Dec 31, 2017

Community or cult? Experts share why people join Overcomer Ministry in rural South CarolinaBy Angie Jackson and Michael 

Overcomer Ministry in Walterboro, home to around 70 residents, is where 84-year-old Ralph Gordon Stair was arrested on sex assault charges Dec. 18 while authorities searched the compound. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff
Angie Jackson and Michael Majchrowicz
Post and Courier
December 30, 2017

Sixteen years after she moved out of Overcomer Ministry's secluded Christian compound, one former follower of self-proclaimed prophet Ralph Gordon Stair has a hard time attending church services.

For another woman, wearing pants felt foreign after more than a decade of living under Stair’s dress code for the ministry, where about 70 people live on a rural commune near Walterboro as they await the return of Jesus Christ. 

And one young woman who grew up attending school at Overcomer Ministry feels she was robbed of an education. Her schooling there didn’t include science courses, and she doesn’t have a high school diploma.

Some defectors like these women say they consider Stair's group a cult, a term the 84-year-old preacher has rejected. They describe a place where residents surrender their possessions and financial assets and are largely stripped of their free thinking in exchange for rules set by Stair, who founded the ministry in the early 1980s. 

Congregants are told to cut ties with people outside the compound, a swath of farmland in the unincorporated community of Canadys. Stair's end-times message has, up until recently, reached an international following of radio listeners.

Law enforcement over the years has fielded calls from relatives of residents at Overcomer concerned about whether the ministry is a “cult,” according to Colleton County Sheriff’s Office reports. One of those calls came during a recent criminal investigation into Stair, which culminated earlier this month with the preacher’s arrest.

Stair remains in jail on eight criminal charges, including three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, after multiple parishioners — girls and women — said he had sexually assaulted them in incidents dating back to 1992. The allegations bear similarities to charges leveled against Stair in 2002, when he was arrested on two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery. 

Several of Stair’s accusers in the latest investigation said he would coerce them into sex acts, telling them it was “God’s will.” One woman who reported she was raped at least 35 times said Stair told her she’d “made the Man of God happy,” investigators wrote in an affidavit.

“What we thought was normal wasn’t really normal,” said Shannel Robinson, 31, who lived at Overcomer as a child with her family until 2001 and was not a victim of sexual abuse. “He didn't (kill) us with Kool-Aid, but it was probably the same thing.”

Educators who study cults and similar groups say there are likely thousands of religious and political sects in the United States, though an exact count is impossible because many such groups are small and not widely known.

Janja Lalich, professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, said a cult begins with a charismatic leader who trumpets a transcendent belief system and a “recipe for change.”

“They tell you exactly how you need to change in order to be on the path to salvation, resolution or whatever it may be,” she said.

Lalich said sexual exploitation is prevalent among cults.

“The cult leaders thrive on money, sex or power, or a combination of all three,” she said. “Sex is, of course, a very deep and intimate way of controlling someone.”

At Overcomer Ministry, Stair is accused of committing some of his alleged crimes before scores of witnesses. His accusers told investigators he groped underage girls from the pulpit while on camera, and a video posted to YouTube earlier this year showed Stair touching a 12-year-old girl’s breast during a worship service. In other cases, women said alleged assaults occurred as Stair strolled the grounds of the compound in broad daylight.

Gisele Bennett, who worked at the ministry as a teacher before leaving Overcomer in 2001, said she tried to look out for young women. Once, Bennett said, she confronted Stair about his conduct and was brushed off.

“I said, ‘Hey y’all, he’s messing around with these women on his farm who don’t wanna be messed with, these single women,’ ’’ Bennett said. “He said I had the devil in me.”

Steve Eichel, a psychologist in Delaware and president of the International Cultic Studies Association, a nonprofit based in Florida, said it’s common for cults to teach adherents to bury and reframe their doubts, a practice known as "thought stopping," because questioning the leader is viewed as “a demonic or satanic or an evil thing to do.”

For these reasons, it’s difficult for deeply indoctrinated followers to speak out or leave in light of perceived misconduct, said Eichel, who is familiar with Stair’s ministry. Additionally, there are what he calls “exit costs.”

“In a group like Stair’s, for example, you've got whole families involved, so to leave may very well mean losing your family,” he said. “That’s a pretty serious cost.”

Bill Goldberg, a clinical social worker in New Jersey, has also tried to understand why members of cults fail to intervene when they witness wrongdoings. He and his wife specialize in working with individuals who have defected from cults.

Speaking generally, Goldberg said a majority of these types of defectors have what he calls “unconscious doubts.”

“Every former cult member I’ve worked with has told me they had doubts when in the group that they learned to suppress,” he said.

Often, Goldberg said, members of cults become fixated with idealism and desire a deeper connection with the group leader who touts a “direct relationship with God or the truth.”

This was the case for Laura Johnston Kohl of San Diego, who was part of the Peoples Temple for most of the 1970s. The sociopolitical cult was headed by Jim Jones, who infamously compelled more than 900 followers to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid at his South American compound, popularly known as Jonestown, in Guyana in 1978.

“Who could even believe it when it happened?” said Kohl, 70, who was not at the settlement when the suicides occurred. “It just kind of stopped the world.”

Jonestown historians, academics and former members alike say Jones was a master manipulator who used charisma and coercive sex to control those who felt obligated to him.

From Kohl's perspective, the community largely lived in peace. She relished the idea of living on a compound among diverse residents with a common goal of creating a utopia of sorts.

But it was that devotion to idealism, Kohl added, that blinded her to the larger problems in Jonestown, including the coercive tactics Jones employed to keep order.

Bennett, the former teacher at Overcomer, said she saw a similar dynamic play out at Stair's ministry. The prospect of living among fellow Christians drew her and her family to the compound. She expected people to adhere to moral principles.

“It was like we’re all Christians, we don’t have nobody lying, cheating, stealing, doing stuff like that,” she said. “We fell in love with the place.”

In breakthrough, polygamous sect members reach agreements to stay in homes on Utah-Arizona line

 Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Christine Marie Katas working with FLDS women after the home they were living in received a second eviction notice, Monday May 1, 2017.
Nate Carlisle
Salt Lake Tribune
December 26, 2017

They refused to sign agreements. They refused to pay $100 a month. They let the property taxes go unpaid. They moved from house to house to stay ahead of constables with eviction orders. Or they moved out of their community altogether rather than cooperate with the legal entity they thought was an affront to their religion and the so-called apostates working for it.

But after 12 years of impasses, members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints appear to have found a way to stay in the homes in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz.

Recently, according to people on all sides of the long dispute, FLDS members have begun submitting letters of intent saying they will live in and maintain homes owned by their former land trust, called the United Effort Plan, or UEP. The letters say the occupants also will pay the property taxes on their respective homes.

As for the $100-per-month occupancy fee for each home that has been a particular sore spot for FLDS members, UEP Executive Director Jeff Barlow said Tuesday that is being negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

For some members, the fee may be deferred permanently — going on a ledger but never to be collected. In other cases, the fees may be directed toward some project that benefits the entire community rather than go toward the administration of the UEP.

“So far, I have not had anybody contact me that we couldn’t keep them in their house,” Barlow said.

In one recent example, Barlow said, the UEP served eviction notices on 20 homes in Colorado City. Residents at 10 of those homes opened a dialogue with UEP or engaged a third-party who worked out an arrangement with the trust. Those evictions were halted, Barlow said.

Norma Richter, an FLDS member who says she has reached such an arrangement with the UEP to stay in a home, chose her words carefully Wednesday. She was adamant that the arrangement did not represent a compromise or an agreement.

Richter said “an understanding” had been reached between some FLDS members and the land trust.

“We aren’t even agreeing with them,” Richter said of the UEP. “We’ve just worked out a situation or something where they will stop the evictions.”

Richter said that earlier this month, she moved into a 13-bedroom house in Colorado City that is owned by the UEP. Twenty-three family members will live there with her when everyone is moved in, she said.

“The land still belongs to Heavenly Father,” Richter said. “I feel like if you prayerfully take care of what you have here, it’s pleasing to our father in heaven.”

Hildale and Colorado City are collectively known as Short Creek. In 1942, residents there donated land and property and created the UEP to practice a so-called fundamentalist Mormon tenet of living in a united order. The FLDS was incorporated in 1991. While technically separate legal entities, leaders of the church controlled the UEP.

In 2005, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff moved to seize the UEP out of concern that FLDS President Warren Jeffs was mismanaging it — putting people at risk of losing their homes and furthering Jeffs’ own lawbreaking. A state judge in Salt Lake City still maintains oversight of the trust, though he has given a board of trustees management authority.

FLDS members believed properties owned by the UEP had been consecrated to God and, acting on orders from Jeffs and other church leaders, refused to cooperate with a state-controlled UEP. In all but a few occasions, they eschewed the requirements to sign occupancy agreements and pay the $100 monthly management fee. Many FLDS members also let property taxes go delinquent on the parcels where they were living, though those bills were usually paid just before deadlines for any tax sales.

After a Utah Supreme Court ruling in 2014 ordered the Hildale properties subdivided, the UEP began evicting people who were behind on taxes and hadn’t signed occupancy agreements. Most of the Hildale properties have since been sold — often to former FLDS members or their family.

Earlier this year, a federal judge in Phoenix ordered the Colorado City properties subdivided. FLDS members still unwilling to work with the UEP faced the prospect of having almost no housing in Short Creek.

UEP trustees and staff, all of whom have family in the FLDS, have long said they did not want to evict people. Barlow believes the breakthrough may have come in October when the trust was poised to seize the FLDS’ meetinghouse.

When sheriff’s deputies and a locksmith arrived to serve the eviction on the Leroy S. Johnson Meetinghouse in Colorado City, an FLDS leader — Barlow has declined to say who — appeared. An agreement was reached for the FLDS to keep the meetinghouse.

“I think that the word is getting out that the board of trustees truly does want people to stay in their homes,” Barlow said.

Barlow said the arrangements between the UEP and FLDS members specify the resident responsible for maintaining the property and paying the taxes.

Some of the arrangements have been made through an intermediary — an organization called Voices For Dignity. It helps people in Short Creek — in and out of the FLDS — find housing, legal assistance, clothing and other necessities.

Christine Marie Katas, who runs the organization with her husband, said the UEP has started giving her a list of properties to be served eviction notices. She goes to the occupants in those homes and encourages them to come to an understanding with the trust.

“We are delighted to help the FLDS find ways to remain in their homes without having to violate their religious beliefs,” Katas said in a text message.

Katas said she is speaking with Barlow about extending the arrangements to commercial properties owned by the UEP, as well as buildings the FLDS members have been using as schools.

The housing dispute has coincided with hunger and poverty for FLDS members who have remained in Short Creek. Phil Jessop, who operates a food bank out of his transmission shop a few miles north of Short Creek, said the FLDS members he sees there appear to not belong to the United Order — the sect’s upper echelon. Jessop believes the leaders have largely forgotten the congregation in Short Creek.

“I do think that if they can keep their homes in Colorado City, they’re probably not in the FLDS or in the Order,” Jessop said. “They may be trying to hold on, but from what we understand, [Order members have] been instructed to move out of Colorado City.”

Still, Jessop said, anyone with permanent housing may be less reliant upon Jeffs, and that’s a good thing.

Jeffs is serving a sentence in Texas of life plus 20 years in prison for sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives.

Richter said she has not signed anything promising anything to the UEP. To reach her understanding with the trust, she said, she had to borrow money from a bank and friends to pay about $21,000 in back taxes owed on the home where she moved this month.

She then made the eight-hour round trip to Kingman, Ariz., to pay the taxes in person. Richter did not want to give the UEP the check so it could pay the bill.

Richter gave the tax receipt and her letter of intent to Voices For Dignity. Richter said she did not seek permission from FLDS leaders before reaching the understanding.

“It’s an individual reach in prayer and faith,” she said.

She doesn’t know how many other FLDS will reach such understandings. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of her fellow parishioners have already moved out of Short Creek, feeling as though the homes there have been desecrated by former FLDS members, whom current members refer to as apostates.

“But at the same time, some of us feel like we’ve got to hang on to what we have the best we can without compromising,” Richter said.

Dec 29, 2017

In Brooklyn, a Hare Krishna Reckoning

New York Times
December 22, 2017

Weekdays at Govinda’s Vegetarian Lunch, a cafeteria in the basement of Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir, the Hare Krishna temple located in the rapidly developing area of Downtown Brooklyn, is a peaceful affair. Outside, there are cranes, scaffolding and cement trucks. But inside and down a few stairs, there is faint, dulcet chanting piped through speakers. Contented diners, ranging from municipal workers to financial sector employees, sit together with plates piled full of eggplant Parmesan and chana masala.

It’s a soothing respite for Govinda regulars. “It’s been a weekly staple,” said Javiel Vazquez, who works for Consolidated Edison nearby.

The tranquil atmosphere hasn’t permeated the four floors above, however, where a fight over leadership has roiled the shrinking congregation. Prompted by a possible sale of the temple, at 295-311 Schermerhorn Street, for close to $60 million to a developer, a power struggle has pitted the temple president and his board of trustees against the leaders of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, also known as Iskcon or the Hare Krishna Society.

It’s the latest chapter in a series of sweeping changes for the Hare Krishnas in New York, many of whom have divergent views on how to adhere to the rules and tenets of what is now a large, international organization. These days the religion is more popular in India than it is in the United States, the country that nurtured and fueled the movement in the late 1960s and ‘70s. But at its most basic, the conflict also reveals how the real-world notions of financial power and political control can disrupt a religion that is supposed to embrace selflessness.

For a humble spiritual movement that was born in an East Village storefront, the Hare Krishna conflict in Brooklyn involves a lot of money, a good amount of litigation, and even, at some point, locked temple doors and private security guards.

The man who started the Hare Krishna movement in the United States, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, was part of Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement in India and later became a disciple of a prominent Hindu guru who asked him to spread his teachings to the English-speaking world. So in 1965, at the age of 69, Swami Prabhupada stowed away on a cargo ship, arriving in New York with about $7 in Indian rupees and a crate of Sanskrit texts, according to the documentary “Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All.”

Soon Swami Prabhupada found himself on the Bowery, leading workshops on the Bhagavad Gita and overseeing devotional chanting in Tompkins Square Park, where there’s now an elm tree dedicated to the religion. The idea of Krishna consciousness, that the material world is temporary and that people could attain high spiritual development through devotional service to the deity Krishna, dovetailed easily with the city’s counterculture scene, according to Burke Rochford, a religion professor at Middlebury College.

The poet Allen Ginsberg, an early devotee who attended some of the first outreach sessions in New York, told The Times in 1966 that the chanting “brings a state of ecstasy.”

Swami Prabhupada, known to his followers as Srila Prabhupada, officially founded the Hare Krishna Society that same year. Its first temple was located in a former gift shop at 26 Second Avenue in Manhattan. Early devotees were mostly white Westerners, many of whom were disillusioned with American culture as the Vietnam War bore on.

Devotees quit their jobs or dropped out of school; initially, they also gave up drugs and extramarital sex. Buoyed by the positive reaction from New Yorkers, and as donations and book sales started to bring in some money, Swami Prabhupada started to crisscross the nation to spread his teachings.

He even made hippie history in San Francisco, when members of the Hare Krishna Society organized the Mantra Rock Dance at the Avalon Ballroom in December 1967, according to the documentary. The Grateful Dead and other bands performed for free to raise money for a new Bay Area temple, with the founder as its special guest.

Celebrity Krishnas also included George Harrison. “The Vedic scriptures gave some sort of backbone to my life,” Harrison said in the film. Harrison’s first solo single after the Beatles, “My Sweet Lord,” was an ode to Krishna and a worldwide hit.

By the religion’s heyday in ’70s New York, devotees were out in full force, chanting and selling scripture at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and at area airports. The temple moved several times, first to another Second Avenue location and then to 439 Henry Street in Brooklyn. In 1975, the organization moved to 340 West 55th Street, a 11-story building, where it thrived. There was a theater, a gift shop and a hotel, with hundreds of followers living communally in the upper floors.

“The Manhattan location was so central, there were tons of people coming in and out of the building, raising money,” said Lorelee Somershein (Jambavati Devi Dasi), a Springfield Gardens, Queens, resident who used to attend services there. “It was an exciting place to be.”

In 1977, Swami Prabhupada died, and soon thereafter, the Krishnas were troubled with financial difficulties. Local leadership decided to sell the Manhattan property and splinter off into three groups, according to Jay Israel (Jayadvaita Swami), a disciple of Swami Prabhupada and the editor of many of his books. Between 1981 and 1982, one group went upstate, another to New Jersey and the third group decamped to the current temple in Downtown Brooklyn.

“We let prime Manhattan real estate go,” said Mr. Israel.

In Brooklyn, the temple attracted hundreds of people for Sunday services at first, but the congregation soon started to fracture, as did the organization at large. In 1996, a prominent leader in West Virginia, who had once run the largest Krishna community in the United States, was accused of murder and jailed for racketeering. Two years later, the Hare Krishna Society conceded that physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children occurred at its boarding schools across the country, including in Dallas, Seattle and several in India.

As the original, mostly Western members started to abandon the religion, there was an almost simultaneous uptick of new South Asian congregants. Many Hindu immigrants were attracted to the society’s temples because they were reminders of home, said Mr. Rochford, who is the author of the book “Hare Krishna Transformed.”

These days, the congregations of many American temples don’t follow the Hare Krishna Society’s tenets strictly, but rather use the temples to gather for cultural reasons, he said.

The religion, he added, is actually thriving in India. The society is currently building a $90 million facility, which includes a planetarium, in Mayapur, near the Bangladesh border, where it will serve as the new global headquarters. Alfred B. Ford, a devotee and the great-grandson of Henry Ford, donated $25 million to the project, said Geoffrey Walker (Anuttama Dasa), a spokesman for the society.

Back in New York, however, the organization is suffering from an identity crisis and a lack of vision.

Although there were between 50 and 60 devotees who lived at the Brooklyn temple in the ’80s, the number of full-time volunteers dwindled over the years. By the ’90s, many of the congregants were Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants who traveled from Queens and Long Island to the temple, which prompted the idea of building a new temple in Queens, said Heather Britten (Satya Dasi), the temple’s treasurer and the force behind Govinda’s Vegetarian Lunch.

The qualities that had once made the 93-year-old building attractive — large communal rooms and upper-floor dormitory space — now seemed outdated and unnecessary, Ms. Britten said. The income from donations, book sales and the cafe has not been enough to pay for the much-needed building repairs and utility bills.

Ms. Britten said that she believes a more modern space would benefit the community and help attract future members. Even though Downtown Brooklyn is booming, she explained, “The rent is so high in the area, there’s not a lot of people from our congregation who live around here anymore.” About 100 or so members attend Sunday services on a regular basis, she said.

The Krishnas are not the only religious order facing hard real estate decisions in New York. Many organizations, including several Catholic churches, have become key players in high-power real estate transactions. Facing dwindling attendance, churches, temples and synagogues have sold their properties to start fresh elsewhere, combine parishes or even sell their properties’ air rights to developers.

The New York State attorney general’s office, whose approval is required for most sales of religious properties in New York, received 165 sale petitions in 2016. So far this year, it has received 198, according to a spokesman. (In its review, the office, among other things, considers whether the transaction terms are fair and reasonable and if the interests of its members will be promoted by the sale.)

The temple’s president, David Britten (Ramabhadra Das), and his board twice asked the Hare Krishna Society’s ecclesiastic directors, known as the Governing Body Commission, for permission to “move the deities,” which implied a property sale — once in 1998 and again 2008. Mr. Britten and his board were given approval both times, said Seth Spellman (Sesa Das), a commission member and the head of a group tasked with halting the current sale. But a lack of interest from buyers, and then the financial crisis, held back possible deals.

As the economy and the real estate market once again gathered steam, however, it became easier for the board to find a buyer. Two years ago, congregants were shocked to discover that the temple board had signed a sales contract with a developer for $58.8 million.

Pragnesh Surti, 39, a member of the Downtown Brooklyn congregation since childhood, recalled Mr. Britten first mentioning a possible sale during a service in 2014: that the property could fetch $60 million and that it was “a sign from Krishna” that it was meant to happen. In 2015, Mr. Britten told the congregation that the New York State attorney general’s office was reviewing a sales petition. Mr. Surti recalled Mr. Britten envisioning details of the new temple with large domes and Swarovski crystals.

“Many of us,” Mr. Surti said, “were like, ‘Wait, what?’”

Congregants said they were worried as questions to the board about a temporary location went unanswered. Financial details and architectural plans were not disclosed. People wondered where in Queens land was available. Discord over the sale increased.

Many members say an existing temple, and more important, the deities that live there, cannot be moved unless there’s an urgent need, as stipulated in Swami Prabhupada’s will. It is sacrilegious, said Shakti Assouline, a 36-year-old yoga instructor and former congregant of the Brooklyn temple who said she is no longer welcome there because of her differing opinion (she prefers to raise money to renovate the building rather than sell it).

“We are in an amazing location, which serves our outreach endeavors and is conveniently located for visitors,” Ms. Assouline said.

Although the Hare Krishna Society’s Governing Body Commission had previously approved the sale, it had not been informed that a contract was signed in 2014, or that it was revised in 2015. By this time, Downtown Brooklyn was thriving; giving up the property seemed unwise. So the Commission revoked its previous approval, and in March 2016 it told Mr. Britten to stop the sale, said Mr. Spellman.

In the year that followed, commission leaders started to suspect that the Brooklyn temple board was defying its order and was continuing to push the property sale through, Mr. Spellman said. Mr. Britten declined to comment for this article.

Tensions erupted in late July 2017, when the commission tried to remove Mr. Britten from his post after decades of service. He refused to leave the temple, where he lives, or abdicate his position. Instead, he locked the temple doors for several weeks, shuttering Govinda’s as well. Although Sunday services resumed a few weeks later, congregants noticed private security personnel at the door blocking several members who had been vocally against the sale from entering the building.

The commission grew more concerned when the large Hare Krishna Society temple sign was removed from the building’s facade in August, leading some to believe that Mr. Britten was disassociating the temple from the society, said Mr. Spellman.

The tension, of course, is over which governing entity — the local temple board, led by Mr. Britten, or the global Hare Krishna Society, led by the Governing Body Commission — will have control over the millions of dollars from the property sale, if it is allowed to proceed.

As usual, when ideals and money are at odds, things get complicated.

The temple property is owned by a religious corporation called the Bharati Center Inc., which legally makes the temple board trustees the owners of 295-311 Schermerhorn Street. The Hare Krishna Society was not mentioned in the paperwork when the building was purchased in 1982, because some members of Congregation Mount Sinai, the synagogue that owned the property, had concerns over selling the building to Hare Krishnas, said Mr. Walker. The commission has allowed temples to be purchased under various names before to protect the group from potential legal action, he said. This was one of those cases.

If the sale goes forward, the commission is worried that the money will be in the hands of a temple board that no longer seems to be part of the Hare Krishna Society, so it has taken steps to wrestle back control of the temple by forming a new board of trustees, which includes Mr. Surti. But the Brittens, as well as the other board members who are supportive of the sale, continue to exist and operate.

The New York State attorney general’s office told the Bharati Center board in September that the multiple proposals it had submitted didn’t meet the legal requirements for approval and that it should find recourse in court. A date has been set for late January at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

David G. Samuels, a partner at Duval & Stachenfeld LLP and the attorney representing the society, said there is legal ground for the court not to approve the sale because it is not in the best interest of the temple congregation. Mark J. Weinstein, counsel to Mr. Britten’s temple board, declined to comment.

“A real estate transaction for religious entities can be very complex,” said Patricia C. Sandison, a senior associate at Hodgson Russ LLP, whose firm is not involved in the sale. “People identify themselves with a temple or a church, and it’s a facet of their belief, so selling that property can be very challenging.”

Nikhil Gupta (Nimai Pandit Das), a Hare Krishna follower, said a prolonged court battle should be expected. He would know, since the Hare Krishna Society has been trying to remove him, as well as other leaders of a temple in Freeport, Long Island, for 13 years.

In 2004, the commission accused the Long Island leaders, and subsequently Mr. Gupta in 2007, of not following Krishna doctrine. In court filings, the Commission said Mr. Gupta, the current temple president, was deviating from society philosophy and must therefore be removed. Mr. Gupta disputes this claim and said he has many other grievances with the commission’s governance.

In October, State Supreme Court in Nassau County ordered Mr. Gupta to vacate the temple premises, but he appealed, and has attained a stay. Mr. Gupta said he will continue his fight to remain as president of the local temple in court.

“The society’s penchant for legal battles takes away from the purity of the founder’s teachings,” Mr. Gupta said.

The fractured Brooklyn congregation has led to the formation of many smaller Hare Krishna groups. Mr. Surti said a group in New Rochelle attracts society members from Westchester, the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, while there are several in Queens, including a Bengali and Gujarati group that meets in Long Island City and Jackson Heights.

There are also splinter groups in the city. Cesar Bisono (Gopal Campu Das), 23, tried services at the Downtown Brooklyn temple, but he said he was more attracted to the purity of NYC Harinam, which he joined full time in 2015, he said. The group has 10 devotees, all in their early 20s, who live communally with their mentor in an apartment on the Lower East Side. Their daily lives revolve around chanting and conducting outreach services; they all lead a monastic lifestyle.

Mr. Bisono surmised that NYC Harinam was more akin to how the society was in the early days. “I felt more spiritually inspired by going outside,” he said of his decision not to join the Brooklyn temple. “This group was more inviting.”

Mike Ramlogan (Sunandana Das), the president of the Hare Krishna Society temple in South Richmond Hill, Queens, has been watching the Brooklyn conflict unfold from afar. He said that both sides seem to be more concerned about the money and haven’t come forth with a vision for the future.

“Would it be nice to have a big, new temple in Queens? Sure,” Mr. Ramlogan said, noting that the small space he manages can squeeze in only about 100 people during Sunday services.

“I hope the good souls, the good swamis, put the place back together again. But I’m not exactly sure who they are.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 24, 2017, on Page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Chants Can’t Drown Out the Discord.

Religion is no excuse for anti-vax nonsense

Video Shows Baby Riley's Last Moments Before he Died From Whooping Cough As Authorities Issue Outbreak Warning March 15
Peter Kurti
The Daily Telegraph
Decembef 28, 2017

ATTEMPTS by anti-vax campaigners to invoke religion as a way of dodging vaccinations for their children is an excellent example of the limits the state rightly puts on religious freedom.

Claims by the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network (AVN) that some vaccines contain “the proceeds of abortions” has been turned into a so-called ‘right’ to deny inoculation to children.

And now that some taxpayer funded childcare allowances have been stripped from parents who don’t vaccinate their kids, the AVN is claiming entitlements on the basis of religious freedom — saying that the use of vaccines containing foetal material violates the teaching of pro-life religions such as Christianity.

The Australian Medical Association has slammed the AVN’s arguments as “irrational” and “unscientific”. Vaccines protect children, says the AMA. Few would disagree.

Australia committed to upholding religious freedom when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1980.

While the ICCPR is not directly enforceable in Australia, its provisions inform various state and federal laws that are concerned with protecting individual freedoms, such as religious liberty.

But the right to religious freedom is never absolute. It can’t be used to overturn laws and policies that are directly concerned with the public good.

For example, section 18 (3) of the ICCPR explicitly allows for religious freedom to be restricted in the interests of “public safety, order, and health.”

In other words, the greater public good takes priority — and must always take priority — over the preferences and predilections of the individual religious believer.

Many ‘anti-vaxxers’ believe that diet, herbal remedies, and alternative therapies are much safer for their children than conventional vaccines — all in the face of evidence to the contrary.

The eradication of so many diseases that were at one time commonplace, and often life-threatening, is a tribute to the advances made by medical research.

Some people do react badly to vaccines; from time to time there is a so-called ‘adverse event’ which can be life-threatening. But for the most part, vaccines are safe for everyone.

No individual should ever be forced to take medication against their will. And although it involves the health and wellbeing of another individual, parents should be free to determine what kind of health care their kids receive.

But sometimes, religion and science do conflict: for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse the transfusion of all blood and blood-related products for themselves and their children.

However, when religious belief leads to conduct that threatens the health of another, or the health and wellbeing of the wider community, the state is entitled to step in and set limits.

Parents opposed to vaccines for themselves or their children should be free to make those choices — but they need to accept there are consequences of such decisions.

The state is right to forbid unvaccinated children from attending childcare centres or schools; and it is right to withhold taxpayer funded benefits when those decisions threaten public health.

Anti-vaxxers who say they are entitled to do — and receive — whatever they please, and who plead religious freedom to justify their choices, are making a mockery of the hard-won freedoms enjoyed by the rest of us.

Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and the author of The Tyranny of Tolerance: Threats to Religious Liberty in Australia.

Treated 'worse than animals': thousands of Indian women feared trapped in ashrams

Delhi authorities say thousands more women could be living in the estimated 300 properties linked to the group Adhyatmik Vishwa Vidyalaya nationwide. Photograph: David Pearson/Alamy
Nearly 250 women and 48 girls so far found confined behind gates in properties belonging to the Adhyatmik Vishwa Vidyalaya religious organisation

Michael Safi in Delhi
The Guardian
December 29, 2017

Neither the din of traffic nor the roar of aircraft from a nearby airport could blot out the screams neighbours say they regularly heard from the apartment building in west Delhi.

On Saturday, on the second floor of the unassuming complex in Mohan Garden, authorities discovered 21 women and children living in a heavily fortified “spiritual university”, at least five believed to be minors.

Raids across India in the past week on properties linked to the same religious organisation, Adhyatmik Vishwa Vidyalaya (AVV), have unearthed nearly 250 women and 48 girls apparently confined behind layers of locked gates.

Authorities in Delhi say they fear thousands more women could be living in similar conditions in the 300 properties estimated to be linked to the group nationwide.

Syringes and medicines were found scattered throughout the Delhi ashrams and many of the residents appeared to be drugged, according to Swati Maliwal, the city commissioner for women, who participated in five of the raids.

Most of the women have refused opportunities to leave the ashrams. Those who appear to be under 18 have been taken to shelters but are providing little concrete information, Maliwal said.

“We ask where they’re from, they can’t say. We ask them the address of their parents, they don’t have that. We ask how long they’ve been there, they give evasive answers,” she said.

Gurus are enlightening guides in the lives of many Indians, providing counselling on issues ranging from moral quandaries to the choice of a new car.

But months after a flamboyant guru, Ram Rahim Singh, was convicted of raping two followers – sparking riots that killed 30 people – the raids of the past week have cast light on the immense, often unchecked power wielded by some spiritual leaders.

At the centre of the organisation is a self-styled “godman”, Virendra Dev Dixit, with a chequered history including allegations of sexual assault dating to 1998. He is currently being sought by police and could not be reached for comment.

Accusations contained in documents filed with the Delhi high court allege that Dixit, 75, is portrayed by ashram workers as an incarnation of the Hindu god Krishna, with the women and girls cast as his gopis, or wives.

The group claims to be a fundamentalist offshoot of Brahma Kumaris, an Indian spiritual movement with about 800,000 members and branches around the world including in the US, Australia and the UK. Brahma Kumaris disavowed Dixit decades ago and reject his beliefs.

Families have complained of losing daughters to Dixit’s organisation for decades but have been unable to secure official attention until this year, when the Delhi high court took up a public-interest lawsuit against the group.

The case was spurred by the November disappearance of a 24-year-old woman from a town near Jaipur in Rajasthan state. Family members said she had initially become involved in yoga and meditation events put on by the Brahma Kumaris.

But quietly, over the past five years, she was growing closer to members of Dixit’s group.

One day last month, in what investigators believe is standard practice for new converts, the woman entered a local police station with a signed affidavit declaring she was joining the AVV of her own free will. Soon after, she vanished.

A frantic search effort by the family traced the woman to a large Dixit ashram in Rohini, a neighbourhood in the north-west of the capital.

In submissions to the Delhi high court, the family say they were only permitted to meet their daughter after protesting for days, and had to pass through seven layers of locked gates to meet her. They claim she was flanked by women guardians, and appeared to be anaesthetised.

“The girl told them, I am 24, I have come here of my own wish, and I should not be forced to go back,” said Satendra Singh Rathore, a lawyer for the family.

After their story was broadcast by Indian media, disaffected former members of the group and other families searching for their daughters reached out with their own allegations against Dixit.

According to the public-interest lawsuit, they include accusations that Dixit has sexually assaulted multiple women and children and keeps residents confined in conditions “worse than farm animals”.

A spokeswoman for the AVV declined to comment but the organisation has previously said its residents stay of their own volition and are well-treated.

In a society riven by caste hierarchy and yawning economic inequality, ashrams and large-scale spiritual communities, called deras, were an appealing site of social equality and fraternity, said Ronki Ram, a professor of political science at Panjab University.

Their popularity has grown as India’s economy has opened to the world and incomes have soared in past decades. “Once people have everything, a partner, a good job, a family, and find they are not really happy, they go to a dera,” Ram said.

Spiritual organisations have also stepped to provide welfare in places where the state had retreated, he said. “Some have their own schools, hospitals. When the state starts withdrawing from providing basic facilities, the deras fill in the gaps.”

He said politicians have been more likely to seek out gurus for votes than to try to regulate their communities: “They see [the gurus] have a large numbers of followers who can be constituencies.”

Dixit has never registered his organisation with the government. Years of criminal complaints against the guru did not heed a single inspection of his properties. Maliwal said it was typical of the lawless environment in which many spiritual leaders operated. “Nobody bothers to go inside their ashrams,” she said.

“These babas are very influential people, they have a lot of clout. Sometimes they have mafias, and sometimes they are mafias. Nobody wants to deal with this issue.”

Russia: Property Sell-Offs, Alternative Service Denials Follow Jehovah's Witness Ban

Typical preaching work of Jehovah's Witnesses. Photo by Steelman, Wikipedia Commons.
Victoria Arnold
Eurasia Review
December 29, 2017

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia continue to feel the impact of their liquidation and the nationwide ban on their exercise of freedom of religion or belief. Regional Justice Ministry branches are preparing to sell off confiscated Jehovah’s Witness property. Military call-up offices have denied several army conscripts the option of alternative civilian service. Jehovah’s Witnesses also experience increased law enforcement harassment and incidents of vandalism and violence across the country.

Individual Jehovah’s Witnesses remain at risk of criminal prosecution if they engage in any expression of their faith which law enforcement officers may interpret as “continuing the activities of a banned extremist organisation”.

Jehovah’s Witness appeals to both Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg are pending (see below).

A 14 November Supreme Court resolution advises courts to deprive people of their parental rights in cases of their “involvement [of the children] in the activity of a public or religious association or other organisation which has been liquidated by a court order which has come into force, or whose activity has been banned”. Courts could use this against Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as against Muslims who meet to study the writings of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi (see below).

Meanwhile, Jehovah’s Witnesses are also trying to stop the prohibition as “extremist” of their Russian-language New World Bible. Vyborg City Court upheld prosecutors’ request to rule the text “extremist” on 17 August 2017. The next hearing in the appeal process is due at Leningrad Regional Court on 20 December. The suit is not connected to the Supreme Court’s liquidation ruling, as Leningrad-Finland Transport Prosecutor’s Office lodged its suit more than a year earlier.
Banned since 17 July

The Supreme Court’s ruling that the Jehovah’s Witness Administrative Centre be declared an “extremist” organisation and its activities prohibited throughout Russia came into force on 17 July, when an appeal panel upheld the original 20 April decision. Some Jehovah’s Witness activities had already been halted by a 15 March suspension order issued by the Justice Ministry when it lodged its liquidation suit.

Individual believers and communities had already begun to suffer the effects of the liquidation ruling, even before it came into force, with a steep rise in vandalism, the prosecution of community elders for leading worship, and incidents of discrimination against children at school and adults in the workplace.

The Jehovah’s Witness Administrative Centre and all 395 local communities have now been added to the Justice Ministry’s list of banned “extremist” organisations, alongside violent far-right and Islamist groups, Forum 18 notes. They are also included on the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) list of “terrorists and extremists” whose assets banks are obliged to freeze (though in the case of Jehovah’s Witness organisations, the state has already seized their assets).

Jehovah’s Witnesses are in a unique position in Russia as the only centralised religious organisation with a nationwide presence which has been ruled “extremist” and liquidated, thus losing its legal personality and forfeiting its property.

Other religious associations which have been banned as “extremist” have either lacked registration (and therefore property of their own), such as “Nurdzhular” (followers of Said Nursi), or have been local communities, such as the Muslim congregation of Borovsky in Tyumen Region.
Appeal to European Court of Human Rights

On 1 December 2017, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ appeal against their liquidation admissible and decided that it should be considered as a priority case.

The appeal challenges the liquidation ruling under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion), in conjunction with Article 11 (the right to freedom of assembly and association) and Article 14 (the prohibition of discrimination). It also protests specifically against the confiscation of Jehovah’s Witness property, under Article 1 of the additional 1952 Protocol to the Convention (protection of property).

On 1 December, the Court asked the Russian government to respond by 23 March 2018 to the question of whether the liquidation violates Jehovah’s Witnesses’ rights under these Articles.

“Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Kalin vs. Russia” (Application No. 10188/17) was originally lodged on 3 February 2017 in response to the General Prosecutor’s Office warning of “the inadmissibility of extremist activity”, issued on 2 March 2016. Jehovah’s Witnesses had already challenged this warning unsuccessfully in the Russian courts, lastly at Moscow City Court on 16 January 2017.

The appeal to the ECtHR now also encompasses the Supreme Court’s 20 April decision to declare the Administrative Centre an “extremist” organisation and ban all Jehovah’s Witness activities.
Council of Europe Committee of Ministers questions to Russia

On 7 December, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of ECtHR judgments, decided to change the monitoring of two earlier rulings against Russia to an “enhanced procedure”.

The June 2010 ruling in Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others vs. Russia (Application No. 302/02) obliged Russia to re-register the Moscow Jehovah’s Witness community, which was eventually completed in 2015. The June 2014 ruling in Krupko and Others (Application No. 26587/07) v. Russia obliged the Russian authorities to pay damages to Jehovah’s Witnesses who were detained when police raided a worship service taking place in a hired hall.

The Committee of Ministers “expressed their serious concern” about the impact of the nationwide Supreme Court ban on Jehovah’s Witness activities, the 7 December decisions note. It has asked the Russian government for information on how the Jehovah’s Witnesses who lodged these two cases may “continue to enjoy the individual right to freedom of religion”.
Appeal to Human Rights Ombudsperson

Jehovah’s Witnesses also sent an appeal to Human Rights Ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova on 9 October. They asked her to use her right to appeal against court decisions which have come into force. They also drew attention to the “massive, growing violation of human rights that followed the court’s ruling”, the news website reported.

“Believers hope that, after reading the case materials, Tatyana Moskalkova will consider it necessary to apply to the presidium of the Supreme Court of Russia with a demand to overturn the unreasonable and unlawful court decision,” the website noted.

Jehovah’s Witnesses appear to have received no reply. Forum 18 wrote to the Ombudsperson’s office before the start of the Moscow working day of 18 December, asking what answer it had to the Jehovah’s Witness appeal, and how it was responding to the violation of their human rights. Forum 18 received no reply by the end of the working day in Moscow on 19 December.
Confiscation of property
– Administrative Centre case

On 7 December, after a four-hour hearing, Judge Natalya Bogdanova of St Petersburg’s Sestroretsk District Court ruled that a 17-year-old property contract was invalid, thus allowing the seizure by the state of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ principal site in Russia. The court’s decision may be appealed within 30 days.

“This decision casts a shadow over the inviolability of property rights in the Russian Federation, where no organisation, even an international one, can have peace of mind over its transactions, even if they are officially registered by authorised bodies,” the news website commented on 7 December.

The complex in question consists of 14 buildings (constructed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses) on ten hectares of land in the village of Solnechnoye, and has a value of more than 881 million Roubles (126 million Norwegian Kroner, 13 million Euros or 15 million US Dollars), according to a court press release of 7 December. The Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses acquired the land in 2000 and transferred its ownership to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, which in turn allowed the Administrative Centre free use of the site.

Because the site was owned by a foreign organisation, it did not automatically become the property of the state upon the liquidation of the Administrative Centre, a Russian legal entity. The Kurortny District Prosecutor’s Office argued, however, that the contract governing the transfer of the property to the Watch Tower Society’s ownership was invalid, as it was the Administrative Centre which continued to use and maintain the land and buildings.

Watch Tower Society lawyer Viktor Shipilov argued in court that federal tax records show that the Society has been paying taxes on the property since 2000 (had the Administrative Centre owned the site, it would not have had to do so, as registered Russian religious organisations are not liable for tax on land or property used for religious purposes). He also noted that Kurortny District Prosecutor’s Office checked the legitimacy of the acquisition of the property and its ownership by the Watch Tower Society in 2007 and found no violations.

The Administrative Centre complex also accommodated almost 400 people, both Russian and foreign nationals, some of whom had made their homes there for more than twenty years. “The move from their homes and the disruption in their voluntary religious service .. have been traumatic,” according to a 5 December Jehovah’s Witness statement on their international website,

Forum 18 telephoned the Justice Ministry’s Department for the Affairs of Religious Organisations on 19 December to ask what would happen to the Administrative Centre’s property in St Petersburg and whether the people who lived there would receive any compensation. A spokeswoman insisted that all questions must be put to the Ministry’s press service.

The Department for the Affairs of Religious Organisations was responsible for submitting the liquidation suit to the Supreme Court in March 2017, and its staff member Svetlana Borisova represented the Justice Ministry during the hearings.
– Locally-owned property

Meanwhile, buildings and land owned by local Jehovah’s Witness organisations are now in the process of being sold off. Once creditors have been satisfied, any remaining assets will pass to the state and may then be sold. If a local community had insufficient monetary funds to pay off its debts, its property will be auctioned to raise more (if worth more than 100,000 Roubles).

According to legal documents seen by Forum 18, this process is initiated by regional branches of the Justice Ministry, overseen by regional arbitration courts, and carried out by an executor from the Interregional Self-Regulatory Organisation of Professional Arbitration Managers.

Justice Ministry branches appear to be seeking to appoint the same executor, Sergei Aleksandrovich Kryazhev, to manage the disposal of Jehovah’s Witness property across the country. He is to be paid 30,000 Roubles per month from the liquidated community’s assets (disposal periods vary between cases).

Regional Justice Ministry branches appear to have begun lodging suits initiating the disposal of Jehovah’s Witness property in late September (only two months after the Supreme Court’s ruling came into force), but, according to the Civil Code, they have five years to do so after a legal entity is recorded as liquidated in federal tax records. The process of disposal of Jehovah’s Witness assets may therefore continue for some time.

The Republic of Karachai-Cherkessiya’s Justice Ministry branch lodged its suit to initiate the disposal of the Cherkessk Jehovah’s Witness community’s property on 21 September at the Arbitration Court of Karachai-Cherkessiya. It was upheld on 6 December. The congregation’s property consists of a non-residential building of 298.5 sq.m. and a plot of land of 857 sq.m. Judge Ali Botashev ruled that disposal should take place within six months and agreed to the appointment of Sergei Kryazhev as executor with remuneration of 30,000 Roubles per month from the assets of the liquidated community.

The Judge stipulated that the executor should publish notice of the disposal process in the journal “State Registration Herald” (Vestnik gosudarstvennoy registratsiy) no more than ten working days after the court ruling is issued, and should immediately inform any creditors of the disposal process. Notice of the disposal should also be published in the media within two months of the ruling, and creditors should be given two months (from publication in the press) in which to put forward their claims. The judge has scheduled another hearing on 18 May 2018 to examine the executor’s report on the results of the disposal process.

Similar proceedings are underway or have recently been completed in other regions, e.g. Krasnoyarsk (lodged 24 October; first hearing 20 November, next hearing due 9 January 2018), Saratov (re. Volzhsk community, lodged 13 November, first hearing due 16 January), Vladimir (lodged 24 October, first hearing due 23 January 2018), St. Petersburg/Leningrad Region (re. Administrative Centre, lodged 27 October, first hearing due 26 December; re. Kirishi community, lodged 30 October, first hearing due 26 December), Amur (re. Tynda community, lodged 8 December, first hearing due 15 January 2018), Irkutsk (re. Northern, Usolye-Sibirskoye community, lodged 22 September, halted 19 October at Justice Ministry’s request because of lack of resources; re. Vikhorevka community, lodged 22 September, upheld in full 1 November), Republic of Karachai-Cherkessiya (re. Kurdzhinovo community, lodged 21 September, preliminary hearing due 27 December), Sakha Republic/Yakutiya (re. Chulman community, lodged 9 November, upheld in part 11 December), Rostov (re. Salsk community, lodged 17 November, preliminary hearing due 25 December).

It is theoretically possible under the Civil Code for the founders or former directors of a liquidated organisation to be named as third parties to such arbitration suits, and in cases of organisations liquidated through choice or because of non-viability, remaining assets would be divided between them. In the case of Jehovah’s Witness congregations, however, the “extremism” ruling and ban means that they no longer have any right to proceeds from their property, and even appear to be unable to attend court hearings on its disposal.

Forum 18 found one instance, in Krasnoyarsk, of the twenty founding members of a community being named by the court as third parties to the suit. The judge removed them as third parties at the first hearing, however, at the request of the regional Justice Ministry, based on the fact that Jehovah’s Witness property was now forfeit to the state (two had also died).
Denial of alternative civilian service

At least six young Jehovah’s Witness men are potentially being denied their right to perform alternative civilian service. Of the six individuals in five different regions across Russia known to Forum 18, three have so far received official refusals and have been called up to the army, while military authorities have yet to make a final decision regarding the other three.

Individuals whose beliefs do not allow them to engage in military activity may apply to local military call-up offices for permission to perform “alternative civilian service”.

The military call-up office for the Central and Komintern Districts of Voronezh now obliges conscripts to fill out a form about their “attitude to religion” and “attitude to religious trends of an extremist nature”, the news website reported on 30 November. Conscripts must state whether they “belong to”, “are acquainted with”, or “defend the activities of” such movements.

Although the form gives “Wahhabism” as an example of such extremist religious beliefs, it is likely that Jehovah’s Witnesses would also be considered as such in the wake of the Supreme Court ban – as a result, young Jehovah’s Witness men would be obliged to disclose their religious affiliation.

The insistence that conscripts give their views on religion violates both their Constitutional rights and international human rights norms. Article 29, Part 3, of Russia’s Constitution declares: “No one can be forced to declare their opinions and beliefs or to deny them.”

General Comment 22 of the United Nations Human Rights Committee on Article 18.3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights notes that “no one can be compelled to reveal his [sic] thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief”.

The duty officer at Voronezh Region military call-up office put the phone down on 19 December as soon as Forum 18 asked about conscripts being given a form about their attitude to religion. The telephones at the military call-up office for the Central and Komintern Districts went unanswered each time Forum 18 called the same day.
Deprivation of parental rights

On 14 November, the Plenum of the Supreme Court issued a resolution on the application of legislation to disputes affecting the rights of children. This included advice to courts to deprive people of their parental rights if they “involved [the children] in the activity of a public or religious association or other organisation which has been liquidated by a court order which has come into force, or whose activity has been banned”.

The resolution mentions no specific organisation, but the measure could apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses and to Muslims who read the works of Said Nursi (frequently prosecuted for involvement with the banned “extremist” organisation Nurdzhular, the existence of which Muslims in Russia deny).

The resolution also does not explain what is meant by “involvement” (vovlecheniye), which could be subject to a wide range of interpretation by officials.

Forum 18 is not aware of any instances of this measure being used against Jehovah’s Witnesses or Muslims who read Nursi’s works, as of 19 December.
Arrests, detentions, raids

On 14 December, around 40 law enforcement officers, including from the fire brigade, entered the Hall of Congresses, a large worship building in northern St Petersburg, the news website reported the same day. Officers then sealed the building. The congregation, abiding by the Supreme Court’s ruling, has not used the building since April.

Throughout November alone, police detained Jehovah’s Witnesses, required them to disclose their religion, often took them to police stations, obliged them to submit to photographing and fingerprinting, and confiscated their personal belongings, the Moscow-based SOVA Centre reported on 12 December. Such incidents have occurred in Dmitrov (Moscow Region), Severnaya Ferma (Vologda Region), Chapayevsk (Samara Region), and Diveyevo (Novgorod Region), and in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District.

Police, sometimes accompanied by FSB security service officers, have also raided homes, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported. In the village of Uyskoye in Chelyabinsk Region, police took down the details of anyone who entered a flat in which Jehovah’s Witnesses lived. In Kuchva in Sverdlovsk Region, police searched a house without permission, insulted the owner and a visiting friend, and “expressed their scorn for their faith”. A Jehovah’s Witness couple from Belgorod claims that police illegally entered their flat and installed audio and video surveillance equipment. In Naberezhnyye Chelny (Republic of Tatarstan), police and FSB security service officers went to a holiday complex which had been rented by 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses, inspected their documents, and took their details. Police in Novosibirsk also visited a Jehovah’s Witness at work and allegedly planted religious literature in his office.

So far, no prosecutions are known to have arisen from these incidents.
Vandalism and violence

On 23 November in Moscow, a man allegedly pushed a 54-year-old Jehovah’s Witness down the stairs of his block of flats. Her tablet computer broke in the fall.

On 16 September, in Chunsky village in Irkutsk Region, “unknown persons” broke into the building formerly used for Jehovah’s Witness worship, the news website reported on 20 September. The intruders smashed the building’s internal doors, set off fire extinguishers, destroyed sound equipment, and broke the burglar alarm. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the incident to the police, and “have no doubt” that it was provoked by the Supreme Court decision.

After the Justice Ministry issued its 15 March suspension order, several Jehovah’s Witness leaders were prosecuted under Administrative Code Article 20.28, Part 1 (“Organisation of or participation in the activities of a public or religious association, in relation to which a decision on the suspension of its activities is in force”). Most of these prosecutions led to fines. The prosecutions were launched despite the fact that the order did not apply to worship.

After the Supreme Court’s liquidation ruling came into force on 17 July, these prosecutions ceased, as Jehovah’s Witness activities are now banned, not merely suspended. Individuals are therefore now at risk of criminal prosecution under Criminal Code Article 282.2 (“Organisation of” or “participation in” “the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”).

Danish Jehovah’s Witness Dennis Ole Christensen remains in pre-trial custody on charges of “organising the activities of a banned extremist organisation” (Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 1). He will appeal against his detention for the third time at Oryol Regional Court on 22 December. Christensen is accused of “continuing the activities” of the Oryol Jehovah’s Witness community, which was ordered liquidated in June 2016.

The next hearing in the trial of Jehovah’s Witness elder Arkady Akopovich Akopyan is due on 10 January 2018 at Prokhladny District Court in Kabardino-Balkariya. Akopyan’s case is also not directly connected to the Supreme Court’s liquidation ruling; he was charged under Article 282, Part 1 (“Actions directed at the incitement of hatred [nenavist] or enmity [vrazhda], as well as the humiliation of an individual or group of persons on the basis of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, attitude to religion, or social group”) for allegedly giving sermons in which he “degraded the dignity of adherents of other religions”

Dec 28, 2017

A woman who married God, a chess-playing priest and 10 more fascinating religious figures who died in 2017

Daniel Silliman
December 28, 2017

More than 70 percent of Americans say religion is important in their lives, but this year’s obituaries reveal the vast diversity of religious life in American culture.

Spirituality takes a lot of different shapes in America. Some people preach, some pray and some evangelize. Some break the law. Some serve an institution and a hierarchy while others build individualized cathedrals.

A number of fascinating figures died this year. Their lives show the real range of religious life in this country:

Sweet Angel Divine

Like a lot of immigrants, Edna Rose Ritchings came to the United States looking for a better life. That better life included a wedding to the man she believed to be God.

Ritchings first heard Father Major Jealous Divine speak in Vancouver, B.C., when she was 15. Divine was a black man who said he was God and called his followers to abstain from sex and partake of feasts. Ritchings joined a group of Divine’s followers in Montreal, taking the name Sweet Angel. In 1946, she traveled to the United States and married Divine.

Mother Divine led Divine’s New Religious Movement, headquartered in Philadelphia, after his death in 1965. She played recordings of his talks and spoke of him in the present tense until her deathin Gladwyne, Pa., at 91.

[Theologian R.C. Sproul, who influenced evangelical beliefs about the Bible, dies at 78]

Patrick Fernández Flores

Patrick Fernández Flores wasthe first Mexican American in the hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church. Born to migrant workers, Flores wanted to be a priest from childhood, even though he had a limited education and Anglo clerics discouraged him. He was ordained in 1957 and made a bishop in 1970, rising to the level of archbishop of San Antonio in 1979.

No stranger to political controversy, Flores was an advocate for Hispanics and the poor. “If you reject the poor,” he once told the city of San Antonio, “you reject Jesus.”

Flores co-founded the influential Catholic Television of San Antonio in 1981 and brought Pope John Paul II to Texas in 1987. In 2000, he was held hostage by a Salvadoran man who feared deportation. The man surrendered to police after nine hours. Flores supported the man’s family for years after. He died in San Antonio at 87.

Gelek Rimpoche

Gelek Rimpoche served as a leading teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in America. He was one of the last Buddhist teachers to be fully educated in Tibet. He entered monastery at the age of 5, leaving at age 19 when the Chinese Communists killed monks and shelled monasteries in 1959. As a refugee in India, Rimpoche played a crucial role in preserving the tradition, editing and publishing 170 volumes of rare manuscripts. He also wrote a popular book on reincarnation.

In 1987, at the instruction of his superiors, Rimpoche moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to teach Buddhism to Americans. He became a U.S. citizen and worked hard to understand American culture, watching “Days of Our Lives” and televangelist Jim Bakker on TV. Rimpoche established Buddhist communities in Ann Arbor, Chicago and New York City, teaching a number of notable Americans, including composer Philip Glass. He diedin Ann Arbor at 77.

Frank Worthen

Frank Worthen was first told he was gay by his pastor at age 13. At the time, Worthen recalled, he didn’t know what the word “homosexual” meant. He accepted his gay identity until his evangelical conversion in 1973.

Worthen recorded a cassette tape recounting his experience and advertised it in a gay newspaper popular in San Francisco. “Do you want out of homosexuality?” the ad read. “Send for a Brother Frank tape on a Christ-centered way out of homosexuality.” About 60 men asked for copies the first year and Worthen launched a group called Love in Action. A network of similar ministries was formed in 1976 with the name Exodus International. “Conversion therapy,” as it came to be known, became increasingly controversial. Exodus International closed in 2013, apologizing to those who had been a part of its ministry.

Worthen continued to believe Jesus could free people from same-sex attraction until his death in San Rafael, Calif., at 87.

[Survivors of sexual abuse in Catholic Church decry the Vatican’s honorable funeral for Cardinal Law]

Maxine Grimm

Maxine Grimm, a pioneering but unofficial Mormon missionary to the Philippines — born Maxine Tate — was widowed in 1940 at the age of 25 and then joined the Red Cross. The Red Cross sent her to the Philippines at the start of World War II. In 1945, she led a seamstress to join the Mormon Church, the first Filipino to become Mormon.

She married a non-Mormon army colonel, E.M. Grimm and remained in Manila after the war. Though the church never formally recognized her as a missionary, Grimm continued to convert Filipinos. About 2,000 were baptized in her swimming pool by the end of the 1950s. “I know the Church is true and I have always wanted to show that,” Grimm said. Today, there are more than 745,000 Latter-day Saints in the country. Grimm died in Tooele, Utah, at 102.

Michael Sharp

Michael “M.J.” Sharp believed in the power of peace. That’s why the Mennonite from Indiana would walk deep into the Congo forest, sit beneath a banana tree and talk to armed rebels.

Sharp started his career as a peacemaker after graduating from Eastern Mennonite University in 2005. He counseled U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany, telling them how to declare themselves conscientious objectors. Then, in 2012, Sharp went to the Democratic Republic of Congo. With a budget of $12,000 per month, he coordinated a group of Christian volunteers who would talk to rebel fighters. In three years, they convinced 1,600 rebels to lay down their arms. When funding was canceled, Sharp contracted as a United Nations observer, investigating rapes, massacres and child soldiers in Congo.

He and a U.N. colleague, Zaida Catalán of Sweden, were kidnapped in Congo in March. Their bodies were found two weeks later in a shallow grave. Sharp was 34.

Donald Weiser

Donald Weiser was pivotal in the spread of occult beliefs in middle America. He published books on Western traditions of “secret knowledge,” including astrology, tarot, paganism, witchcraft and magick.

Weiser started as an antiquarian, taking over his father’s rare book business in New York in 1950. He specialized in acquiring occult libraries to sell to collectors. By 1957, however, Weiser realized there was a broader interest for these books. He started publishing 15 to 20 cheap editions per year and selling them to hippies, housewives, soldiers returning from Korea and Wall Street brokers looking for a supernatural advantage.

When mainstream publishers repackaged the occult as “New Age” in the 1970s, they recruited Weiser’s proteges to run them. They established New Age as an official category, so when Borders and Barnes & Noble launched their superstores in American suburbs in the 1980s, the occult was made widely available to middle America. Weiser died in Greenacres, Fla., at 89.

[Why this Muslim-turned-Christian speaker resonated with so many before his death at 34]

Katherine Dockens

Katherine Dockens was the direct descendant of the slave who bought his own freedom and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. As the sixth-generation granddaughter of Richard Allen, the church’s founding bishop, she worked tirelessly to preserve and promote her church’s history, leading regular tours of Mother Bethel A.M.E. in Philadelphia. Historians, documentarians and tourists sought her expertise.

Dockens helped organize a bicentennial celebration in 1987. The church reiterated its commitment to racial justice and reenacted the founder’s trek from Delaware, where he was a slave, to Philadelphia, where the A.M.E. began, to Baltimore, where the first conference of A.M.E. churches was held. Today the church has about 2.5 million members, according to the World Council of Churches. Dockens also served as president of the church’s missionary society, and was given the honorific “Mother Missionary” in Botswana in 1997. She died in Athens, Ga., at 95.

Leroy Jenkins

Leroy Jenkins’s life was full of sensational scandals, but he never stopped preaching miracles.

He started his ministry in 1960, saying God had healed his severed arm and called him to heal others. He built a cathedral in Ohio in 1968, but the building failed safety inspections, and it burned down in a suspected insurance scam. Jenkins made it big in the 1970s with a faith-healing TV show. Then he was convicted of plotting two arsons in South Carolina.

Jenkins served time in prison from 1979 to 1985, but he rebuilt his ministry and his cathedral with another TV show and sales of miracle water. In 2003, the Ohio Department of Agriculture reported Jenkins’s miracle water was contaminated with fecal bacteria. Unfazed, he continued preaching until 2015. Jenkins died in Apopka, Fla., at 83.

William Lombardy

William Lombardy was the greatest chess-playing Catholic priest of the 20th century. He learned chess at 9 from a Jewish neighbor in the Bronx. At 19, he became the world junior champion, winning 11 games in a row, an unheard of feat. But he was quickly overshadowed by a young friend named Bobby Fischer.

A priest serving in the Bronx, he continued to play chess at the highest levels, even assisting Fischer in his famous Cold War victory over the Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky. The church, however, did not always approve of the priest’s games. A cardinal chided Lombardy for “pushing meaningless wooden pieces across a wooden board.”

Lombardy left the priesthood in 1977, criticizing the church’s wealth. He spent his later years in poverty. In 2016, he was evicted from his apartment, more than $27,000 behind in rent. Lombardy died in Martinez, Calif., at 79.

Betty Bone Schiess

Betty Bone Schiess was one of the first women ordained as an Episcopalian priest. Her 1974 ordination was, in the legal language of the church at the time, “irregular.” The House of Bishops, in an emergency meeting at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, declared the ordination invalid.

The church changed its position on women’s ordination two years later. Schiess was reordained and her sex-discrimination lawsuit was dropped. During her service, she was a chaplain at Syracuse University and Cornell University and as rector of a church in northeast New York.

By 1985, more than 600 women were Episcopalian priests. Today, more than 40 percent of the denomination’s priests are women. Schiess was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. She died in Syracuse, N.Y., at 94.

John Raines

John Raines was an ordained Methodist minister who was an accomplice in a burglary that revealed FBI abuses. Raines, his wife, Bonnie, and six other peace activists stole 1,000 files from a Philadelphia office and mailed them to three newspapers reporters in 1971. The files revealed the FBI’s secret campaign to harass civil rights advocates, antiwar protesters and other “subversives.”

Born to a Methodist bishop, Raines followed his father into ministry. As a pastor, he became active in civil rights activism and joined the Freedom Rides to force the desegregation of public buses in 1961.

During the 1971 burglary, Raines drove the family’s station wagon as the getaway car. Sometimes, he said when the secret was revealed to a Washington Post reporter in 2014, breaking the law is the only way to stop a crime. Raines died in Philadelphia at 84.

Daniel Silliman is a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. A U.S. historian, he writes about American religion and culture. You can follow him on Twitter@danielsilliman.

Dec 27, 2017

Podcast: The cult of Gloriavale

Lilia at her baptism at Gloriavale. Photo / supplied
Lilia at her baptism at Gloriavale.
Megan McChesney
December 27, 2017


When Lilia Tarawa fled from the religious cult of Gloriavale, she turned her back on the only life she’d ever known.

The deeply moving story of a girl who grew up in this isolated community on the South Island’s West Coast … and what happened when her thirst for truth and knowledge became too great to ignore.

“Mum freaks out, like, ‘God has cursed us’. Dad’s like, ‘Don’t be silly, woman!’ and I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Are there people from Gloriavale coming to get us? Will they come and force us to go back? And I’m scared out of my wits.”

“We don’t want women who are independent. We don’t want to be raising women who are leaders. A woman’s job is to submit to the men.”