apocalyptic mass casualty attacks. In pursuit of this objective, the group is known to have attempted at least three attacks in 1995 using improvised binary hydrogen cyanide gas devices in the Tokyo subway system. In the first attack, on May 5, 1995, sodium cyanide and sulfuric acid, which when combined give off the deadly gas, were planted in a subway restroom in separate vinyl bags. The bags were set aflame in hopes they would rupture, leaving the chemicals to combine. But setting the fire attracted attention, and the bags were discovered before they burst fully, and as a result, only four people were slightly injured. On July 4 and 5 in 1995, Aum Shikrikyo again deployed devices that used vinyl bags to separately hold acid and sodium cyanide. The second generation of devices were designed to be activated by a timer connected to a small motor. In theory, the motor's rotating blade would rupture the bags, releasing the their contents to combine. Those attempts both failed when the devices malfunctioned. No injuries resulted.

Vinyl bags had been the delivery method for its deadliest attack: The sarin gas assault in March 1995 in Tokyo. Members of the group used sharpened umbrella tips to puncture 11 sarin-filled bags on five different subway trains. Beyond the 12 dead, the attack seriously sickened 40 others and affected at least 5,500 people to some degree. The magnitude of the attack led Japanese authorities to seriously pursue Aum Shinrikyo, whose leadership was quickly rounded up. Shoko Asahara and many of the group's leaders were arrested in May 1995.

The Limits of WMD

The Aum Shinrikyo case is a good illustration of the limits of chemical and biological weapons in the hands of non-state actors. It is amazing to consider that despite the tens of millions of dollars spent and years of effort by a team of trained scientists, nobody even noticed the release of thousands of gallons of liquid botulinum toxin and anthrax in and around Tokyo in what what was perhaps the largest deployment of biological agents in history.

Aum Shinrikyo's WMD scientists worked under near ideal conditions in a first-world country with a virtually unlimited budget. The team worked in large, modern purpose-built laboratories to produce substantial quantities of biological weapons. Despite those dedicated efforts, it still could not create virulent biological agents or develop an effective dispersal method. Even when the group became frustrated with its biological weapon failures and switched to chemical nerve agents, it only succeeded in killing a handful of people.

Even today there remain some serious misconceptions about biological weapons.

Even today there remain some serious misconceptions about biological weapons. The three biggest are that they are easy to produce; that they are easy to deploy effectively; and that they always cause massive casualties. While it is certainly true that it is not difficult for bad actors to gain access to rudimentary biological agents, such as the castor oil beans (used to make ricin) seized from a jihadist suspect in Germany in June 2018, it is difficult to isolate the toxin or virulent strain of a disease. It is also far more difficult to weaponize a toxin or organism in a form that would be easy to produce in large quantities, remain deadly for a period of time and be suitable for use in an attack. Finally, using these substances in a way that will result in a mass casualty attack presents a challenge of its own.

Techniques such as gene editing might one day make it possible for a person to develop and produce an effective and virulent biological agent. But right now, the only actors capable of creating the types and quantities of weaponized biological agents required for a widespread attack are nation-states.
Synthesis, weaponization and efficient deployment in an attack also remain serious hurdles for non-state actors wishing to use chemical agents. The Islamic State conducted several chemical weapons attacks in Iraq and Syria using sulfur mustard and other agents in mortar rounds. However, the group was not able to generate a significant quantity of the agents, and their chemical weapon attacks fell more into the category of a nuisance than an effective battlefield weapon. There is a good reason that military doctrine calls for the deployment of chemical weapons in large artillery barrages in order to produce the desired effect on enemy forces.

Even though chemical and biological agents remain effective weapons for targeted assassination, they still are not as efficient at killing as a handgun. Really, the value of chemical and biological weapons is realized in the fear that comes with their use. The attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March (and the echoes of that attack this past week with two more exposures, one of them resulting in a death) with the use of Novichok, an exotic chemical nerve agent developed in the Soviet era, has caused an inordinate amount of disruption and tension between the United Kingdom and Russia.