Sep 16, 2019

Two Russians Given U.S. Entry Bans For Allegedly Torturing Jehovah's Witnesses

In 2017, Russia outlawed the religious group and labeled it "extremist."
September 11, 2019

Two high-ranking regional officers in Russia's Investigative Committee have been banned from entering the United States for alleged "gross violations of human rights."

A September 10 State Department statement said Vladimir Yermolayev, head of the Investigative Committee in the city of Surgut; Stepan Tkach, a senior investigator; and their immediate family members "are ineligible for entry into the United States."

They are suspected of leading a group of Surgut Investigative Committee officers in subjecting at least seven Jehovah's Witnesses "to suffocation, electric shocks, and severe beatings during interrogation."

In 2017, Russia outlawed the religious group and labeled it "extremist," a designation the State Department said was "wrongful."

The statement said 60 Jehovah's Witnessess were currently awaiting trial on criminal charges and that more than 200 individuals were currently imprisoned in Russia "for exercising their freedom of religion or belief."

A Russian lawmaker denounced the sanctions as arbitrary and accused the United States of interfering in his country's affairs.

"The United States continues to blindly slap Russian citizens with sanctions," a move that "brazenly interferes into the affairs of sovereign states to attain its geopolitical goals," said Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the State Duma.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and TASS

The Former Extremists Trying to Fight Extremism

Former ISIS members sit in a classroom at the Syrian Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS
Some who have renounced their past in neo-Nazi or jihadist movements now hope to save others from the same fate. But there are risks to this approach—not least to the “formers” themselves.

The Atlantic
September 9, 2019

They have TED talks and TV shows and research centers. You can even book some for events through a talent agent.

Some were neo-Nazis. Some were jihadists.

All are now part of a small but growing field of ex-radicals fighting radicalism—across the ideological spectrum—in what’s become a de facto consulting gig for a handful of articulate “formers.” Whether through research, public speaking, or counseling services, these people say they now wish to pull people off the paths they themselves once took into hate or violence. That experience makes them infinitely more convincing than a government official tweeting discouragement at an ISIS sympathizer. But divisions also exist within the community over how exactly to tame the monster they once helped create—as well as accusations that some are just cashing in on their notoriety.

“You can get really famous by saying, ‘I used to be a jihadist and now I’m not,’” says Jesse Morton, who himself made headlines in 2016 when he briefly joined George Washington University’s Program on Extremism as a former jihadist recruiter turned scholar. He told me that former extremists can be among the most valuable voices countering extremism, but can also easily make the problem worse.

Who, after all, is watching the TED talks? Morton argues that there’s value in explaining the radicalization process to what he calls the intelligentsia, but there’s also an element of preaching to the choir. Most skinheads aren’t going to be convinced to reform by an Aspen Ideas panel, nor is that really the point of an Aspen Ideas panel. (The Aspen Ideas Festival, which has featured panelists such as Morton, is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.) The problem, as Morton sees it, is that former extremists can provide fodder for current extremists by allowing propagandists to point to them and their ideas as the enemy. Formers can, in their eagerness to condemn their own prior worldview, exacerbate the very us-versus-them narrative that helps fuel radicalism in the first place.

“If you’re promoting a polarized narrative and don’t realize it, then you’re part of the problem,” Morton says.

Deradicalization and counter-extremism programs, especially those involving former extremists, are relatively new in the United States, but they have a longer history in Europe, according to Lorenzo Vidino, the director of the Program on Extremism, who helped recruit Morton to work there as a researcher. The U.K.’s Quilliam—which describes itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism organization”—was founded as a think tank in 2007 by three British former radical Islamists.

The Obama administration launched its own “countering violent extremism” initiative in 2011, with a variety of programs aimed at helping local law enforcement share information, do community outreach, and try to prevent attacks. The program was always a target for criticism, ranging from complaints about underfunding to accusations that it unfairly focused on and stigmatized Muslim communities. Right-wing extremism, moreover, was not a top priority then, and one organization dedicated to countering it got some funding under Obama but saw it lapse under Trump.

But there wasn’t a systematic effort to recruit formers into that project early on. Vidino had observed the European experience and thought such a strategy might be useful in the United States, though he told me he was aware of “some of the issues.”

Read: How many attacks will it take until the white-supremacist threat is taken seriously?

Those included the fact that what radicalizes one person doesn’t necessarily radicalize another—so any former’s personal experience might not be persuasive to anyone else. Another concern is that formers themselves might have unresolved personal problems—something that became clear when Morton was arrested on drug and prostitution charges in 2017. The university did not deem it appropriate for Morton to stay after he was charged. “You go from prison as a well-known jihadi to front page in The New York Times as somebody who’s fighting terrorism—that [would mess] up a lot of people,” Vidino said.

But he still believes former extremists can provide valuable contributions, both in helping understand extremism and helping to combat it. He recalled seeing Morton address a room full of FBI agents. “If I go there and give a talk, I’m a boring academic,” Vidino said. “Jesse would bring it home in a very personal way.” Morton now works with the former NYPD officer Mitch Silber, who once investigated him, at a counter-extremism organization called Parallel Networks.

Silber says he got interested in working with formers after meeting Quilliam’s founders. “They had this unique credibility and legitimacy because they’ve been on the other side,” he told me.

Since then, he has also worked with Bryant Neal Viñas, who was picked up in an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan in 2008. He pleaded guilty, cooperated with the FBI, and served eight years in prison. Now Viñas writes articles, talks to the Council on Foreign Relations, and is interviewed on podcasts. “You go to the depths of depression and rock bottom, alone, and left for dead almost, and then suddenly there is this one route open to redemption, and potentially even financial security,” Silber says. “It’s hard not to see a person taking that lifeline and making the most of it.”

But the counter-extremism path not necessarily a lucrative industry for many formers—indeed, it’s barely even an industry. Viñas works construction jobs to stay afloat. Shannon Foley Martinez, who describes herself as a former violent white supremacist and has spoken about leaving the movement on the Today show, told me that she gets occasional consulting contracts but mainly tends bar. She has seven children and a stepson, and when organizations fly her to conferences to speak, she has to pay for child care and often ends up losing money, she told me.

Martinez, too, worries about the potential for formers to do harm even when trying to do good; she noted that there are no real “industry standards” and that this, along with competition for limited work opportunities, has contributed to rifts in the broader community she calls the “formersphere.” “What happens if you’re working with someone and they go on to commit an act of violence against themselves or others?” she asked. She warns people she counsels that she has to report any specific threats of violence to authorities. But, she said, “I don’t know if that’s accepted practice.”

Nevertheless, she says she has worked with many formers who are driven not by a desire for recognition but a sense of responsibility to use their own past wrongs to help others avoid them. “My personal take on it is anyone doing good work, and anyone ... helping other people, I am all for that.”KATHY GILSINAN is a staff writer at The Atlantic, covering national security and global affairs.

CultNEWS101 Articles: 9/16/2019

EnlightenNext Andrew Cohen, Faith Healing, Sri Lanka, Bikram Yoga, Sexual Abuse, Legal,  Baba Ramdev, Ayurveda   

"One of EnlightenNext’s members was Luna Torlo, Cohen’s mother. At first, she was enthused about her son’s mystical awakening – but their relationship soured as he grew dictatorial, and ultimately she fled the cult and broke off contact with him:

She recalls him lashing out at his disciples—supposedly in an attempt to strip away the ego. Torlo says he told her to give way to him or their relationship would end; he once ordered a regimen where she would cook one meal a day, meditate for two hours, and remain in silence except for talking to him, saying that “since I was so full of opinions and nothing but opinions, I was absolutely forbidden to express an opinion on anything.”

Her son, formerly the “sweetest, sensitive kid, had changed into an unrecognizable tyrant.” (source)

However, unlike many cults, EnlightenNext didn’t preach rejection of modernity, and its members weren’t cut off from the outside world. This proved to be their downfall.

In 2013, a group of disaffected ex-members began to expose Cohen’s abuse and brainwashing tactics on internet forums. Word spread, and within the space of a few weeks, it was as if a spell was broken. More and more people were quitting, and the movement began to disintegrate. And then, surprisingly, Cohen himself admitted that the critics were right. He announced that he was stepping down, ceasing all public teaching and going on a soul-searching pilgrimage.

He later wrote in an public apology:

I gradually lost sight of people’s humanity, including my own, and only saw all of us as the living Self Aware consciousness that, in an evolutionary context, was going somewhere. And that was all that I believed was important or really mattered… As I was losing touch with my own simple humanity and everyone else’s, I also was simultaneously not paying attention to the gradual growing of my spiritual ambition, of my spiritual ego. I believe that my intense longing for the evolution of consciousness in my students was real, but I have begun to see more and more clearly how over time my pride and my desire for fame and recognition slowly but surely began to blur and corrupt my vision."

"Two people died from heat exhaustion after attending a mass open air faith healing session in northeast Sri Lanka which left 13 others fighting for their lives, police said Sunday (Sep 8).

About 10,000 people, some of whom were seriously ill, had gathered at a school to listen to a man who claimed he could use "powers of the gods and the Buddha" to cure the sick.

Police in the town of Horowupotana, 260 kilometres north-east of Colombo said 18 people were taken to hospital, with 13 in a critical condition."

"Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has exposed countless terrible men guilty of sexual harassment and assault, but Bikram Choudhury has yet to face his comeuppance. A searing new documentary from Netflix on the “hot yoga” founder lays it all out in a blunt title: “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.” It doesn’t bring much new information to the table, but it’s an infuriating look at the way Choudhury seduced thousands of followers with his yoga franchise, while raping and assaulting innumerable women, and how he managed — so far — to get away with it. Choudry belongs in jail, and this frustrating overview provides the latest opportunity to keep that conversation in the public eye."

"India’s company court approved a bid by a group of firms controlled by yoga guru Baba Ramdev to take over cooking oil and soya-products maker Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd. for 43.5 billion rupees ($606 million).

Patanjali Consortium Adhigrahan Pvt. -- a venture by Patanjali Ayurved Ltd. and three other companies -- will merge with Ruchi Soya, according to a stock exchange filing late Saturday. Shareholders of Patanjali Consortium will get one share of Ruchi Soya for each that they hold in the former."

News, Education, Intervention, Recovery to help families and friends understand and effectively respond to the complexity of a loved one's cult involvement. assists group members and their families make the sometimes difficult transition from coercion to renewed individual choice. news, links, resources. resources about cults, cultic groups, abusive relationships, movements, religions, political organizations and related topics. 

Director Zaida Bergroth On Cult Drama 'Maria's Paradise': "The Idea Was To Concentrate On The Love And Power" - Toronto Studio

Maria’s Paradise
Damon Wise
September 15, 2019

There were quite a few films about cults at this year’s TIFF, and one of the more provocative meditations on human manipulation came from Finland. Titled Maria’s Paradise, Zaida Bergroth’s film was inspired by the true story of Maria Åkerblom, who ran a cult in rural Finland that caused a major scandal back in the 1920s.

“I got extremely intrigued by this main character, Maria Åkerblom,” Bergroth told us when she came to the Deadline studio with her cast. “She lived in Finland in [the] 1920s, she was a leader of a Christian cult, and she was extremely charismatic, but she had a very dark side to her. After that, we started to write the script and explore her character, and then we came up with a story about Maria and her favorite girl follower, Salome, a young teenager who absolutely adored her, and didn’t see anything negative about her actions. It was their relationship that really intrigued me.”

Pihla Viitala, who plays Maria, admits that she was a difficult character to portray. “She’s very complicated,” she said, “and when we started to build up the character, we were wondering how she ended up being like she was. Basically, I was thinking that she wanted to have love and admiration from people, and, in this very selfish way, she was getting it. It was interesting to play because she was very unpredictable and limitless, so anything was possible.”

“The main idea was to really concentrate on the love and power in their relationship,” said Bergroth, “because I think no relationship is free from that power balance anyway. But it’s very interesting to me how Maria used love to control, and this was the main issue we really focused on. What we know about the real-life cult of Maria was that the members of the cult were not allowed to speak to anybody else… [She would say] ‘We are special, you need to be really loyal to me, and if I can’t count on your loyalty, then all hell will break loose.’ All of these really simple things that really affect your emotions—and that’s how you’re played.”

To hear more about Maria’s Paradise, watch the interview above.

Former NXIVM sex-cult recruiter hopeful her message can help others

Sarah Edmondson is a former member of the NXIVM cult who has now written a book about her time with the cult. Photo: Jason Payne/Postmedia JASON PAYNE / PNG
Sarah Edmondson suffers from PTSD as she struggles to recover from the trauma of her time in a sex cult

Vancouver sun
September 15, 2019

Sarah Edmondson spent a dozen years as a top recruiter in NXIVM, an executive success and self-improvement program that was later revealed to be a sex-cult catering to the whims of its secretive leader Keith Raniere.

Now Edmondson is baring all in Scarred, a gripping memoir that details her indoctrination into the cult, her psychological enslavement, and the terrifying naked ritual that left her permanently scarred with Raniere’s initials, and determined to bring him down.

“We took turns holding each of the other members down on a table as NXIVM’s resident female doctor dragged a red-hot cauterizing pen across the sensitive area just below their bikini line. The women screamed in pain as the smell of burnt flesh filled the air,” she writes.

The branding felt like a traumatic assault. Her NXIVM superior, and closest friend, Lauren Saltzman, had told her the ritual that would ensure her admission to a secret sorority called DOS — short for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, Latin for Lord of the Obedient Female Companions — involved getting only a small tattoo.

Edmondson knew she had a decision to make: “slip away quietly or blow this whole thing up.”

She chose to blow it up.

“I was determined to fix what I’d started,” said Edmondson of the dramatic actions she took in 2018 to escape NXIVM, and go to the authorities.

As sheets of rain pour down outside the window of her Olympic Village condo, Edmondson offers up her body as a testament to what she has been through. “Do you want to see it?”

She slips down the corner of her pants to reveal the scars where Raniere’s initials were burned into her skin. The initials KR are clearly visible.

Although the scars have faded, they will never go away.

“I thought I was healed, but I’ve got PTSD,” said Edmondson as her husband Anthony Ames brings over their six-month-old baby Ace.

Settling in to nurse her baby, Edmondson says she is willing to share all, and do whatever it takes “to clean up my mess.”

Cleaning up the mess includes going public, making sure everyone she brought into the group is out, trying to help others and establishing a fund for other victims with part of the proceeds of her book.

“I’m learning to trust myself again, slowly,” said Edmondson, who has been through therapy with cult therapists to understand the journey she has been on.

Edmondson said she was the ideal target for NXIVM’s system of indoctrination.

“The system included manipulation and brainwashing, where Keith implanted his own beliefs by appealing to my values, and telling me that when I felt resistance I had an issue I needed to overcome. If I had an issue, his Executive Success program would provide the answer.”

Edmondson’s outgoing personality and natural enthusiasm helped her proceed up the “striped path,” by selling the program to others, and eventually founding a NXIVM centre in Vancouver.

“I had a big network of people, I was very social, I was a good salesperson. They enveloped me, made me feel like family and part of the community,” said Edmondson.

Edmondson credits her Vancouver community of friends and actors for helping her keep “a toe in reality,” during her years in NXIVM.

Her inner voice flagged Raniere as “weird” from the first moment she met him, and although she had been trained to ignore it, a sliver of resistance and independence remained.

In Scarred, Edmondson reveals that she handed over a nude selfie to Saltzman as part of the “collateral” Raniere demanded to prove loyalty prior to her DOS branding. But when she learned that other women had been manipulated into handing over nudes, and that she was expected to recruit “slaves,” alarm bells went off.

“I went into mama-bear mode. I wanted to protect others.”

By November 2017, Edmondson was out of NXIVM, and had contacted the FBI. Her complaint triggered an investigation and culminated in the arrest of Raniere, actress Allison Mack, Seagram’s heiress Claire Bronfman, and other acolytes.

Edmondson chose not to attend the trial, working instead to heal her marriage with Ames, an actor and former NXIVM member. Becoming pregnant with her second child felt like the promise of a new life.

“The birth was an incredibly empowering, amazing experience,” says Edmondson, her eyes filling with tears.

Raniere was found guilty on counts of racketeering, wire fraud, forced labour, sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and attempted sex trafficking and is slated to be sentenced on Sept. 25.

His lawyers have said they will appeal the verdict.

Edmondson doesn’t yet feel completely free.

“Even though I’m healing, and have a beautiful new child and I’m focusing on family I still have fear. What if he appeals? What if he gets off? He could ruin my life.”

It’s a risk she’s willing to take. “I feel so much responsibility, and I want to do everything I can to help others recover.”

Sep 15, 2019

Ethiopia: Why Ethiopia's Rastafari Community Keeps Dwindling

Maria Gerth-Niculescu
All africa

Rastafarians from around the world have been settling in Ethiopia for the last 50 years, after being given land by Emperor Haile Selassie. Today, life in "the promised land" is far from the paradise they had imagined.

A purple tint covers the evening sky over Shashamane, home to Ethiopia's remaining Rastafarians. Inside the house of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF), a few Rastafarians are watching a documentary about how science is threatening people of color. "Yeah, that's right", they mutter now and then. In the front row, Ras Paul, wearing a red, yellow and green beanie, is in charge of the projector.

Initially, "the EWF [was] a black organization, not a Rastafarian one", said Ras Paul, the only employee of the place. The federation was launched in the US in the 1930s to support Ethiopia during the Italian invasion and to promote black unity. After World War II, Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie granted 200 hectares of land to descendants of slaves who wished to find a home on the continent. The EWF was to administer and attribute the land in Shashamane. "We can only gain political power if we become self-sufficient and rule ourselves, and the only way we [people of color] can do that, is to return home to Africa", Ras Paul explained.

Whereas the Rastafarians were not the only ones being targeted by Selassie's land donation, they ended up being the vast majority to undertake the journey from Jamaica and other countries to Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was widely viewed by Rastafarians as the Messiah who would one day bring them back to Africa. This belief added a strong religious component to the repatriation movement. It was encouraged by Selassie himself, who visited Jamaica in 1966 and urged the Rastafarians to move to Shashamane.

"The land grant was originally corporate land, but the Rastafarians spiritualized it", Ras Paul said in a British accent. He arrived in Ethiopia from the UK 20 years ago. "Religiously speaking, we were enslaved by the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church. We learnt that for most world religions, you can find their foundations inside of Africa."

Rastafarian belief is founded on an interpretation of the Old Testament. "The Bible was the only thing we were given to read as slaves, we see Ethiopia in the Bible and we identify with that. We can also identify with the story of Israelis going into Egypt and being slaves for 400 years", said Ras Paul. But for the Rastafarians, the Holy Land is in Ethiopia. In Ras Paul's office, the thin face of Haile Selassie gazes down from every wall. Rastas see him as the true reincarnation of the Christ, in accordance with a biblical prophecy.

Clash of Rastafari generations

A first influx of Rastafarians into Shashamane started in the late 60s until the mid-70s. A second wave arrived from Jamaica in the early 1990s, after the Ethiopian Civil War. Nowadays, a discrepancy persists between the ones who were here "from the beginning" and those who made the journey in recent decades.

The older generation prefers not to talk about their past which they describe as a traumatic experience. But for those who settled over 50 years ago, the newcomers had it easy here and don't have the legitimacy to speak in the name of the community.

"For many decades, they've held the political power within our community because they have some legitimacy, and for many years they were the only legitimate ones", Ras Paul recalled. "So you find there will be a clash in that way: I've personally witnessed this." The tall Rasta-man regrets that his community is to some extent "dysfunctional".

Legal status and integration

Internal squabbles, economic struggles and the difficulty of integrating with the local Ethiopian community have led many Rastafarians to leave town, either to find work in the capital Addis Ababa, or to move to another country. Only about 200 still live in Shashamane. In the late 90s, they numbered approximately 2,000.

Recently, the Ethiopian government started the allocation of national residence cards to Rastafarians who have been living in the country for over 10 years. This was an important step, not only because it gave them the right to legally live in Ethiopia, but also because it stopped the payments "illegal residents" had to make in order to be able to travel outside Ethiopia. According to Ras Paul, "Now it's their chance to travel, see their families, they can come back when they want to.... I'd say about a third of the population is out of the country now".

The allocation of the residence permit, which gives Rastafarians the status of "Foreign National of Ethiopian Origin", was celebrated as a major step towards the community's recognition and integration. They now have the right to work and can legally send their children to school. But ist is not enouigh for some. "I consider myself to be an Ethiopian returned home, and I have no desire to leave this country to live anywhere else," Ras Kawintesseb, who born in Trinidad and Tobago, said.

"It makes sense to me that I get to become an Ethiopian citizen. I'm not satisfied with being a foreign national, so I've applied for my Ethiopian citizenship," the Rastafarian who landed in Addis Ababa 23 years ago added. Married to an Ethiopian, Ras Kawintesseb is in touch with the Ethiopian community through his family and his multi-lingual music. But that's not the case for all Rastafarians in Shashamane: some are afraid that Ethiopians want to take their land away; others haven't had the chance to learn Amharic or adapt to the Ethiopian culture.

Ras Paul says he wishes to mingle more with Ethiopians. "But here it's very tense, because of the political problems of the country and the political emphasis on the land grant. There is big tension here, attacks on Rastafarians, seizing of Rastafarian land... Most of us have a story of a house being burgled, especially on his Imperial Majesty's birthday. On our most holy days they target us", he exclaimed, aggrieved. Others disagree and say that Ethiopians appreciate the Rastafarians and are flattered that their country is seen as the Holy Land.

Rejecting colonialism

Over the years, some European Rastafarians have also settled in Shashamane, adding an element of complexity to the interpretation of the movement. "Some of them are much more learned than most of the Caribbeans. Rastafarian brotherins and sisterins are from all nations, from around the world!," assured Ras Paul. Although when it comes to the land grant, he is categorical.

"What is their position on repatriation? What is their position on reparations? If a group of people have had something done to them over a period of 500 years, those people need repair. If you're talking about going from one country to the next, to inhabit land that was given [for a specific purpose], nobody should have the right to take itaway", Ras Paul said angrily. "We've had Europeans come on this land grant, take the land and sell it to other Europeans. That is colonialism", he complained.

It was precisely to flee colonialism in all its forms that the Rastafarians settled here. Ethiopia, though briefly occupied by the Italians, was never officially colonized.

Here in Shashamane, Ras Kawintesseb feels free to express his spirituality more than ever. "As a musician, I am not only free to live it, but to express it to the world: the simple proclamation and chanting and vibration have that spiritual power," he said.

"We're not taught in school, or hardly ever, about basic ideas of your inner mind, your inner being," said Ras Kawintesseb as he climbed into his favorite tree for his daily reading routine. "You've got to go and look for those ideas yourself."

I was the first woman to publicly accuse gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. But I was also abused in my own church.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Rachael Denhollander
Washington Post
September 9, 2019

Rachael Denhollander was the first gymnast to come forward against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar. This is her story of experiencing abuse in church when she was 7 years old.

I still remember it like it was yesterday.

The church was small, just a few hundred people, and everyone knew everyone. My mom played flute and sang on occasion. I earned a reputation early on for loving children, and I frequently cuddled babies for tired moms after the service or played with their toddlers in the nursery during business meetings. Our family was part of a tightknit, small group Bible study that was a highlight of every week, and my parents had been close friends with many of the people there long before I had been born. I’d been born alongside their children, and we had grown up together. The church, which was Baptist in theology but independent from any denomination, was part of our family, and we were part of it.

But something changed when I was 7. I stopped heading straight from Sunday school to the church mailbox — a small set of cubbies, each with a family’s name inscribed — to check for notes and newsletters. I didn’t walk the hallways anymore, using my finger to trace the lines between the giant bricks covered in thick cream paint. And I wandered the bright green lawn with the other kids a lot less.

I spent a lot more time hiding in the girls bathroom, shaking and wishing someone would ask what was wrong but knowing I wouldn’t know what to say if they did.

I had been abused and was still being preyed upon by a college student at the church. He’d managed to do it while sitting me on his lap during a church Bible study. No one knew except me, and I wasn’t sure what I knew, except that I felt terrified and physically ill. I wasn’t about to describe what made me feel that way, either. So I hung out in the washroom, the one place he couldn’t find me.

Then one week, he didn’t come back. I figured he’d finished college and moved. But somehow, even after he was gone, things didn’t go back to normal. The Bible study we were part of eventually ended. The adults I loved and trusted suddenly seemed icy and distant. Some of our closest friends left to start a new church. The ones who remained weren’t close to us any longer. More than a year later, we left, too. The reasons were vague and unclear. I was devastated at the loss and frustrated that I couldn’t understand or just be told what had happened.

Years later, when I was about 12, unable to shake the vivid memories from that time, I told my mom what he’d done. She paused a long moment and then said a broken, “I’m so sorry.” We talked about it. I asked questions, and I finally got the answers I wanted. But I didn’t like them.

It turned out that my abuser had been asked to leave because several female college students had complained about his behavior. But alarms had been raised much earlier about his behavior toward me and another little girl in the church. A missionary couple and a group of adults who were sexual assault counselors saw the warning signs — grooming and targeting, inordinate amounts of targeted attention, and physical overfamiliarity. They spoke up, not realizing anything had already happened.

My parents responded immediately by taking steps to protect me. Truth be told, they were uncomfortable with some of his behaviors and had already put up some boundaries. But they hadn’t cut off contact yet, second-guessing their instincts, knowing how serious it was to even entertain the idea that someone might be a predator. Because of adults who spoke up and parents who responded immediately, I’d been saved from worse abuse, and for that I will always be profoundly grateful.

But I also learned the other side of the story. Many of our friends, a number of them lay leaders and prominent people in the church, didn’t see my parents’ actions as protective. Because I hadn’t verbalized any report of abuse, my parents’ response was viewed as an accusation made with no proof, and the expertise of the sexual assault counselors was discounted by many because they used materials by psychologists and licensed therapists. The fact that these psychologists were Christian didn’t really matter. The materials were “outside Scripture,” so they couldn’t be trusted.

Some of the people who raised an alarm, my mom included, were themselves survivors of abuse. At times, skeptics wielded this against them like a weapon: “Survivors always oversexualize everything,” they said, “imposing their experiences on everything around them,” so they couldn’t be trusted either.

And it wasn’t just me. The issue of sexual assault and how it should be handled had been a stick in the church’s proverbial craw for a very long time. Animosity over what methods were and weren’t appropriate and biblical to use in the church’s sexual abuse counseling ministry had pitted members against one another for years.

My mom said that in the same building where survivors wept and prayed with counselors, other church members passed out cassette tapes attacking the materials and experts the counselors relied upon, branding them as unbiblical and ungodly. Certain small groups didn’t want members of the counseling ministry in their Bible studies. And all the while this man was preying upon me, and the animosity was reaching a fever pitch.

As so often happens, misguided theology and a refusal to interact with experts on this issue led the church to miss — and then cover up — sexual abuse within its own walls. And it hadn’t affected only me. Other serious and credible allegations of this form of abuse had been buried. For a small church of only a few hundred people, sexual abuse had become a predominant, well-kept secret.

After a period of about 16 years, my parents learned about a pastor preying on women he counseled, a youth leader bringing boys to her home to watch porn, a male youth leader who was having sex with one of the seniors, a pastor sexually harassing the secretary. Each time an abuser was found or a scandal uncovered, the response was the same: Quietly dismiss the abuser. Hush it up. Tell no one. My parents knew many of the details only because they were savvy enough to know the methods of dismissal didn’t add up, and they were close enough to key leaders in the church to demand answers.

The information my mom gave me after I told her what had happened brought clarity to questions that had swirled in my mind for years and explained icy behaviors I couldn’t previously understand. It also left me with a lesson I’ve never forgotten and had in fact taken into the exam room with Larry: If you can’t prove it, don’t speak up. Because it will cost you everything.

Adapted from “What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics,” by Rachael Denhollander, to be released by Tyndale House Publishers on Sept. 10.

What do Amish, Mennonite, rumspringa mean? A guide to terms used in Lancaster County's Plain community

What do Amish, Mennonite, rumspringa mean? A guide to terms used in Lancaster County's Plain community
Lancaster Online
September 13, 2019

When discussing the Amish, it's easy to get confused by some of the terms used.

(And it's especially confusing when television shows like "Amish Mafia" and "Breaking Amish" become the baseline in pop culture.)

The Amish use several terms that come from Pennsylvania Dutch and haven't quite made it to mainstream media.

To better understand our Amish neighbors, LNP worked to collect and define words that might be unfamiliar to those outside the Amish community.

Here are some frequently-used Amish-related words and their definitions:

Plain Sect Community

Characterized by living separately from the world, these Christian groups include the Amish and various Mennonite and Brethren groups. Most are of the Anabaptist movement, which traces its roots to the Protestant Reformation.

The Amish make up a group of traditionalist Christians that originated from Swiss German Anabaptism. The Amish are best known for their plain dress and aversion to technology. While all Amish people share common beliefs, practices vary from congregation to congregation. Within Lancaster County, there are 229 Amish districts — each with different rules and regulations. 


While often mistaken for the Amish, more conservative sects of the Mennonite faith differ quite a bit from the Amish. Most use electricity and drive cars and tractors. However, other sects of the Mennonite faith have assimilated into mainstream culture.

If you're not a part of the Plain Sect community, you're what the Amish call English.


While the Amish Mafia does not exist, Amish gangs do. LNP sat down with Charles Jantzi, psychology professor at Messiah College and researcher of Amish youth, who explains what an Amish gang is and how it impacts Amish teens. A gang is like a youth group. 


In popular culture, rumspringa has been represented as an opportunity for Amish youth to go wild. This isn't exactly correct. Rumspringa is a period during which an Amish teen has more freedom. Around the age of 16, Amish teens join gangs, which greatly determine how rebellious their rumspringa experience will be. Fancy gangs might allow more of an "English" experience, while plain gangs will be more conservative. Most Amish teens stick to the boundaries of their gangs during rumspringa. 

Mud Sale

Typically hosted by fire companies and nonprofits, these fundraisers often feature Amish-made goods such as quilts and food. Many Amish also attend these events.

Building a temple in Russia may be a heavy lift in a nation not eager to even see LDS chapels

Peggy Fletcher Stack
Salt Lake Tribune
September 10, 2019

This is the third part in a three-part series examining how Western faiths, including the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are having to adapt to survive and grow in a nation where the government, with encouragement from the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, continues to put up barriers. 
Part 1 explains what Western faiths are up against in Russia. Part 2 explores the future of Mormonism in a land where missionary work is essentially barred.

Moscow • Just before 4 p.m. on Easter Sunday in 2018, in his first General Conference as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Russell M. Nelson made a historic announcement: The Utah-based faith would build a temple in a “major city” in Russia.

And, though it was after midnight in this distant land (and most Russians were fast asleep), some Latter-day Saints here began furiously messaging one another.

“I got texts from my [former] missionary companion,” recalls Kristina Nikogosyan, who works for the church in Moscow. “I was crying for three hours.”

It is a “huge blessing for Russia,” she says, “that God sees us.”

Sergei Antamanov, the church’s spokesman in Russia, didn’t hear the news until he was eating breakfast the next morning, and his Facebook page was exploding with the unexpected development.

Both Antamanov and Nikogosyan know the religious reality. The nation’s 23,000 Latter-day Saints are the smallest of Davids compared to the Russian Orthodox Goliath, whose influence and infrastructure dominate the physical and spiritual landscape.

It is the predominant religion of the people. Its multicolored domes weave in and out of the skylines among the citadels and the statuaries, the Soviet-era apartments and the gleaming new malls. Its cathedrals are almost as ubiquitous as the standard-brand Latter-day Saint steeples in Utah County.

In this vast country, those rounded roofs of Orthodoxy make a statement beyond architecture and aesthetics: This, they silently trumpet, is our land and our identity.

Will an intruding Latter-day Saint temple — representing a faith not just from the West but from America — actually be permitted to puncture that picture?
Maintaining the visual message

In 2016, the Russian government passed a strict law against proselytizing by so-called minority faiths. It prohibited talking about religion on the streets, in homes and in any public places.

The purpose was to forestall — or at least hinder — these denominations from growing or from luring away believers from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Another tactic being tapped to limit these faiths is to block them from building their own churches.

“Local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land,” reads the 2018 U.S. State Department Report on International Religious Freedom in Russia, “and denied them construction permits for houses of worship.”

The report cited “a senior member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Development of Civil Society,” who said “there was a new tendency among regional authorities to restrict the construction or restoration of houses of prayer and churches on residential lands.”

In two separate cases in March, the State Department said, “authorities demolished residences on private land that were being used as churches, one in Novorossiysk and one in Abinsk.”

Muslims, too, find their need for new sacred spaces to be blocked by the government.

“As elsewhere in the world, the number of Muslims is growing in Russia today,” says Azamat Abdusalomov, deputy head of the international department of the Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of Russia. “There is a large influx of external and internal migration, [which presents] a need to increase the number of mosques in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other cities.”

Moscow has more than a million Muslims and only four mosques.

“This issue requires attention and needs to be resolved,” Abdusalomov writes in an email. “The authorities do not want to resolve this issue and throw off this issue on Russian nationalism and other reasons, but, in fact, these issues could be resolved.”

More mosques are needed “because they have a well-established policy of preaching the correct Islamic education,” he says, to counter “extreme ideas” and instill “concepts of humanity and interfaith dialogue.”

Many Islamic migrants come from outside Russia, says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Moscow-based nonprofit organization that researches nationalism, racism and relations between churches and secular society. “The need to build a new mosque is very important to them.”

For Russian authorities, it’s a matter of control, Verkhovsky says. Fewer mosques makes it “easier to follow and check up on them and their activities.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced the harshest opposition to their places of worship. Because the government has labeled the group an “extremist” religion, it has used the law to confiscate or close 700 Kingdom Halls across the country.

Could Mormon meetinghouses be next?

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
Latter-day Saint chapels

There have been “long delays or refusals to grant permits to construct church buildings in Russia since the early 1990s,” says David Stewart, an independent Latter-day Saint demographer and physician in Las Vegas.

When Latter-day Saints in St. Petersburg wanted to build their first meetinghouse in the 1990s on land the church owned, neighbors balked.

Russian Orthodox Church members and evangelicals from outside the area also protested, says Bishop Kirill Ananich of the Shuvalovsky Ward, or congregation, in St. Petersburg.

The opposition grew so strong that the plan had to be aborted and another site chosen.

“There was propaganda against it,” the bishop says. “The town they proposed as an alternative, Vyborg, was 120 kilometers away, but it was actually much better.”

Stewart was a missionary in St. Petersburg at the time and served in Vyborg for two months as the chapel was being built.

The church spent heavily on legal fees, the demographer says. “Church leaders viewed the construction of meetinghouses as an essential matter, which would allegedly fuel growth and promote member retention.”

Such permanent buildings also put down a topographical and psychological marker that Mormonism was there to stay.

It didn’t work out that way.

“Extensive anti-Mormon agitation took its toll,” Stewart says. “In 1993, there were four branches [smaller congregations] in Vyborg. After the chapel was completed, the branches were gradually consolidated due to member attrition. Today, there is just one ward.”

Still, Stewart adds, the fledgling faith needed to “obtain permanent meeting places as organizations we had rented space from gradually revoked leases under pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Today, there are three meetinghouses owned by the LDS Church in St. Petersburg, but they all have been reconfigured from another use.

Buying — and remodeling — existing buildings seems to be the pattern now, Stewart says. “It has drawn less attention and opposition than constructing free-standing churches.”

The Shuvalovsky Ward, for example, is in a warehouse-type building surrounded by apartments. Members enter from the back alley.

Once inside, though, it looks like other Latter-day Saint meetinghouses, with wooden pews, church-approved Jesus art and ample classroom space.

Stewart notes that the church wanted to build its own chapels, even though “tithes from the region are small.”

Operating costs that underlie the assumption that every congregation needs its own meetinghouse, he says, “are not sustainable with so few members.”

Stewart grasps the impulse, though.

“The church wants to have a physical footprint there,” he says. “Having a building legitimizes the church as a local institution with a history” — and a future.

Precisely. That explains why the Russian Orthodox Church resists construction of worship spaces for minority faiths.
A temple on the horizon?

When Nelson announced that a temple would be built in a “major” Russian city, Mikhail Kotov joked that he knew exactly where to put it — in the St. Petersburg fortress built by Peter the Great.

In the center is Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, where the czars are buried. It boasts a giant angel weather vane on its spire.

Kotov, a Latter-day Saint tour guide and returned missionary, quipped that citizens are used to seeing an angel, so why not a temple with Mormonism’s iconic Moroni statue?

Others imagine the Latter-day Saint “House of the Lord” rising in the capital of Moscow or in Saratov in southern Russia.

For now, most members venture to Helsinki, Finland, to participate in temple rites. (Unlike meetinghouses, temples are viewed by Latter-day Saints as houses of God, places where the devout take part in their faith’s most sacred ordinances, including eternal marriage.) The Kyiv (formerly Kiev) Temple is closer, but the political turmoil over Ukraine makes it dicier for members to travel back and forth.

There’s another roadblock as well: Russia’s new privacy laws.

Information about citizens cannot be kept on systems outside the country. The LDS Church’s computer system, where membership data and vast genealogical research typically are stored, is based in Salt Lake City.

Members search out their ancestors and then take their names to the temple to do vicarious religious rituals for them. But Russia will not allow personal family data to be gathered outside the country.

When Russians arrive in Helsinki, for example, the Finnish temple will not be able to pull up their membership records or recommends.

“We cannot use FamilySearch [the church’s genealogical arm], but we will come up with something else,” says St. Petersburg Stake President Boris Leostrin, who oversees a number of Latter-day Saint congregations. “This is something we have to learn.”

Such obstacles, he is convinced, “will strengthen us.”
‘Nothing is impossible’

Given Russia’s political climate, Stewart wonders about Mormonism’s promised temple there.

“It is an aspiration, an intention, a desire,” he says. “But it’s hard to see that the temple project would be able to go forward.”

Indeed, a few weeks after Nelson’s startling announcement, apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf flew to Russia to tamp down expectations and to deal with the Russian bureaucracy.

The temple announcement “is a historic one, and it’s a beautiful one,” Uchtdorf told Russian journalist and scholar Sergey Georgievich Antonenko, according to a church news release. “Up until now, if [members] wanted to go to the temple, they had to travel outside of Russia.”

Uchtdorf added: “We’re very grateful for Russia to be a country where religious freedom is established.”

The popular apostle assured the writer that Latter-day Saints are “law-abiding, wonderful citizens” who love the tradition and history of their country.

In talking about eventually erecting a temple in Russia, the charismatic German was upbeat. When the Latter-day Saints are ready, he said, “the temple will be ready.”

Nikogosyan says the apostle was “encouraging us to prepare ourselves spiritually.”

When the temple news first broke, Latter-day Saints speculated where it would be built and when. Now, she hears members asking: “What do we have to do to get ready?”

“The temple is a blessing for all society, not just members,” she says. “Anyone can take photos on the beautiful grounds.” It is not meant “to compete with the Orthodox.”

Nikogosyan understands the restrictions and barriers but remains hopeful.

“Nothing is impossible to God,” she says. “It all depends on us.”

Sep 14, 2019

I Left the Cult Next Door

My mother and I stopped speaking after I broke with the man we called the Apostle.
My mother and I stopped speaking after I broke with the man we called the Apostle.
Tracy Simmons
Wall Street Journal
September 12, 2019

For the past five years, I have received a daily email filled with stories about those who succumb to extreme religious ideologies. Whether it’s the Nxivm sex-cult trial in New York earlier this year or the Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country,” Americans have shown an expansive appetite for cult stories. While my interest in the topic isn’t unique, it’s personal: I grew up in a cult.

In fact, I grew up in the cult next door. There wasn’t sexual or physical abuse. We never lived in a compound. I didn’t work on a farm in the woods. Instead my cult venerated one man, who said he was an apostle receiving direct revelation from God. We followed the Bible and this man’s teachings. We gave him 10% of our income—which he used to buy a Jaguar, snakeskin boots and a house on the Rio Grande.

In hindsight, my mother and I must have been the perfect mark. A woman abandoned by her husband and left to raise a socially awkward child on her own had some wounds. She was looking for belonging and acceptance. We had faith in Jesus but were never going to be noticed at the megachurch we attended. All it took was someone to make us feel special.

Enter a man with a charming Caribbean accent. We met him when we were invited to his Albuquerque home, when I was about 7. He invited us to worship in his living room and made my mom feel noticed. His care, instruction and prophetic rhetoric made us feel important. And after being deserted by her spouse, my mother felt seen. Too bad she was seen by the wrong person. We began to call the man the Apostle.

In our little group, those without a spiritual father were called orphans. After joining, members were assigned a male pastor to meet with weekly. And then once a month everyone would gather together to hear the Apostle’s divine word. If you were obedient enough, you could become an elder or prophet. When I was a member, there were about 20 normal members and three elders and prophets. That was our home group, but others gathered throughout the area.

At first the cult simply offered charismatic worship. But over time it became more. The Apostle proclaimed God was sending him updates to the Bible—often ones that didn’t make much sense—like demanding that unmarried women give their earnings to their spiritual fathers, who would in turn give them an allowance. Eventually anyone who disagreed with anything was cut out.

We considered mainstream organized religions faulty and their adherents misinformed. Non-Christian religions were especially dangerous. Eventually we cut ties with those who didn’t believe the same as us, especially if they argued a lot. If we were too strong-willed, we were shamed about our disobedience and prayed over until the demons found their way out through vomit or collapse. Hardship was a clear sign that God disapproved of our behavior.

The desire to feel welcomed and earn approval can push even the most rational people to make bad mistakes. In extreme cases, such people commit violence in the name of their cause. Or they literally drink the Kool-Aid. But in everyday cults like the one we belonged to, the mistakes were small but significant over time—voluntarily forfeiting our earnings, relationships and free will.

I started to pull away from the cult when I went to college in the early 2000s, putting a wedge between my mother and me. The wedge grew into a wall over the years as I became a religion reporter and refused to discuss the Apostle and his teachings with her. My refusal was followed with a letter from my mom saying we could no longer be in relationship because I “continued to disobey God’s law.” Her note came with two boxes full of my childhood belongings.

Cult expert Rick Alan Ross once told me that he learns about a new cult in the U.S. every day. Most of these are like the cult next door that I grew up in. They won’t cause death or sexual abuse on a massive scale. Rather, these everyday cults tear already weak families apart.

The real issue is how many distressed and lonely people go without care. People like my mom, who needed love and healing, but couldn’t find it in a church, neighborhood, family or friend. I don’t know if there’s a top-down solution to protect people like her from cults. But we can all do a better job noticing each other, showing empathy, and offering acceptance to those around us. You never know who you might be saving.

Ms. Simmons is editor of the religion news website and a lecturer at the University of Idaho.

How a 'Fake Guru' Set Up a 'Wild Wild Country'-Style Commune in the Mexican Jungle

Former followers of Ozen Rajneesh accuse the guru of being a 'fake,' cheating them out of thousands of dollars, and mishandling the disappearance of a commune member.

Hilary Beaumont
September 6, 2019

Michael Gerard, 23, first heard about the guru Ozen online in August 2014, when he was searching for a cure to his depression.

The tall, thin student from Germany with an interest in science and politics had a diagnosis of agoraphobia and a history of suicidal thoughts. A friend described him as one of the brightest people at a boarding school they attended together. Family said Gerard badly wanted a girlfriend, but was struggling with dating.

By then, he was already a follower of Osho, the controversial spiritual leader who had built communes in India and Oregon and was featured in the popular Netflix series Wild Wild Country. Because of Osho, who died in 1990, Gerard had become a vegan, and had started meditating and practising yoga.

That day in August, he ran to his mom, laptop in hand, exclaiming that he had found a disciple of Osho, and begged her to let him go to Mexico.

The Osho disciple is named Ozen Rajneesh or Swami Rajneesh, and his legal name is Rajnish Agarwal.

In his book Tears of the Mystic Rose, Ozen claims to be the successor of Osho, writing that when the original guru died, his spirit entered him.

When Gerard found him online, Ozen and roughly two dozen followers were in the middle of building a massive ashram in the Mexican jungle, a 35-minute drive down a rough dirt road from the coastal resort town of Playa del Carmen. Drone footage shows massive concrete structures emerging from the forest canopy, arranged in a circle around a deep cenote. There was an art centre, a restaurant, a Buddha meditation hall, and dozens of cottages and studios. Wood pathways wound through the jungle connecting the buildings, and swans and peacocks roamed the property. The guru called it OZEN Cocom, after a Mayan dynasty that previously controlled the Yucatán Peninsula.

Ozen told his followers the Mexican commune would offer Osho-like meditations for free, unlike Osho International Foundation, in Pune, India, which charges $700 US to $2,200 US a month.

He immediately reached out to Ozen, telling him he was depressed, had a history of suicidal thoughts, and was desperate to join the commune.

According to emails between Gerard and Ozen, Ozen told him if he wanted to visit the commune, he had to buy a cottage. It would cost between $16,000 US and $33,000 US, and $5,000 US cash to reserve one. They were selling fast. Gerard said his mother had doubts, but the guru assured him that Ozen Cocom was a legally-registered non-profit with a board of directors and shareholders.

Gerard flew to Mexico on April 11, 2015, with about 400 euros (about $450 US). It’s unclear if he ever put any money down for a cottage. Ozen did not respond when we asked if Gerard gave him money.

When Gerard arrived, he volunteered to work construction, without pay. In emails to his mom, Gerard said people at the ashram were nice to him, and they often went dancing on weekends. “Mom, I cannot express how deeply you were mistaken,” he wrote. He asked her to send him money, saying everyone was investing in the project. She transferred 60 euros (about $70 US) into his account every month, but he asked for more.

In September, four months after he started working on the commune, Gerard told other residents he had reached enlightenment. But it was short-lived. Soon after, residents say Gerard locked himself in his cottage and refused to come out for days.

The next thing his fellow residents heard was that Gerard had left his cottage and walked alone into the dark, dense jungle.

No one has seen him since.

Michael’s story is one of many that have former followers raising the alarm about Ozen.

A VICE investigation has uncovered more than a dozen followers around the world who have defected from the guru, accusing him of being a “fake” who is not really enlightened.

VICE spoke to seven people who allege Ozen convinced them to send tens of thousands of dollars each as donations in exchange for cottages in a spiritual community. They say they asked for refunds, but years later haven’t been paid back. One person filed a fraud complaint against Ozen to Indian police but no charges were laid and Ozen has denied the allegations.

In recent years, allegations against Ozen have surfaced on social media and on a website created by a former follower. In response, Ozen created his own website that says a handful of disgruntled ex-followers have decided to attack him with false allegations.

On his website, Ozen calls any allegations of fraud “absurd and fabricated lies.” He says he owes 21 people a total of $169,000 US and plans to pay them back.

Other former followers say they volunteered to work construction on his Mexico project without pay because he claimed he was building a non-profit ashram in Osho’s name that would offer free meditations.

Today, Ozen and his followers live in Mexico at what is now called Ozen Rajneesh Resort. Independent yoga companies are charging people up to $1,500 to attend retreats there, and in a 2018 letter, Ozen describes the resort as a “hotel business.”

When I reached out to him, Ozen said he had suddenly been hospitalized and couldn’t answer my questions, but he continued to send frantic WhatsApp messages for days. He said the real story was that his Icelandic model ex-girlfriend was trying to murder him, accused me of being “a fraud or hacker” and colluding with a former member to take him down, and repeatedly referred me to his website.

Ozen did not answer my questions about whether the resort’s current iteration is consistent with his original vision. He says on his website that 8,000 people have visited his Mexico resort and more than 200 volunteers helped build his “dream project.” The resort’s Facebook page has a 4.9 out of 5 star rating with about 300 positive reviews.

Former followers are also questioning Ozen’s actions after Gerard’s disappearance. Two former residents allege Ozen told them to lie and say Gerard went to Tulum after he went missing, because Ozen told them people were working without valid visas and an investigation would compromise the survival of the resort. Gerard’s mother is also accusing police agencies of failing to search for her son.

On his website, Ozen strongly denies allegations that he tried to “cover up” Gerard’s disappearance, and says the last he heard from Gerard, the young man had travelled to nearby Tulum.
The Osho of the social media generation

To understand who Ozen is, you must understand who Osho was.

An Indian man with a long white beard and gentle smile, Osho, aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, said he reached enlightenment in 1953. His followers believed he was a second Buddha. He said any of his followers could reach enlightenment.

Osho hosted meditation camps in the 1960s in India. He rejected orthodox religions, but wanted to create a “religionless religion.” He published books in favour of capitalism and open sexuality, leading to his nickname “the sex guru.”

Near the end of the Vietnam War, Osho founded an ashram in Pune, India, attracting many young Westerners who were skeptical of the U.S. government and mainstream culture. Osho said his technique, Dynamic Meditation, would help them break ingrained patterns in their minds. By breathing rapidly, shaking, jumping and screaming, they would arouse Kundalini, a force coiled like a snake at the base of the spine.

In the early 1980s, Osho built a new 64,000-acre commune in the rugged, rolling hills of Antelope, Oregon, a town of 50 people. At its height, 7,000 American and European hippies and wealthy Indians wearing red robes lived in the Oregon commune, and donated funds toward its construction. The commune incorporated as its own city in May 1982. A coalition of landowners took the commune to court, and petitioned the governor to expel its residents.

In 1984, ahead of a county election, a group of Osho’s followers poisoned about 700 town residents by contaminating salad bars with salmonella, hoping their own candidates would win. Two of Osho’s followers were later convicted of attempted murder for the stunt. They also plotted to murder Oregon’s state attorney who was investigating the food poisoning alongside cases of fake marriages at the commune.

The investigation led to two convictions of immigration fraud against Osho, and prompted the U.S. to kick him out of the country. He returned to India, and died of heart failure at his ashram in Pune in 1990 at age 58.

Today, his Pune ashram is owned by Osho International Foundation, made up of members of Osho’s inner circle, and continues to attract followers.

Ozen says he picked up where Osho left off.

Ozen looks just like his master. He too has a long beard, walks slowly, and speaks softly. He is often shirtless with a red sarong tied around his waist. He says he resembles his master because he is a vessel for Osho’s spirit. “My love for my master is so deep, has grown so vast in me, that my form is also responding and becoming like him,” he said in a 2013 video.

Born in Calcutta in 1960, Ozen wrote about his beginnings and his path to being Osho’s successor in his 2008 book Tears of the Mystic Rose. He described his father as a money-hungry businessman, while his mother was a Bollywood actress and homemaker.

Ozen wrote that he knew he was special. As a young man, he dreamed of “a long-bearded person looking at me with compelling magnetic eyes.” Then he saw Osho’s face on a magazine cover. In 1981 he decided to follow Osho as a disciple.

When Osho was arrested in 1985, Ozen claimed that Osho appeared to him in a vision and told him he needed to reach enlightenment—which he said he did, after three months of meditation. That’s when he started to take on the characteristics of Osho. He also publicly changed his given name from Rajnish to Rajneesh.

Ozen wrote he was at the Pune ashram on January 19, 1990, when Osho died. When Osho’s spirit left his body, Ozen claimed his spirit was “reborn” into him. In the days following Osho’s death, he said the original guru’s closest devotees started recognizing him as their master, but the ashram kicked him out because they believed he was impersonating Osho.

For his part, Ozen has been critical of his master while presenting himself as a more monastic figure than Osho; he said he doesn’t drink coffee, prefers weed and ayahuasca to alcohol, and practised celibacy for years. In his bio on his website, he wrote that he didn’t agree with Osho’s large collection of Rolls Royces or his “unaccountable wealth with no transparency.” He also disagreed with Osho International Foundation “exploiting seekers” by charging a fee for meditations.

It’s not clear exactly what Ozen got up to in the 15 to 20 years after Osho died. In one bio, he said after reaching enlightenment he spent 12 years in silence in the Himalayas. In another bio, he said it was nine years, and that he travelled the world for a company, earned $300,000 a year, and became an internationally recognized designer.

In 2007, Ozen started hosting Dynamic Meditations in small groups that grew into a “world tour.” This is when followers say he started recruiting them to buy cottages at his commune. In 2010, he purchased a 50-acre property in Goa, India, where he said he would build a not-for-profit ashram offering free Osho meditations. Many former followers were drawn in by his social justice message.

Jivan Ranjita from Spain believed Ozen was Osho’s successor who didn’t want to make money off spirituality.

“We all love Osho; it’s about Osho,” she said. “It was as if Osho was speaking through him, and he looks like him.”

Ranjita said she sent him money in exchange for a cottage in Goa.

Facebook messages from 2013 show Ozen confirmed he received $13,640 US from her. He later told her the price of the cottage was higher than he first said, $17,400 US, and that she now owed him more money, including thousands more for solar batteries and furniture. She said she didn’t send him any more money.

Ivan Aleksandrovich Seregin, a Russian DJ, also attended Ozen’s world tour and believed in his message of free Osho meditations. He visited the Goa land on Ozen’s invitation. “But there was nothing there, just pure nature,” he said. “They had built a road, but that was it.” He said he paid 13,000 euros for a Goa cottage in 2011 (about $17,000 US). Facebook messages show Ozen confirmed he received 777,000 Indian rupees (about $15,000 US) from Seregin. (The exchange rate fluctuated a lot that year, and Seregin says he paid in instalments.)

During a ceremony, Seregin alleges Ozen screamed at a young woman because she wasn’t preparing flowers fast enough for a ritual. This led him to think Ozen was not really enlightened, and he asked for a refund.

According to Facebook messages, Ozen responded that the money was not in his personal account, but in a land development fund. He said he could refund Seregin, but would keep 35 percent because “it is complex in India for foreign exchange transfers.” Seregin said Ozen never sent the refund. Ozen did not respond to questions from VICE about Seregin’s money.

The Economic Times, an India-based English-language news outlet, reported that Ozen’s 45-acre plan included 40 cottages, a 40-room guest house, kitchens, a bakery, massage/wellness spas, a swimming pool, a martial arts school, medical and banking centres, and a silence zone.

News reports from March 2011 say the Goa project sparked protests before it even got off the ground. At a village council meeting, locals demanded that the council reject a key permit. Councillor Dattaram Gaonkar told the Economic Times they wouldn’t give Ozen the permit until he clarified what the project was. “Whether it is an ashram or a hotel is not clear,” he said.

The Goa commune was never built.

In November 2011, followers received an email from Ozen explaining that he had trouble obtaining the permits. He was moving the project to Mexico, where a Mexican landowner Javier del Paso had donated a plot of land near Playa del Carmen, a bustling destination for spirituality tourism. (It’s unclear why del Paso donated the land; he did not respond to questions from VICE.) Many were shocked at this sudden turn of events and asked for refunds.

“I blindly trusted Swami Rajneesh, so I never had any doubt in my mind regarding construction of my cottage,” Vinod Singh, a software engineer from India who paid 777,000 Indian rupees for a cottage in Goa in 2011, wrote on his blog. Ozen confirms on his website that he owes Singh 777,000 Indian rupees.

Singh reported him to Indian police, but they told him it was too late because Ozen had already left the country. The complaint never resulted in charges. In 2012, Ozen flew to Mexico.
The commune in Mexico

The complaints failed to find traction. But as Ozen forged ahead with his project in Mexico, there was more trouble to come.

The land in Mexico was a 19-hectare plot of untouched jungle near the popular resort town of Playa del Carmen. In early 2012, Ozen posted photos of the land and his plans on Facebook, saying he would complete the project in two to three years. He said he had volunteers from all over the world offering to help. He said his “eco village” would offer “nature, silence, tranquility, meditativeness and a compassionate space for growth and flowering of human consciousness.” People responded with excited comments.

There was a split at this time between followers who had lost faith in Ozen and wanted refunds, and followers who still believed he was an enlightened disciple of Osho. His supporters flew to Mexico to help local workers build his commune. Ozen told some of them there would be meditations, but when they arrived there were none, and he put them to work.

In a 2013 YouTube video at a small gathering at his residence in Mexico, the guru said a recent heart attack had made him want to build even more ashrams.

“Now [I want to build] 10 ashrams, Osho free communes, so that no one single place can exploit his message. And more and more and more and more free communes so that if you don’t like one, you simply move to the other,” he said.

Ozen hired five companies with more than 100 workers to build his project, according to a manager at the resort. Hundreds of volunteers helped too.

The volunteers lived in offsite housing, about a 30-minute drive to the commune, with two people to each room, according to a former follower. Another follower said he was charged $200 a month for accommodations.

They would commute to the land by pick-up truck six days a week, and work 10 to 12 hours a day. Ozen, who also lived offsite, arrived around 4 p.m. each day to inspect their progress. Followers said he pulled up in a red Cadillac. Sometimes he would suddenly cancel their day off, two former followers said. Ozen didn’t respond when asked about the work conditions.

“It was remarkable to me,” said Mark Bloedjes, a former follower from the Netherlands who met Ozen on his world tour in the mid-2000s. “He would come at the end of the afternoon when everyone is tired, and he is telling us to do more jobs.”

Former volunteers said a member of Ozen’s management team, Chinmayo, was tasked with overseeing construction. They allege Chinmayo yelled at, chastised, and hit them if they did something incorrectly. Chinmayo told VICE he was never in charge of construction. He said he had arguments and fights with many people. He said he had assaulted two men because they abused women.

The volunteers were willing to work for free because they were followers of Osho, and believed that Ozen was truly his successor. They believed they were working toward his social justice cause of building an ashram that would offer Osho meditations for free.

Years before he arrived in Mexico, Bloedjes had his large intestine removed due to an infection, causing severe health problems. He said he sent Ozen $15,000 US but Ozen upsold him to a more expensive cottage for $21,000 US, claiming its cone shape had “healing energy.” Ozen did not reply when asked about this.

Around 2013, Bloedjes became one of the first to follow Ozen to Mexico. He volunteered to help build the project, against the advice of doctors who said he should not do manual labour.

“It was a big project and I was just willing to help with whatever I could,” Bloedjes said. “Everyone was excited to make this dream possible.”

He wasn’t paid, but Ozen provided basic meals. “Always rice and beans, every day,” Bloedjes said. “Every morning the same porridge. If we were lucky we’d get some raisins in it.” He lost weight, felt weak, and had diarrhea for months.

Other volunteers described similar meals, sometimes with eggs and vegetables. Ozen did not respond to questions about the meals.

Construction ramped up in 2014 and 2015, including of Ozen’s two-storey white palace. The workers built a recording studio where musicians recorded meditation music. They built Swan House, where live swans roosted. The guru purchased Buddha statues and a monument to Hindu elephant god Ganesha. On the ceiling of one building, they installed a mural of Jesus and angels. In the kitchen, an enlarged photo of Osho stared down at the modern-day sannyasins.

When the commune was nearly done in late 2015, Ozen’s followers moved into the cottages they had built. They meditated daily and threw a festival in March 2016 to celebrate.

The festivals became monthly in 2016, with 200 to 300 visitors at a time. They engaged in Osho Dynamic Meditations, shaking their bodies and breathing rapidly. Photos on the resort Facebook page show lavish meals of salads, fried manchurian balls, and star-shaped pizzas. At night, the resort lit up with parties featuring musicians and belly dancers.
Sexual misconduct allegations emerge on Facebook

Ozen’s followers worked hard to build his dream. They described him as intelligent, creative, and charismatic, but they also allege he was narcissistic, had a quick temper, and was more concerned about his project than the safety of residents.

In January 2014, Ozen, 52 at the time, started a relationship with a 19-year-old woman who lived at the resort. He says on his website he made her a 5 percent shareholder in the resort and bought her jewelry. The relationship ended in June 2014. She declined to comment for this story. Ozen says their relationship was consensual.

Another woman shared an experience she said was not consensual.

In fall 2014, a woman in her 20s from Germany, a vegan who was into yoga, says Ozen sent her a friend request on Facebook. They chatted for two months, and he invited her to Mexico for a New Year’s Eve party at the commune. “Your coming to Mexico will be the most precious gift I have ever received in my life!!” he wrote to her.

On December 29, she flew to the resort. Commune residents normally picked up newcomers at the airport, but Ozen picked her up himself. Instead of driving to the commune, he drove her to his apartment in Playa del Carmen. She slept in his guest room.

She described two separate incidents that left her feeling unsafe.

One evening they drove in his red Cadillac to meet commune members. He surprised her by saying he didn’t want her to leave his side and that she could sleep in his bed. During their Facebook chats, he had told her he was celibate. “I never anticipated he would try to make a move,” she told VICE.

When she said she wasn’t interested, she alleges “he went crazy,” slapping her leg hard and yelling that he was the successor of Osho and had more authority over her body than she did.

Because her money and passport were at his house, she told him she had trauma and wasn’t interested in sex. She said it worked. “His ego was tamed.”

On another occasion, she went to sleep in the guest room. When she woke up, she alleges he was touching her between her legs. She said she made an excuse of feeling sick, and went to the bathroom. Ozen followed her. She pretended to vomit and she alleges he came up behind her and pressed on her stomach.

“It was so creepy, it actually made me sick and I did vomit,” she said. After she vomited, she said he left her alone.

Eventually, they did visit the commune. The residents seemed lovely, she said. “But at the same time, they were all working their asses off.” She said they looked at Ozen as if he were a god.

She said after she rejected his advances, Ozen moved her flight up two weeks, telling her it was because she wouldn’t sleep with him. He gave her jewelry as a present, which she later sold in Germany.

A week after she got home, she wrote him an email saying what he did was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to her. He asked her for the necklace back and she said she didn’t have it any more. Ozen replied that he had put a “curse” on her, and she would return as a disciple, begging for his forgiveness.

After that, she blocked him on all platforms. It was the last she heard from him.

While at the commune, the woman said she confided in a member of Ozen’s management team, only known by her first name Lila, about the sexual assault allegation. Lila said the woman told her she was in a relationship with Ozen and had “bragged” about having tantric sex with him. “She never mentioned anything against Ozen while she was here in Mexico,” Lila told VICE.

About four months after she left Mexico, the woman said she told a friend about the incident. Her friend said he wrote a Facebook post in April 2015 accusing Ozen of sexual misconduct. In comments on the Facebook post, the woman described the alleged misconduct, and said she stayed quiet at first but had decided to come forward to warn people.

Ozen did not respond to questions about the sexual misconduct allegation. On his website, he says he has not abused any women.
Missing in Mexico

In a Facebook message on Aug. 29, 2015, Gerard wrote to Ozen that he wanted to go to a party that night in Tulum, about an hour’s drive from Playa del Carmen. Ozen replied that he should go. Gerard’s next message says he was driving a car.

Former resident Ashley Walker, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, remembers Gerard returned from the party. She said he drove other residents back to the commune.

Around this time, she said Gerard told her he had reached enlightenment. Looking back, she thinks he could have had a mental break.

In early September 2015, according to former resident Nirmaldeep Singh Sindhu, Gerard had not left his cottage for days and refused to work. One morning, Sidhu woke up to hear that Gerard had left his cottage at the edge of the jungle and walked into the dense forest carrying a bedsheet.

Sidhu and three others decided to search for him. One of them found a bedsheet and a black garbage bag at the edge of the jungle near Gerard’s cottage. But because the forest was so dense, the small group couldn’t conduct a proper search.

“I was surprised,” Sidhu said. “Why are only three or four people looking for him? Why not the whole team?” From the minimal search efforts, he got the impression the attitudes of Ozen and Chinmayo were: “If you find him, that’s OK; if not, back to your work.” Chinmayo told VICE that Sidhu was making up stories.

Walker said she witnessed two or three searches, but they didn’t find Gerard.

Several days after Gerard disappeared, Ozen called a meeting, according to Nimaldeep and Walker.

They say that Ozen told residents Gerard had vanished into the jungle and couldn’t be found, and he was an adult who was responsible for himself.

Ozen told them that his lawyer had advised him any investigation by authorities would jeopardize the survival of the commune, because some residents were working without valid visas, both Sidhu and Walker recalled.

“So he asked people to tell a story that Michael went to Tulum to meet a girl,” Sidhu said. “I don’t think he knew any girl in Tulum.”

Ozen said at the meeting that Gerard’s belongings and passport should be destroyed, both Sidhu and Walker said.

Based on what Ozen said at the meeting, Sidhu believed the guru wanted them to tell a story about Gerard’s disappearance because he didn’t want media or police to investigate and find visa issues at the commune. Sidhu called it “a cover up.”

“If I was him, I would tell the cops. I wouldn’t care about the project.”

On his website, Ozen says Gerard went to Tulum, found a girlfriend, and went travelling with her and her friends. He says the allegations about Michael’s disappearance are a “criminal smear campaign” against him.

Walker and Sidhu both said they never saw police come to the commune.

In hindsight, Sidhu said Ozen should have called police after Gerard disappeared, and ordered residents to search.

Sidhu said he didn’t call police because he trusted Ozen and believed in the project. Even if Sidhu wanted to call them, he said there was no wifi or phone signal in the jungle, he didn’t know how the legal system worked in Mexico, and he was living in isolation. He wasn’t allowed to use Ozen’s vehicles.

Sidhu said he and other residents could have contacted police but it would have been very difficult: “You’d have to walk I don’t know how many kilometres through the dense jungle to reach the highway, then hitchhike to go to civilization.”

Sidhu said he was scared Ozen would kick him out if he went against his wishes. He said it was common for Ozen to get angry.

Sidhu said he chose to stay at the commune until Chinmayo pushed him to the ground. That was the last straw and he left the commune for good. Chinmayo said he did push Sidhu to the ground, but said it was over his treatment of women. Sidhu denied mistreating women, calling the allegation “silly.”

According to emails reviewed by VICE, del Paso wrote to Ozen on September 9 saying he heard a follower had gone missing in the jungle.

He urged Ozen to form a search party, forming a line of people every 20 metres to comb the jungle. Satellite images show the commune surrounded by thick jungle on all sides, with access to a long dirt road an hour’s walk to the closest highway. It would be impossible for anyone without jungle knowledge to survive for more than three or four days, he wrote in an email.

“People like this with mind problems can be very harmful for this stage of the project,” del Paso wrote. “Remember that this guy and all your people has not visa for working, also nobody is allowed by law to live [in the commune] until you get the approval, and in case someone dies in the land it will bring an investigation and perhaps for sure it will appear in the newspaper. I think we don’t need this kind of news.”

The next day he wrote to Ozen again, urging him to immediately contact his lawyer and report Gerard’s disappearance to the Mexican police and embassy.

“What they will do is send people to search the jungle and if they don’t find him at least we will be protected,” he wrote. He warned the guru to keep his story straight when speaking to the authorities, stating that he should keep details including dates, Gerard’s motivation for coming to Mexico, and his job consistent.

Asked about the emails, del Paso and Ozen did not respond.

Facebook messages posted on Ozen’s website show Gerard’s last message to Ozen was on Aug. 30, 2015. Two weeks later, Ozen wrote two messages to Gerard asking him to call or send a message when he was “in Chiapas” and had internet. (Chiapas is about a 13-hour drive from Playa del Carmen and Tulum.) “Hope you enjoy the agua azul waterfalls with your girlfriend,” Ozen wrote. Gerard didn’t reply.

On Nov. 7, 2015, Ozen wrote a more urgent message to Gerard saying his mother was trying to find him. “Where are you?” he asked. He advised Gerard to contact his mother.

Gerard’s mother Liubov hadn’t heard from her son in more than a month. DHL told her that a package she sent him had been picked up on Oct. 22, 2015, but she doesn’t know who picked it up.

That October, she started contacting people at the commune. She emailed Ozen but says he didn’t reply. A female resident of the commune told her Gerard had gone to Tulum. She believed the story, at first. But she became increasingly worried. She deposited money into his account every month and he hadn’t made a withdrawal in months.

In December 2015, a family friend contacted the German consulate on her behalf. They believed the consulate would launch an investigation.

Then in March 2016, dissatisfied with the consulate’s response, she reported his disappearance to German police, saying her son had vanished at Ozen’s resort.

The German consulate in Mexico told her in an email they didn’t have the resources to search the jungle, and Mexican police were ultimately responsible.

In fall 2016, a year after Gerard went missing, Mexican police and an official from the German embassy made a visit to the commune. They were there for 30 minutes. They showed residents a photo of Gerard. Two people said they knew him but they didn’t know where he was.

German police and consular officials declined to comment on the case.

In December 2017, Ozen says he sent a letter to the German consulate, saying Gerard was “unreliable, confused, and unstable,” and had borrowed $400 US for a flight home, but later used the money to travel around Mexico. He said Gerard went to Tulum, found a girlfriend, and went travelling with friends.

Chinmayo told VICE that resort management had invited the German embassy to the resort, and German police had interviewed everyone there.

Undated letters posted on Ozen’s website show that residents of the commune gave statements to a German police detective. In one statement that appears to be written after 2017, commune resident Dhyanraj Satyam wrote that he didn’t know where Gerard was. “Someone thought he could have gone in the jungle, someone suggested Tulum or perhaps back to Germany.”

Ozen’s spokesperson Parvez Bahri told VICE Gerard was “a very unstable guy” and said the last they heard from him, he was travelling to Tulum.

In December 2017, former commune resident Dao Nguyen launched a website with allegations against Ozen claiming he was a “fake guru” who is not really Osho’s successor. The allegations on his website have not been verified and Ozen says the website “spread(s) false rumours.”

Soon after the site went live, the commune stopped holding festivals for a number of months and Ozen published a website called “Ozen the Real Story” that claimed that Nguyen’s website was based on disgruntled ex-followers who decided to create a smear campaign out of vengeance. Nguyen denies Ozen's allegations.

On his site, Ozen denies any allegations of fraud, and lists 19 people he has repaid—including Ranjita, who told VICE she has not received her money. He admits that he owes 21 people $169,000 US. “We have repeatedly informed by email all these 21 residents that they will receive their refunds once the Goa property is sold,” the site says. According to the site, the Goa property has been sitting on the market for seven years. Visitors to the resort last December said del Paso and Chinmayo told them the Mexico commune was also for sale.

Asked about the money allegations, Bahri said the Indian and Mexican projects were set up separately and referred VICE to Ozen’s website.

Ranjita still wants a refund six years later. She said she no longer believes Ozen is an enlightened disciple of Osho.

“Your mind cannot grasp the fact that a spiritual guide can be such a liar and a cheat,” she said. “It doesn’t cross your mind because you feel love; you put your trust in someone blindly. That is just stupid. It’s a big lesson.”

Gerard’s mother continues to search for answers. She recently hired a private investigator who put her thousands of dollars into debt and didn’t find any new information. “Even yesterday, I thought how nice it would be if Michael was back,” she wrote in an email to VICE in June. “I would have embraced him as a child, fried his favorite pancakes, baked his favorite waffles and biscuits.”

Every morning she wakes up wondering how to go on. “I’m sure he’s dead,” she wrote.

Facebook photos in April show Ozen travelling through Southeast Asia wearing red robes and large sunglasses, with an entourage of sannyasins. Photos in May show him back in Mexico, in front of a Dolce + Gabbana sign, surrounded by young women. Ozen Rajneesh Resort is hosting a tantric shamanic yoga retreat in October, charging up to $440 US per person, according to Facebook.

Ozen says he is building a new ashram university in India, scheduled to open in 2020 or 2021. The circle-shaped ashram will include a buddha hall, university classrooms, restaurants, cafes, a boutique, suites, lofts, a spa, and pool.

He says he plans to invest $12 million US. It’s not clear where he’s getting the money.

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