Jul 27, 2020

‘Unorthodox’ author: My Hasidic ex-husband followed me to secular life

Times of Israel
July 9, 2020

‘Unorthodox’ author: My Hasidic ex-husband followed me to secular lifeThe woman who authored a memoir of how she left her strict ultra-Orthodox life as a wife and mother in a Hasidic sect has revealed that her ex-husband later followed her in adopting a secular lifestyle.

Deborah Feldman, 33, whose book “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” was made this year into a Netflix series, said her former husband contacted her to say he too was no longer religious and thanked her for showing him the way.

Feldman, who lives in Berlin, told BBC Radio 5 Live that she has a “great relationship” with her ex-husband, who is now married to a secular woman. The interview, which dates to May, was recently made available online on the BBC website.

“A few years back he wrote me a lovely letter where he expressed his appreciation for everything I had done for our child, and his gratitude for setting him on his own path,” she said. Her husband wrote that he stopped being religious four years after their marriage ended when she left him.

In the following years, she and her former husband were able to establish a trust which was never possible during their marriage because “the community took it away from us,” she said.

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

“He has two further children and both my son and I have a very good relationship with him,” Feldman said.

Raised in the Hasidic Satmar community in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Feldman was married at the age of 17 and gave birth two years later. She left her husband in 2010, taking their son with her.“Unorthodox” was published in 2012.

The four-episode Netflix series based on it began streaming worldwide on March 26. It is the first Yiddish-language production ever to come out of Germany.


Jul 24, 2020

Mother loses custody after failing to make ‘full-hearted’ break from 'harmful' cult in UK

Irish Examiner
July 20, 2020

A mother in England has lost custody of her daughter after failing to make a “full-hearted” break from a cult and its “harmful teachings and beliefs”.

The woman had been told by the Court of Appeal in April that she must make a “definitive break” from Universal Medicine or risk losing her child, in a ruling which said her involvement with the group was a “source of ongoing harm” to the youngster.

In a British High Court judgment published in July, Mr Justice Williams found that the woman had made a “very limited disassociation” from Universal Medicine and ruled the girl should live with her father.

The child, aged nine, was at the centre of a battle between her parents over her living arrangements and her alleged exposure to the teachings of Universal Medicine – understood to have been founded in Australia in 1999.

Her father argued the youngster should not be exposed to the group’s ideas and should live with him, while her mother did not accept concerns about the organisation and wanted a reduction in the time the girl spent with her father.

A judge at the Central Family Court ruled in January that Universal Medicine “is a cult with some potentially harmful and sinister elements” and found evidence put forward by the father “relating to the harmful and potentially harmful influence and effect of Universal Medicine to be compelling”.

Judge James Meston QC ruled that a shared-care order made in 2017, which barred the mother from taking her daughter to Universal Medicine meetings and from imposing its teaching on her, should stand, provided the mother “give formal, clear and specific undertakings” to the court that she would disassociate herself and her child from Universal Medicine and its practices.

The father appealed against the judge’s decision and took his case to the Court of Appeal.

In a ruling published in April, three senior judges allowed the appeal, saying the girl “must be distanced entirely from Universal Medicine”.

They postponed making a final decision on the father’s application and sent the case back to the Family Division of the High Court, saying by determining the matter in this way, they were giving the mother “a very short respite during which she will have one last chance to take her own steps to leave Universal Medicine, start intensive therapy”, and to “reverse the process of alienation” of the child from her father.

In the latest ruling, Mr Justice Williams said the evidence “points unerringly to the conclusion that the mother’s disassociation from Universal Medicine is a very limited disassociation”.

He said: “Distancing herself from the organisation itself and from the individuals she knows through it is a skin-deep disassociation rather than a full-hearted one.

“It may be that the mother truly believes that that is all that the Court of Appeal – or more importantly the welfare of her daughter – required; a physical separation.

“However, if that is so, it is a further example of the mother’s failure to truly get to grips with the substance of the problem, which is the pernicious effect of her adherence to the teachings and practices of Universal Medicine and their impact on her much-loved daughter.” 

How can this little girl begin to repair her relationship with her father and to reattach with him when her mother has done nothing to even begin the process of dis-abusing the child of the erroneous and malign beliefs that she has grown up to believe are “the way of livingness”?

The ruling said: “For what it is worth I would emphasise that until the mother is able to free herself from the psychological bonds that tie her to Universal Medicine and its harmful teachings and beliefs, the possibility of her playing anything like a full role in the child’s life is extremely limited.

“If the scales truly fall from her eyes and she is able to not only physically separate herself from Universal Medicine but also to psychologically disentangle herself and to re-establish her psychological independence, then she has much to offer her child and may then be able to resume a more significant role.” 

Mr Justice Williams said that while there will be “short-term harm and distress” for the child from moving to live with her father, “underlying the current estrangement” are “the foundations of a positive and beneficial relationship”.

He said: “At present, they lie buried beneath the rubble of the previously positive father-daughter construction which crumbled as a result of exposure to the elements of Universal Medicine.

“With the removal of those elemental forces I am satisfied that the father and child will be able to clear the rubble and to construct something new on the firm foundations which still exist.

“That will also enable the child to maintain a relationship with her mother who has many qualities.” 

He added: “I hope that the mother is able in due course to recognise the true nature of Universal Medicine and the full extent of its harmful consequences for her, the father and most importantly for her daughter.” The child and her family have not been identified.

Prayer is no substitute for medical care, Alaska Supreme Court says

James Brooks 
Anchorage Daily News
July 24, 2020

The Alaska Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court decision that removed an elderly woman from the care of her daughter after the daughter declined to treat the woman’s epilepsy and said she would use prayer to treat her, even in a medical emergency.

The daughter, identified in the decision as “Rachel O.,” argued the prior decision amounted to religious discrimination because she cares for her mother — identified as “Tiffany O.” — “based on the tenets of religion instead of how the state wants her cared for."

The court disagreed, writing in a unanimous ruling that “by depriving her mother of personal care services and emergency services in favor of prayer, Rachel not only fails to satisfy the essential requirements (of state law), but also puts Tiffany’s health and safety at risk.”

Rachel represented herself as the appellant, and the Alaska Department of Law represented the appellee.

The ruling, published Friday, concludes nearly 13 years of action by the state, which became involved in 2007 when Rachel requested the state appoint a guardian for Tiffany.

That was done in 2008, but Rachel became dissatisfied with the care her mother was receiving, according to court records. In 2011, Rachel became Tiffany’s guardian and said that because she graduated from a ministry school, she was justified to “rely entirely on prayer in lieu of hospital care” for her mother, the ruling states.

Rachel fired Tiffany’s personal caregivers, and after several complaints against Rachel, the state began investigating her care. In 2018, a Superior Court judge agreed that Rachel should be removed as Tiffany’s guardian and replaced with the Office of Public Advocacy.

Alaska’s high court has repeatedly said that “no value has a higher place in our constitutional system of government than that of religious freedom,” but in this case, the court concluded that Tiffany was being placed in danger.

“If Tiffany required immediate medical attention, the results could be fatal,” the court concluded. “For this reason, while religious liberty is a fundamental right under the Alaska Constitution, the state’s actions in this case are justified by a compelling interest.”

About this Author
James Brooks
Juneau-based James Brooks covers state government, the Alaska Legislature and general assignments for the Daily News. He previously reported and edited for the Juneau Empire, Kodiak Daily Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.


I've been talking to conspiracy theorists for 20 years - here are my six rules of engagement

Coronavirus conspiracy theories fuel anti-vaccination protests. Rebekah Zemansky / Shutterstock.com
Jovan Byford
The Conversation
July 22, 2020

Senior Lecturer in Psychology, The Open University

Disclosure statement
Jovan Byford does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

The Open University

The Open University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.

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With prospects of a COVID-19 vaccine looking up, attention is also turning to the problem of anti-vax ideas. According to a recent survey, one in six Britons would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Although vaccine hesitancy is a complex problem with multiple causes, the number of conspiracy theories circulating about the coronavirus do not help.

The fight against COVID-19-related conspiracy theories will be fought on multiple fronts. It requires a broad public health campaign and for social-media companies to control the spread of disinformation. But all of us can play a part in this effort. Most people will know someone who has succumbed to conspiracy theories about the current crisis.

I have been researching conspiracy theories for over two decades and have spoken to many believers. Here are the six rules I use for talking to conspiracy theorists in the effort to change their mind.

1. Acknowledge scale of the task

Talking to people who endorse conspiracy theories is inherently difficult. Simply laying out evidence or pointing out logical contradictions in the conspiracist argument is seldom enough. Conspiracy theories are, by definition, irrefutable.

Lack of evidence of a conspiracy, or positive proof against its existence, is taken by believers as evidence of the craftiness of those behind the plot, and their ability to dupe the public. So arm yourself with patience, and be prepared to fail.

2. Recognise the emotional dimension

Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir. Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world. They are stories about good and evil, as much as about what is true.

This gives conspiracy theories a strong emotional dimension. Tempers can flare and conversations turn into a shouting match. It is important to prevent this from happening. Be prepared to de-escalate the situation and keep the dialogue going, without necessarily giving ground.

3. Find out what they actually believe

Before trying to persuade someone, find out the nature and content of their beliefs. When it comes to conspiracy theories, the world is not divided into “believers” and “sceptics” – there’s a lot in between.

A minority of committed believers treat conspiracy theories as the literal truth and are particularly resistant to persuasion. Many others might not see themselves as “believers”, but are willing to accept that conspiracy theorists might be onto something and are at least asking the right questions. Establishing the precise nature, and extent, of someone’s belief, will enable you to better tailor your response.

Also, try and find out what specific conspiracy theory they endorse. Is it 5G or Bill Gates that they think is behind coronavirus? Or both? What videos or websites have they looked at? Once you find out, gather as much disconfirming evidence as you can from credible sources, including multiple independent fact-checking websites.

Background research will help you to focus the discussion on the substance of the claims. Never question someone’s intelligence or moral sense, as this is the quickest way to end a conversation.

4. Establish common ground

One of the main problems with conspiracy theories is that they are not confined to tinfoil-hat-wearing kooks or political extremists. In times of crisis and uncertainty, they can contaminate the worldview of otherwise reasonable people.

Conspiracy theories make reality seem less chaotic, and tap into broader, often well-grounded concerns about the world such as the concentration of financial and political power, mass surveillance, inequality or lack of political transparency. So when talking about conspiracy theories, start by acknowledging these broader concerns and restrict your discussion to whether conspiracy theories can provide an adequate or meaningful answer.

Many people come to conspiracy theories through genuine, albeit misguided, curiosity about how to make sense of the world. They sometimes see themselves as healthy sceptics and self-taught researchers into complex issues. Avoid criticising or mocking this. Instead, present it as something that, in principle, you value and share. Your aim, after all, is not to make them less curious or sceptical, but to change what they are curious about, or sceptical of.

Conspiracy theories often sound convincing because they start with the detailed exposition of credible scientific or historical facts. The problem is that these facts and arguments lead to extraordinary conclusions.

The kernels of truth on which conspiracy theories are based are a solid starting point for a discussion. Agreement on at least some of the facts will allow you to focus on the leap of imagination that allows two and two to make five.

5. Challenge the facts, value their argument

Debunking conspiracy theories requires a two-pronged approach. The first involves challenging evidence and its origins. Address specific claims and discuss what constitutes a credible source. Offer to look at the evidence together, including on fact-checking websites.

If you are talking to a staunch believer, they probably won’t even engage with you on this. But if they have not yet fallen down the rabbit hole, they might, and this may lead them to start questioning their views.

The second approach involves challenging the relevance and value of the conspiracist case more generally. You may want to point out that throughout history, conspiracy theories have come up short.

For instance, the longstanding claims by AIDS denialists that antiretroviral drugs are more harmful than HIV were not only disproven, but they contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. More recent and similarly baseless theories about the polio vaccine causing sterility directly led to the disease resurging in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afganistan.

COVID-19-related claims are in the same genre. Setting these conspiracy theories in their historical context can demonstrate that they offer nothing new, and don’t ask the right questions about the pandemic and its causes. This just might encourage the person to direct their curiosity and scepticism to more worthwhile concerns.

6. Finally, be realistic

There is, of course, no guarantee that this advice will be effective. There are no incontestable arguments or fail-proof strategies that will always convert a conspiracy theorist to scepticism. Therefore, set realistic expectations. The aim of talking to conspiracy theorists is not to convert them, but to sow doubt about an argument, and hopefully enable them to gradually build up resistance to its seductive appeal.


Actress Who Allegedly Recruited NXIVM 'Slaves' Is Dancing for Prisoner Rights Now

Nicki Clyne of 'Battlestar Galactica' is part of a mysterious 'movement' involving dance, #BLM hashtags, and Keith Raniere, the NXIVM leader convicted of sex trafficking.

Sarah Berman
July 22, 2020

Given the relentless news cycle of 2020, you’d be forgiven for forgetting about NXIVM, the disgraced cult-like self-help company. It was just last summer that the organization’s founder Keith Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking for his role in orchestrating a secret blackmail and branding scheme, but it feels like decades have passed since.

Canadian actress Nicki Clyne (Battlestar Galactica) has not forgotten, and doesn’t seem to want the rest of us to forget, either. She and a handful of other NXIVM associates who remain loyal to Raniere have launched a quick-pivoting “movement” called The Forgotten Ones or We Are As You, depending on what week of July you checked their social feed. The campaign claims to shine a light on terrible prison conditions via nightly dance performances, but only made its connection to Raniere public last week. So far the group’s main accomplishment seems to be having the prison move Raniere to a new cell.

Clyne was named as a co-conspirator at Raniere’s trial, and witnesses testified that she recruited at least three so-called “slaves” who were at first told about a secret women’s empowerment group, propositioned to hand over life-destroying “collateral” to hear the details, and then initiated into a master/slave relationship in which speaking out or going against Clyne’s orders were grounds for collateral release. Clyne has not been charged with any crime in connection with the scheme.

Lauren Salzman, the daughter of NXIVM’s president, told a Brooklyn jury Clyne’s involvement as a “first-line master” of the now-infamous “sex cult” DOS predated Smallville actress Allison Mack’s, and that both Clyne and Mack gave “seduction assignments” to their slaves, in which they were told to have sex with Raniere under the threat of collateral being released. At trial DOS “slaves” said they handed over letters falsely accusing their parents of sexual abuse, deeds to their property, and naked photos as collateral. The so-called collateral, which prosecutors called blackmail material, was leveraged to elicit yet more collateral, Salzman testified.

Clyne and her lawyer did not respond to VICE News' request for comment.

Former members of Raniere’s inner circle are furious that Clyne is positioning herself as an activist interested in prisoner rights. The group has used Black Lives Matter-associated hashtags to entice families of incarcerated people to join their dance performances outside the Metropolitan Detention Center where Raniere is being held.

“Stop this fucking @WeAreAsYou nonsense,” Ivy Nevares, a longtime Raniere girlfriend who left the group, tweeted on July 15. “Tell us who #KeithRaniere really is and what he’s done. Tell us who YOU really are and what you’re doing. Above all: tell us why you continue supporting him.”

Nevares, a dance choreographer and writer from Mexico, asked why the NXIVM loyalists didn’t throw their support behind Black-led protests like Justice for George demonstrations at nine New York prisons, including the Metropolitan Detention Center.

The performance group first launched in early July with a colourful website, swirling graphics and “the dance must go on” messaging. Days after the Albany Times Union published a report pointing to NXIVM links, the group rebranded as “The Forgotten Ones” with a drab backdrop and logo resembling the slashes that might count out days on a prison wall. The group released a statement on July 15 claiming Raniere was punished for his apparent association, and was moved to a cell out of view of the dancers. VICE could not independently confirm if he was moved.

Clyne is featured extensively in posts and videos streamed on Instagram Live, along with a Black woman whose full name was redacted at Raniere’s 2019 trial. The woman was one of Mack’s “slaves” according to trial testimony. Former members VICE spoke to say only about 20 NXIVM loyalists remain. The group once boasted 17,000 self-help students.

Police and prison abolition have become mainstream political ideas in the wake of global protests calling to defund the institutions that enforce systemic racism. The protests have pushed many cities and states to enact serious and sweeping criminal justice reforms.

Beyond NXIVM’s troubling association with slavery and long-term confinement, former members say The Forgotten Ones campaign doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on these issues. The website positions limits on visitors due to COVID-19 as injustice rather than a public health precaution, and makes no mention of the disproportionate incarceration of Black people or other marginalized groups. A press release describes the violence and lack of medical treatment as “worse than what most people would accept for their pets.”

When a Good Morning Bushwick podcaster recently asked campaign co-founder and NXIVM coach Eduardo Asunsolo whether the dancers would make any specific demands for improvements, like heat in winter, Asunsolo countered that the first step was to acknowledge prisoners are in fact humans. “Once there are humans in there, the press and the people won’t allow these crimes to be committed to them,” he said. “The reason why they occur is because nobody cares.”

Asunsolo described anti-Black racism as “horrible campaigns of defamation for decades that have rendered them (Black people) criminals,” and added that the same thing is happening to Raniere’s followers.

“That is the most awful thing that can happen to a race, and that is happening to people in NXIVM now.”

The Forgotten Ones campaign has shared short messages from inmates who say they are uplifted by the dancing. “I Would like to thank and send a shoutout to Niki and all the people who come with her,” reads a July 20 posting from “N on the 5th floor.”

In a statement, the group called out “prejudice in the media against Keith Raniere and his friends” for trying to “hijack this peaceful movement and make it into something it’s not.”

Raniere’s lawyer Marc Agnifilo did not respond to questions about the dance campaign or Raniere’s status at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where Jeffrey Epstein associate and accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell is also being held. Raniere’s motion for a new trial was denied on Monday.

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.


Situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Russian Federation: UK statement

Situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Russian Federation: UK statement
Delivered by Nicola Murray, Deputy Head of Delegation, at the OSCE Permanent Council on 23 July 2020.

23 July 2020
From: UK Delegation to the OSCE

The United Kingdom remains deeply concerned about the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation. As we said on 12 March, the ruling of the Russian Supreme Court in July 2017, which rejected the appeal against the decision to categorise Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists”, criminalised the peaceful worship of 175,000 Russian citizens and contravened the right to religious freedom that is enshrined in the Russian Constitution, and in multiple OSCE commitments.

It is with deep regret that we learned that on 13 July, 110 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses were simultaneously searched by Russian authorities in the cities of Voronezh and Stary Oskol. Thirteen Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained at the time and two individuals were reportedly beaten during a home search.

The total number of homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses that have been searched by Russian law enforcement authorities now stands at over 1,000. As we noted in March, home raids are often conducted in the early hours of the morning by large numbers of masked and armed police.

We repeat our concern that the increasing number of searches, as well as use of simultaneous large-scale home raids, creates the impression of an organised campaign of persecution against Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So-called “evidence” used against those investigated and prosecuted includes regular aspects of communal religious life. We again remind the Russian Federation of our extensive commitments on freedom of religion or belief, including from Vienna 1989, as well as Kyiv 2013, where States committed to:

Fully implement their commitments to ensure the right of all individuals to profess and practice religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, and to manifest their religion or belief through teaching, practice, worship and observance, including through transparent and non-discriminatory laws, regulations, practices and policies;

For three years now, the delegation of the Russian Federation has assured the Permanent Council that individual Jehovah’s Witnesses are able to practice their religion at home, as no permission is required to pray in Russia. However, we have witnessed time and again that any manifestation of their faith by Jehovah’s Witnesses can result in the search of their homes, lengthy detention, criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

We again call on the Russian Federation to end the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to uphold the commitments on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all individuals across the Russian Federation.


Newsom Will Decide If Manson Cult Follower Leslie Van Houten Gets Paroled

CBS San Francisco
July 24, 2020

LOS ANGELES (CBS SF/AP) — For a fourth time, a California prison board has recommended that Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, serving time for the gruesome murders of Los Angeles grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in August 1969, be paroled after spending nearly five decades in prison.

But whether she walks out of the women’s prison in Chino rests in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has already blocked her release once before.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown also blcapitalone.comocked Van Houten’s release twice while he was in office.

After a hearing at the women’s prison in Chino, commissioners of the Board of Parole Hearings found that Van Houten was suitable for release. After a 120-day review process, her case will again rest with Newsom.

“As with any parole suitability recommendation, when the case reaches the Governor’s Office, it will be carefully reviewed on its merits,” Vicky Waters, Newsom’s press secretary, said in a statement.

Van Houten, 70, is serving a life sentence for helping Manson and others kill Los Angeles grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in August 1969.

Van Houten was 19 when she and other cult members fatally stabbed the LaBiancas, carved up Leno LaBianca’s body and smeared the couple’s blood on the walls.

The slayings came the day after other Manson followers, not including Van Houten, killed pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others.

Details of the parole hearing weren’t immediately released but Van Houten’s attorney, Rich Pfeiffer, said in an email that it “went really well.”

Pfeiffer said he expects Newsom to reverse the decision again, “but the courts will have a harder time denying a writ than they did in the past.”

In May, an appeals court denied Pfeiffer’s request to release Van Houten on bail or her own recognizance. His motion argued that her age put her at high risk of contracting COVID-19 and noted that another prisoner in her housing unit had been infected.

At her 2017 parole hearing, Van Houten described a troubled childhood. She said she was devastated when her parents divorced when she was 14. Soon after, she said, she began hanging out with her school’s outcast crowd and using drugs. When she was 17, she and her boyfriend ran away to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District during the city’s Summer of Love.

She was traveling up and down the California coast when acquaintances led her to Manson. He was holed up at an abandoned movie ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he had recruited what he called a “family” to survive what he insisted would be a race war he would launch by committing a series of random, horrifying murders.

Manson died in 2017 of natural causes at a California hospital while serving a life sentence.


Jul 22, 2020

Sex cult led by elderly man known as 'The Doctor' uncovered

Toronto SUN
July 21, 2020

A septuagenarian known only as ‘The Doctor’ was behind a sex cult in northern Italy in which followers were abused and brainwashed, say authorities who uncovered the alleged activity.

Police say the leader of the cult, a 77-year-old man whom they have not named, used businesses such as dance schools, herbalists, craft shops and a publishing house as an allure to target the vulnerable and often women of wealth.

The man would then indoctrinate them by subjecting the women to ‘unbearable violence and abuse of all kinds’, say police.

Raids were carried out against the group, which was based near Milan in a town called Novara, on suspicion of slavery and sexual abuse, including young girls.

Officers say the group was structured like a pyramid with the most fervent followers closest to The Doctor, those who were skeptical towards the bottom.

The women would refer to each other as ‘beasts’ and were forbidden to know or speak their leader’s name, Il Messaggero reports.

Psychologists, who helped identify other women to indoctrinate, were among the most loyal to the god-like figure.

Once immersed in the cult, which police say existed for 30 years, the women would be convinced to sever all family ties or else coax their relatives to join.

They would then be put to work for the group with The Doctor deciding what job best suited them.

Because some of the women were also given houses, their survival was entirely dependent on the cult.


The power of Falun Gong

Anna is speaking out about her experiences in Falun Gong out of concern for the movement's growing influence. Foreign Correspondent/Background Briefing: Scott Strazzante
They’re a familiar sight exercising and meditating in suburban parks. A joint Foreign Correspondent-Background Briefing investigation delves into the world of Falun Gong and its mysterious leader.

Eric Campbell and Hagar Cohen
ABC News
July 21, 2020

It was a hot and humid day in rural New York state as Anna and her mother sat in the small room next to the grand Tang Dynasty-style temple, waiting for him to appear. “Master is coming soon,” said a woman sent to wait with them.

Fourteen-year-old Anna was wearing a dress with straps in the oppressive April heat. “Oh no, you cannot show your shoulders,” the woman said. “You cannot show too much of your chest, because Master is coming.”

It was Anna’s mother who had arranged this “special appointment” with Master. Everything would be taken care of after this, she told her daughter. They both knew what she meant — the anorexia Anna had been battling for many months.

But Anna had come reluctantly. Her mother had tricked her, saying they would run errands together, until Anna realised the car was heading along the familiar road north. She knew the route well, knew where it led.

Anna waited. A few minutes later, Master entered the room.

He spoke first to the woman and then to Anna’s mother. Then he looked at Anna, looked right into her eyes. He raised his arms, waving them in the air, then he was chanting something she couldn’t understand.

“By then it was pretty clear what this was supposed to be,” says Anna, now 25. “This was supposed to be an exorcism.”

She was face to face with the man reckoned a God-like figure among his followers at The Mountain, who Anna had grown up believing could read her mind and listen to her dangerous thoughts.

But now the spell was broken.

“I remember looking into his eyes and thinking, ‘you are just another regular, pathetic man’,” she says.

On the way home driving south, Anna recalls how her mother was relieved. “You’re all better,” she told her daughter. “You’re normal now. Now I love you.” Anna just looked out the window.

“It was like seeing everything about the practice just crumble before my eyes. I could not believe it anymore.”

Today, Anna, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is trying to rebuild her life after what she sees as abusive experiences in the Falun Gong spiritual movement. She is revealing for the first time the secretive world she discovered at The Mountain, also known as Dragon Springs, a spiritual base for Falun Gong and the sometime home of its reclusive founder and leader, Master Li Hongzhi.

It’s estimated Falun Gong has tens of millions of followers worldwide who praise the healing properties of its meditation exercises and the wisdom of Master Li’s teachings.

A joint investigation by the ABC’s Background Briefing and Foreign Correspondent has also found families damaged by their involvement with the movement and claims its teachings on modern medicine could have contributed to premature deaths, which Falun Gong denies.

It comes at a time when media outlets linked to the movement are becoming serious players on the conservative side of America’s media, throwing their weight behind Donald Trump and his tough stance on China.

 Falun Gong practitioners are a familiar sight in many cities across the world, calmly practicing their exercises in parks. Many say the spiritual movement's practices lead to improved health and healing.
Falun Gong practitioners are a familiar sight in many cities across the world, calmly practicing their exercises in parks. Many say the spiritual movement's practices lead to improved health and healing.

“This group is not fading into obscurity,” says Anna. “It has a lot more power than I thought and that is very concerning to me, especially when I think about how many people are probably going to become indoctrinated and how many children and families are going to be affected by this.”

As with many of its followers, Anna’s family first encountered Falun Gong by seeing a group meditating in a park. One of them handed her father a flyer explaining the movement’s philosophy and her mother bought some tapes and books to learn more about it.

Gradually, it took over their lives.
Falling into Falun Gong

Anna’s mother had a favourite memory of her daughter she would proudly share with other Falun Gong practitioners.

How, when Anna was four, she saw her in the backseat of the family car playing with phantom lights, dancing in the air.

They were “law bodies”, her mother would explain, “small, physical manifestations of the Falun Gong emblem”.

For a time growing up in Falun Gong, Anna would tell the story too, knowing it was one her mother cherished. “I wanted to believe and be a good practitioner so my mother would be happy and, you know, give me approval,” says Anna.

In those early years, Anna watched as her mother gradually became absorbed in Falun Gong. She pulled Anna and her sibling out of a Catholic school and quit her job in the family business to take up selling books for Falun Gong. Her time was increasingly spent doing exercises, meditating, and reading the movement’s teachings.

Master Li Hongzhi even once made an appearance at a study group in their home. Anna began to feel her mother had become more devoted to Falun Gong’s teachings than to her children.

“Part of the whole premise of the practice is getting rid of your human attachments in order to attain salvation,” says Anna. “I think a lot of parents conflate human attachment with basic parental love and emotional presence with your children.”

As a young child, Anna came to believe Falun Gong’s teachings too, but there were some that raised deeply personal questions for her. Among them was being taught that she was different to other children because her mother was Chinese and her father was European.

“The leader of Falun Gong claims that race mixing in humans is part of an alien plot to drive humanity further from the gods,” says Anna. “He says that when a child is born from an interracial marriage, that child does not have a heavenly kingdom to go to.”

Some practitioners have explained Master Li’s teachings as metaphorical, such as his claims that aliens walk the Earth and disguise themselves as people to corrupt mankind. But Anna learned it as literal truth. At 11 years old, her mother read her the teachings about mixed-race children.

“As an 11-year-old, to hear the teachings coming from not only the religion that you’re believing in, but from your own mother, it was very damaging,” says Anna.

The family started spending weekends and holidays at The Mountain, flying across the breadth of the US to be closer to the movement’s global base .

“It was my mother’s dream for our entire family to eventually live at Dragon Springs.”

The dance audition

It was Christmas day, the day of the audition. Anna’s mother woke her early in the morning so they could start the long drive north to The Mountain.

At first Anna resisted going, but this was too important to her mother. So Anna made a decision about how that day would go down.

“My intent was to fail on purpose so that I would not have to live at The Mountain.”

By this time, Anna’s family had moved across the US to the east coast to be closer to Dragon Springs, Falun Gong’s 160-hectare complex in regional New York. For many it’s a sanctuary. Permanent residents include Falun Gong practitioners who fled persecution in China after the movement was banned there in 1999.

But for Anna, The Mountain was no haven. The presence of Falun Gong’s leader, Master Li Hongzhi, seemed to pervade the complex.

Few outsiders are allowed inside Dragon Springs. Neighbours took these photos from a nearby property.

“It felt spiritual but in this sort of ominous and somewhat judgmental way,” says Anna.

“Part of the practice is this notion that Master Li first of all can read everyone’s mind and that he has heavenly bodies out there in the world doing this for him as well. So I grew up with this notion that my thoughts were always being monitored. And my mother said that at Dragon Springs, you were in a greater presence of spirits and the gods.”

Anna felt she needed to hide her deepest thoughts. She had started having crushes on female friends and classmates. Li Hongzhi’s teaching that homosexuality was wrong, and creates negative karma, played on her mind. When Master Li made an appearance in Dragon Springs, the believers would immediately stand. Many seemed awestruck. “They treated him like a God,” Anna recalls.

At this time, Master Li was establishing the professional dance troupe now known as Shen Yun, which is based in Dragon Springs and toured the world before COVID-19. Anna’s mother encouraged her to train to be a Shen Yun dancer. “She thought that it was the highest honour possible and that it would guarantee me getting into heaven, essentially.”

Who is Li Hongzhi?

Li Hongzhi is a former Chinese government clerk who founded Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, in China in 1992. He moved to the US in the mid-1990s. His spiritual movement is based on traditional meditation and breathing exercises called qigong. But Master Li added a supernatural layer: it would prepare people to return home to heavenly kingdoms where they had once dwelled, and even teach practitioners to levitate and see through walls.

But Anna felt she was not as gifted as the other dancers — and then there was the incident at the summer dance camp in New Jersey. Anna’s teacher placed her in front of a mirror and lifted up her shirt. “She grabbed my stomach, shook it, and then turned to the other kids in the class — there were several of them — and said, ‘Do you see this, everyone, this is an example of how a woman should not look’,” she says.

At the age of 13, Anna was hospitalised with anorexia.

The audition was set to take place in Dragon Springs’ main music rehearsal hall. Anna still remembers sitting on the dark carpet under a ceiling painted with clouds against a blue sky. The other dancers lined up in the room were “full Chinese, instead of mixed” and Anna knew they were better dancers.

The choreographer who two years earlier had shamed her in front of the class was there, as was Master Li, who would serve as the ultimate judge. He paced the room, observing.

“I felt like just my whole being was wrong,” says Anna. “I tried my best to just make it look like I was simply a bad dancer and yeah, I did not get called back. My mother suspected I had done this on purpose.”

The failed audition heightened tensions in the family. Anna and her father moved back across the US while her mother stayed behind. Anna says her final visit to The Mountain — when she was subjected to Master Li’s “exorcism” — triggered a severe relapse of her eating disorder.

As she struggled with her illness, Anna says her mother rejected doctors’ attempts to put her on medication, quoting Falun Gong teachings.

“It means you are a bad practitioner. It means you do not fully trust Master Li. If you take any kind of medication or go to a hospital, even.”

In Sydney’s inner-west, another daughter is coming to terms with her estrangement from her mother.

Like Anna, Shani May says her mother Colleen put Falun Gong ahead of her family — and her own health.

When Shani gave her mother a photo of her baby son Ellery to hang on the wall in place of a photo of Master Li, Colleen quickly swapped them back. When Ellery developed a tumour and spent nearly a year in hospital, she had to pressure her mother to visit him. “And then when she did have time, she’d be looking at her watch all the time, because she had somewhere to go,” Shani says.

As time went on there was something for Colleen to do every day of the week, then it was a few nights a week too, then weekends. “The next thing you know I’m the one trying to book in time to see her. So it really took over”.

Like Anna, Shani’s anger with Falun Gong runs deep. She blames the movement’s teachings on modern medicine for the death of her mother, who stopped taking her blood-pressure medication after joining Falun Gong.

Shani May's frustration turned to despair when her mother Colleen fell ill but refused to see doctors or take medicine. Foreign Correspondent/Background Briefing: Brendan Esposito

“If it wasn’t for Falun Gong, she’d still be with us. It would have taken two tablets a day and she’d still be with us,” she says.

Colleen May died three years ago after suffering prolonged ill health that she tried to manage through meditation and cleansing. Shani still has trouble reconciling how Colleen changed after she joined Falun Gong. Her mother was once a fixture of bohemian society, married to the famous jazz singer Ricky May. Her wedding dress was designed by the drag queen Carlotta. Her friends were flamboyant showbiz entertainers.

But after Ricky May died of a heart attack in 1988, Colleen spent years looking for something to fill the void. She found it a decade later when she saw people doing meditation and exercises in Sydney’s Ashfield Park.

“She said, ‘Oh, I met these lovely people in the park and they do meditation once a week and I’m going to go down and do that with them’The power of Falun Gong

The Falun Dafa Association of Australia says it welcomes individuals of any sexual orientation to practice the discipline, but “like most world religions … espouses conservative sexual ethics”. It teaches that any sexual relations outside marriage are “understood to create negative karma” but “this does not translate into a discriminatory attitude toward the gay community”.

Shani says Colleen soon lost her bohemian spark. She became uncomfortable with alcohol or being in the presence of gay people. “Growing up at Kings Cross and the Latin Quarter [nightclub], these are all people that she loved back in those days.”

But it was Colleen’s new-found attitude to medicine that really shocked her. Even when she attended hospital towards the end of her life, Colleen would resist certain treatments.

Shani's father was a famous jazz singer and her mother was a glamorous dancer. They travelled the world together.

“She pulled her IVs out,” says Shani. “She would spit the tablets at the doctors. They had awful trouble trying to control her blood pressure, her cholesterol, her calcium levels — everything went haywire.

“And she just, even in that sickness kept thinking, ‘If I take this, I’m going to be a bad practitioner’.”

Ben Hurley, an Australian now based in Taiwan, knew Colleen as a fellow practitioner in Sydney. He says he witnessed people telling her not to take medicine and encouraging Colleen to strengthen her belief in Master Li instead.

“In Falun Gong, the teachings are you don’t acknowledge illness,” says Ben. “There’s plausible deniability because Li has a range of teachings … that says ‘if you’re sick, go to the hospital’, but then there are always parts of teaching that Master Li can cure all of your illnesses and you just have to believe in him.”

Lucy Zhao, president of the Falun Dafa Association of Australia, says Colleen was a friend and claims her health improved after she started practicing Falun Gong.

“Whether she actually continued to take medication or not is her personal choice,” she says. “Personally, I didn’t tell her or pressure her not to take medicine.”

She says any practitioners who encouraged Colleen to avoid medicine did so based on their “personal interpretations”. The Falun Dafa Association added that it is ultimately a personal choice whether someone seeks medical treatment, but when people have taken up the practice and understood the universal principles behind it, diseases can disappear.

In a diary Colleen kept in her later years, she wrote of a trip to New York and a visit to “Shangri La”.

“I think I dreamt of going there when I was a child,” she wrote.

“Just being there, I haven’t experienced this feeling anywhere. You feel light, happy, like you’re separated from this world, quite beautiful, the lake serene.

“When the gong sounded, the sound seemed to go out to a great distance and lingered. The structures unbelievable how they have been made. No nails, no paint, the timber oiled that gives it a gold colour.”

But Dragon Springs’ neighbours in Deerpark, New York, say more has been going on inside the compound than peaceful meditation since Falun Gong established its spiritual base here.
Relentless expansion

For generations, Grace Woodard’s family has lived in the Deerpark area. She’s a member of the Deerpark Rural Alliance, which has been set up in opposition to Dragon Springs’ relentless expansion over the past two decades. Grace says locals originally welcomed the newcomers.

“There’s no transparency,” says Grace. “They’re doing their own thing. It’s like the Forbidden City — only certain people can go in.”

Driving around town, she points out property after property bought by Falun Gong practitioners. “All the houses we’ve passed are practitioners, this is where some students and performers live there,” she says.

“And this whole area they wanted to put their shopping mall in, all along here. They have some Australian members, some New Zealanders, a few Germans.”

At a guardhouse at the entrance to Dragon Springs, a security unit patrols the front gate. When the ABC approaches seeking an interview, they call the local police.

Dragon Springs’ vice-president Jonathon Lee agrees to be interviewed in a nearby antique shop owned by a Falun Gong practitioner. He says the high security is to stop Chinese spies from the embassy infiltrating the compound.

“We have seen embassy cars roaming around in the early days,” he says. “We blocked them and then called the police. But now they are smarter.”

He says Dragon Springs has been transparent about its building works and one of its purposes is to provide a haven for refugees from China. “It’s all ordinary people who practice Falun Gong, who want to have a sanctuary, especially people initially who were persecuted ... and their parents had died.”

Grace Woodard's neighbour Frank Ketcham, who took these photos, regularly treks through the forest to try to work out what's going on in the Dragon Springs compound.

Dragon Springs is just a small slice of an expanding empire connected with Falun Gong. Practitioners set up The Epoch Times, once a free newspaper which is now published online and printed across the USA, Australia and other countries. Last year, in an advertising blitz, The Epoch Times spent nearly $US2 million on Facebook ads which pushed a pro-Trump message. 

Its YouTube news channel also appeals to a conservative audience.

Another media outlet linked to Falun Gong is the broadcaster NTD (New Tang Dynasty Television), which has collaborated with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon to produce Claws of the Red Dragon, a drama critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Jonathon Lee insists Falun Gong is not politically aligned but many of the practitioners see Donald Trump as an ally in the fight against the CCP.

“Trump is very hard on China in terms of Falun Gong persecution,” he says. “They think Trump is a hope for us to eventually be able to survive in China.”

The Epoch Times maintains it is not owned or operated by Falun Gong, but Ben Hurley, who worked on the Australian English-language edition, says it is in every sense a Falun Gong outlet. “Everyone who works there is a Falun Gong practitioner. They have a few people, a few token non-Falun Gong practitioners that they point to every time, but those people are outside the fortress. They’re not a part of the organisation.”

The Epoch Times has also been accused of deceptive practices. Last August, Facebook banned it from advertising after it posted subscription ads with a pro-Trump message through front groups like Honest Paper and Pure American Journalism.

“Essentially they were creating a number of Facebook groups or pages that didn’t disclose they were part of the publisher or part of The Epoch Times publishing group,” says investigative journalist Alex Kasprak, who works for the fact-checking website Snopes. “That’s a clear violation of Facebook’s policy.”

The Epoch Times denied any deception, saying it was obvious they were behind the ads. “Without exception, these ads are overtly Epoch Times advertisements for our subscriptions,” says The Epoch Times’ publisher Stephen Gregory. “And there is no secret there, since it’s all public.”

He also points out that “every single advertisement went through Facebook’s review process and was approved … before running.”

Facebook took action again in December, taking down posts from a network that it linked to the Epoch Media Group. The BL, or The Beauty of Life, was posting fake profiles of supposed Trump supporters that were actually stock photos and even artificially generated images. In one example, the actress Helen Mirren’s image was used as the profile picture of a fake account. Facebook found BL spent more than $US9 million on ads that reached 55 million accounts.

Alex Kasprak discovered BL was operated from Vietnam by former employees of The Vietnam Epoch Times. Epoch Media Group denied any involvement, saying it split with Vietnam Epoch Times a year before.

There is no doubt Falun Gong members have suffered terrible persecution since the Chinese government banned the movement in 1999, fearing its growing popularity and power.

Jonathon Lee insists Falun Gong is a force for good, devoted to the three principles of “truth, compassion and forbearance”. “Don’t tell lies, always tell the truth. Whatever you perceive to be the truth, always tell the truth.”

For Anna, Falun Gong “tore my family apart” and The Mountain will forever be a place of dread.

“I feel a lot of anger when I think about the fact that there are children and young adults living there with little to no access to the outside world who are only being taught the teachings of this practice, which I believe are very damaging,” she says.

“It makes me very worried and very angry to think about that.”

Listen to Background Briefing’s podcast and watch Foreign Correspondent tonight at 8pm on ABC TV and iview.


Meet the Mennonites - Documentary

Meet the Mennonites - Documentary
Top Documentary Films
2018 - 42 MIN


Much like the Amish, the Mennonites live a life of isolation from the outside world. They resist the temptations of the modern society by casting themselves away from it. As a result, outsiders have rarely enjoyed an insider's perspective on their daily existence. Meet the Mennonites pulls back the curtain and offers a rare glimpse into their simple and fascinating way of life.

The film observes life in a Mennonite commune in Belize. Many of the commune's inhabitants are reluctant to be shown on camera, but the filmmakers manage to gain the trust of a few subjects. Through their insights, we learn what draws them to a life of extreme discipline, religious devotion and self-containment.

Their unique perspectives are embedded into them from a young age. Children attend school from the age of 6 to 13. During that time, they forgo the usual textbooks devoted to math and science. Their studies revolve exclusively around the Bible.

The typical Mennonite families consist of up to a dozen children. Their days are spent working on farmland or constructing useful furnishings to sell to the outside world.

Artifacts from the outside - such as cell phones - are viewed as tools from Satan. Even so, a few members of the commune have opened themselves to more inclusion from their surrounding communities. This is a sore point with the more devout members of the Mennonite tribe, and they work to ensure that these "offenders" are appropriately ostracized for their transgressions.

Sensing a wavering from the old order, a feeling of discontent begins to rumble among the more traditional members of the community. Together, they join forces to form a new commune in Peru. This ambitious move stirs both optimism and fear within them. It will mark their first time on a plane, and a degree of interaction with the masses that they have been successful in avoiding up until now.

Sharply observant and free of judgement, Meet the Mennonites is a fascinating look at a committed people who are driven by a shared thirst for a simpler way of life.

Directed by: Mélanie Van Der Ende


Scientology: Fair Game

Leah Remini and Mike Rinder's new podcast, Scientology: Fair Game
iHeart Radio

"Leah Remini and Mike Rinder's new podcast, Scientology: Fair Game will take you behind the facade and expose the terrible truth about scientology's Fair Game doctrine. It's been used for 5 decades to destroy anyone they label an enemy -- former scientologists, media, government officials -- anyone they think is impeding their objectives.

Leah and Mike are covering new ground, digging deeper than ever into the shocking documents, facts and stories
that will make you wonder how any of this is going on in America today. "


Episode 0: When Scientology Declares You Fair Game
July 20, 2020 • 65 min 
Leah Remini and Mike Rinder detail the history, practice and consequences of Scientology’s Fair Game policy. These abusive practices have been employed by scientology for decades to try to intimidate and destroy anyone perceived as enemies - from former members to the media and government officials.

Introducing Scientology: Fair Game
July 6, 2020 • 3 min 
Leah Remini and Mike Rinder's new podcast, Scientology: Fair Game will take you behind the facade and expose the terrible truth about scientology's Fair Game doctrine. It's been used for 5 decades to destroy anyone they label an enemy -- former scientologists, media, government officials -- anyone they think is impeding their objectives. Leah and Mike are covering new ground, digging deeper than ever into the shocking documents, facts and stories that will make you wonder how any of this is going on in America today.

Jul 20, 2020

"Uniting The Continents: Support For The Pacific Rim'' -- An Online Event for Families, Former Members and Friends Affected by Cultic Groups and Relationships.

"Uniting The Continents: Support For The Pacific Rim'' -- An Online Event for Families, Former Members and Friends Affected by Cultic Groups and Relationships.

"Uniting The Continents: Support For The Pacific Rim'' -- An Online Event for Families, Former Members and Friends Affected by Cultic Groups and Relationships.

United States: September 11-12, 2020
Pacific Rim: September 12-13, 2020

This event will offer an opportunity for organizations to share their collective knowledge and experience -- across many continents.

The conference will have twelve fifty-minute sessions and one three-hour former member workshop.

Sponsoring and Supporting Organizations

  • Rachel Bernstein, MSEd, LMFT
  • Linda Dubrow-Marshall, PhD, Reg. MBACP (Accred.)
  • Rod Dubrow-Marshall, PhD, MBPsS
  • Lorna Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA
  • Ashlen Hilliard
  • Roz Hodgkins
  • Gillie Jenkinson, PhD
  • Nitai Joseph
  • Joseph Kelly
  • Yuval Laor, PhD
  • Patrick Ryan
  • Joseph Szimhart
  • Doni Whitsett, PhD


Pacific Rim: September 12-13, 2020

September 12, 2020, Saturday
  • Track one: six fifty-minute sessions, 9 am - 3 pm (Sydney Time).

September 13, 2020, Sunday
  • Track one: six fifty-minute sessions, 9 am - 3 pm (Sydney Time),
  • Track two: former member interactive workshop 10 am - 1 pm (Sydney Time).

The times for other countries:
  • Tokyo (8 am - 1 pm)
  • Singapore (7 am - noon)
  • Hong Kong (7 am - noon)
  • Beijing (7 am - noon)
  • New Zealand (11 am - 4 pm)

The dates are September 11 and 12th for these countries:

  • East Coast (7 pm - 1 am)
  • Central Time (6 pm - midnight)
  • Mountain Time (5 pm - 11 pm)
  • West Coast (4 pm - 10 pm)
  • Hawaii (1 pm - 7 pm)
UK ( 1 am - 6 am)

    Fee for two-day event:
    $195/US / $195/AU £150/UK

    Buy tickets for Cult Mediation

    Australia Registration: details to be announced.
    UK Registration: details to be announced.

    US: Registration starts August 2nd:

    Scholarships should be available for anyone that has financial limitations.  Please contact CIFS if you live in Australia, ICSA if you live in the US or RETIRN if you live in the UK.

    The event will be available to view online for thirty-days (until October 13, 2020).

    Can a religious group that wants to bring down China's Communist Party survive in Hong Kong?

    Keep away from the Chinese Communist Party. Stop the persecution of Falun Gong.
    James Griffiths
    July 18, 2020
    Hong Kong (CNN) To the upbeat sounds of a blue-uniformed brass band, the rally proceeded through downtown Hong Kong.

    Marchers, dressed all in yellow, carried purple lotus plants, yin-yang symbols, and other traditional Buddhist icons. But it was their giant banners, held aloft or mounted on small floats, that indicated this was not just a religious rally.

    "Keep away from the Chinese Communist Party. Stop the persecution of Falun Gong."

    A religious movement that emerged in China in the mid-1990s, Falun Gong surged in popularity nationwide before it was banned and brutally suppressed on the mainland in 1999. But it continues to operate in Hong Kong thanks to the territory's greater human rights protections.

    For decades now, Falun Gong protests against the Chinese government have been a common sight on the city's streets, with practitioners setting up gory mock surgery scenes to raise awareness about allegations of organ harvesting, and handing out free copies of the Falun Gong-linked newspaper, Epoch Times. Protesters have also targeted Chinese politicians and offices in the city, and regularly take part in mass anti-government rallies and marches.

    Crossing the border by bus from China and seeing Falun Gong practitioners handing out anti-Communist Party leaflets was once one of the most visible signs of Hong Kong's relative autonomy from Beijing.

    All that could soon be deemed illegal under a sweeping new security law passed by China for Hong Kong last month that criminalized "acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security."

    Similar laws in China have been used to go after Falun Gong practitioners, which Beijing denounces as an "evil cult" that "preaches heretical fallacies that are anti-humanity and anti-science" through the control of people's minds.

    Falun Gong practitioners reject these charges and maintain they have been unfairly targeted and suppressed by the Chinese authorities. Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners are believed to be held "at various prisons and extralegal detention centers" in mainland China, according to Washington-based rights group Freedom House -- an accusation Beijing also denies.

    "The new National Security Law will act like a sharp knife hanging over the (association) and the heads of every Falun Gong practitioner in Hong Kong," said Ingrid Wu, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association. "We are very concerned."

    Hong Kong officials have claimed the new law is necessary and will only affect a handful of individuals. In early July, Chief Executive Carrie Lam pushed back against the suggestion the law would undermine people's freedoms.

    "The legal principles that we attach a lot of importance to, like presumption of innocence and no retrospective effect and so on, are being upheld," she said. "Instead of spreading fear, the law will actually remove fear and let Hong Kong people return to a normal, peaceful life."

    A government spokeswoman did not respond to emailed questions about concerns regarding religious freedom under the law.

    Hong Kong has long been a safe haven for entities which could never operate in China, from banned religious movements and labor rights NGOs, to big tech firms blocked by the Great Firewall. The fate of groups like Falun Gong -- fierce opponents of Beijing who, while not the immediate targets of the law still come within its broad remit -- will test those assurances to the hilt.

    New age religion

    Founded by Li Hongzhi in northeastern China in the early 1990s, Falun Gong blends traditional Chinese qigong practices and new age beliefs. It was once promoted by the Chinese government and state media as part of a nationwide qigong craze, but as Falun Gong grew in size, attracting millions of followers, the authorities turned on the group.

    Li encouraged a blistering public relations strategy in a bid to win over the critics, and between 1996 and 1999, the group staged some 300 protests and demonstrations, historian David Ownby writes in "Falun Gong and the Future of China."

    This culminated in an audacious, and strategically disastrous, demonstration around central government headquarters in Beijing involving around 10,000 practitioners. It was the biggest protest the capital had seen since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and was the beginning of the end for Falun Gong in China.

    The protesters in Beijing were calling for the removal of restrictions placed on the faith, but the Chinese authorities responded with a massive crackdown and huge propaganda push demonizing Falun Gong.

    "I was shocked," said Rose, a Hong Kong-based Falun Gong practitioner. "I had friends who were traveling between Hong Kong and Beijing, they told me a crackdown was about to take place, but I said this was impossible, Falun Gong was just a belief, nothing political."

    Originally from mainland China, Rose began practicing Falun Gong after moving to Hong Kong in the late 1990s. CNN is withholding her full name due to fears of prosecution under the new security law.

    After Falun Gong was banned, Rose's husband and several of her close friends urged her to keep a low profile, to just do her exercises and readings at home. But she was sure there had been some sort of mistake, and so, just has her fellow practitioners had done in Beijing, she sought to appeal to the government, to make the case for Falun Gong.

    "A group of us went to the Liaison Office," she said. "But no one came out, we stayed there for 24 hours."

    The Liaison Office is the Chinese government's Hong Kong headquarters, long a symbol of Beijing's influence over the city.

    Days turned into weeks, then months. Every day, Rose and a small group of fellow practitioners gathered outside the office on 160 Connaught Road to attempt to have their message heard.

    One day the protesters were joined by a group of Swiss practitioners who had originally hoped to travel to Beijing to protest but were denied visas. Police attempted to remove the group, which, according to court documents never numbered more than 16, and was "peaceful and largely static."

    Police moved to clear the protest, however, and charged the Falun Gong protesters with obstruction, among other offenses. The case eventually wound up at the Court of Final Appeals, where Hong Kong's top justices ruled strongly in favor of the right to protest and use "reasonable force to resist being subjected to unlawful detention."

    The case was a major victory not just for Falun Gong but for anti-government protesters in general, securing -- until last year's anti-government protests -- the right to stage protests outside the Liaison Office.

    New restrictions

    While Falun Gong practitioners are not the primary target of the new security law -- which is at times clearly designed to criminalize acts seen during last year's anti-government protests -- they and other groups like them could still fall foul of its broad remit.

    In particular, the new offense of subversion makes it illegal in many circumstances to advocate "overthrowing the body of central power of the People's Republic of China." Given that the PRC government is indelibly intertwined with the Communist Party, Falun Gong efforts to get people to quit the Communist Party in protest, or otherwise harm its activities, could be deemed criminal.

    The new crime of "collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security" could also be used to target Falun Gong. While not a top-down religion like the Catholic Church or other similar faiths with large numbers of followers in Hong Kong, Falun Gong is headquartered in the United States, where Li Hongzhi has lived since 1996, and this is where the group's main media and lobbying arms are also located.

    Under Article 29 of the new law, anyone who "conspires with a foreign country or an institution, organization or individual outside (China), or directly or indirectly receives instructions, control, funding or other kinds of support" from such organizations, could be prosecuted if they are found to be "provoking by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People's Government or the Government of the Region, which is likely to cause serious consequences."

    With initial prosecutions under the security law all related to recent protests, Falun Gong practitioners could find themselves -- if the law's critics are correct -- being a test case of another sort, an expansion of the law's remit to ban activities that have long been verboten on the mainland.

    "How the situation of Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong evolves in the coming months and how much of the repression leaks over from the mainland is a very important space to watch," said Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst at Freedom House and author of "The Battle for China's Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping."

    Outside of the protest movement, Falun Gong is among the most vocal and visible opposition to the Communist Party, in both Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world. While the group is somewhat detached from the mainstream opposition in Hong Kong due to its conservative religious beliefs, this has not stopped its presence in the city being symbolic, and many followers take a sort of pride that even Falun Gong can operate in Hong Kong, given the huge antipathy Beijing has towards the group.

    "The ability of people in Hong Kong to practice Falun Gong legally and openly is important both symbolically and practically," said Erping Zhang, a US-based spokesman for the group.

    Zhang said that as well as the new crimes created under the law, he was concerned about the broad rights it gives Chinese security services to operate in Hong Kong, even extending Chinese jurisdiction over certain cases and allowing people to be taken for trial on the mainland.

    "It could truly take a horrific toll on Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong and create huge losses for those who have benefited from the practice and activists' awareness raising activities," he said.

    Cook, the Freedom House researcher, said that any curtailment of Falun Gong in the city "would be a bad sign and a potentially worrying precursor to a crackdown on the broader religious community in Hong Kong."

    "Within China we've sign time and again since 1999 how the rules, tactics, and even security forces initially created to persecute Falun Gong are then expanded to other targets," she added. "It may only be a matter of time before we see that in Hong Kong too, unfortunately."

    But not all religious groups are alarmed. In a letter to the religious newspaper Church Times this month, Paul Kwong, Archbishop of Hong Kong, praised the new security law and pushed back against criticism from figures including Cardinal Maung Bo, president of the Asian Bishops' Conferences.

    "Many critics do not accept the fact that we are part of China," Kwong said. "They only emphasize two systems, not one country. I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms -- in particular the freedom of religion and way of life -- as much as anyone, and I don't think this law will change any of that. I am also proud to be living in China."

    Freedom of speech

    Numerous concerns have been raised about the new law's potential effects on freedom of speech in Hong Kong, with people already moving to scrub their social media and remove posters and pamphlets criticizing the government from shops and restaurants.

    Media groups have expressed alarm about the law, with the Foreign Correspondents' Club writing to the city's leader Lam "seeking clarity on specific areas where the new law is vague and where terms are undefined, particularly regarding the press and freedom of speech."

    Lam previously said "the law has clearly defined the four types of acts and activities which we need to prevent, curb and punish in accordance with the law."

    "If the Foreign Correspondents' Club or all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100% guarantee that they will not commit any offenses under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same," she added.

    Here again, Falun Gong may find themselves at the inadvertent frontlines of Hong Kong's battle for civil liberties. During a recent protest against the law on July 1, Falun Gong practitioners could be seen handing out flyers saying "Heaven will destroy the Chinese Communist Party" as well as copies of Epoch Times. The newspaper, which was founded by Falun Gong practitioners and remains closely linked to the group, is one of the most vocally anti-government publications in the city.

    Its Chinese edition refers to the coronavirus as the "Chinese Communist Party virus," has called on the West to "fight back" against the Party, and regularly publishes stinging critiques of Beijing.

    Representatives for Epoch Times in Hong Kong and New York did not respond to a request for comment.

    Like Apple Daily, a pro-democracy tabloid owned by tycoon Jimmy Lai, currently facing charges related to last year's protests, Epoch Times could be a canary in the coal mine for Hong Kong's media freedoms. Both papers have cultivated influence in Washington -- something that could both help or harm them, leading to politicians speaking out in their defense, but also Beijing casting them as colluding with foreign forces.

    Lai has long been close to Republican Party politicians, leading to claims of his being a foreign agent in Chinese state media, while the English edition of the Epoch Times since 2016 has aggressively targeted Trump voters, with opinion content taking on an increasingly right-wing stance.

    In 2019, the paper was barred by Facebook from running ads on its platform, after finding it violated the company's policies with pro-Trump campaigns.

    Uncertain future

    Hong Kong and Beijing officials have repeatedly claimed that the security law is both necessary and restrained, and will only affect a tiny handful of individuals in the city, mainly violent separatists.

    Paraphrasing former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about Hong Kong's success after China took control, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week that under the new law "horses will run faster, stocks will be more sizzling, and dancers will dance more happily."

    But with moves to ban books and expand police powers of surveillance and censorship, the scope of the law would appear to be expanding.

    Falun Gong practitioners, as well as many other groups in Hong Kong opposed to Beijing, may not immediately feel the sting of the new regulations, but they were poised for the worse. After years of suppression in China, however, the group is better prepared than most for how to function behind the scenes, even if that will require a complete overhaul of its Hong Kong operation.

    Zhang, the US-based spokesman, said that within China still, people "continue to practice Falun Gong in private and many go out and discretely disseminate information to help other Chinese see through the CCP's lies and cover-ups."

    Many practitioners in Hong Kong are in the city because they fled China, and Wu, the local spokeswoman said some may choose to go overseas should the law target them.

    "The Falun Gong community is diverse; each person makes their own decision based on their family and other situations," she said. "But most of Falun Gong practitioners that I know plan to stay in Hong Kong. We feel it is our responsibility to continue our peaceful efforts of raising awareness of the persecution and calling for justice, and tell the world what is happening in Hong Kong."


    Former Scientology and the Aftermath team tells EW the new show goes "further, deeper, harder, and stronger" on its investigation.

    Joey Nolfi 
    July 17, 2020

    Leah Remini will launch an audio follow-up to her docuseries Scientology and the Aftermath, the actress tells EW.

    Remini, an ex-Scientologist who has become a prominent critic of the church, has reunited with her Aftermath co-host (and former church official) Mike Rinder for a new podcast, Scientology: Fair Game, launching July 21. Rinder says the show will go “further, deeper, harder and stronger” than Aftermath, which ran for three seasons on A&E, in investigating tactics he and Remini say the church employs against critics. The Church of Scientology denies it engages in any form of harassment.

    Remini says they moved to audio because of frustration with A&E, saying she found it difficult to "abide by certain [network] rules that dictate to us what we can and can’t say, or what we can and can’t do.” (An A&E network source tells EW the show's "rigorous legal vetting process" dictated what Aftermath was able to present on the air.)

    With episodes recorded roughly one week before airing, Fair Game installments highlight timely Scientology-related topics, such as rape charges against Scientologist actor Danny Masterson (who has denied the allegations).

    "We’re going to go into detail about exactly what the [Fair Game] policy says, what it means, and how it’s implemented,” Rinder says. Scientology officials have characterized Remini’s investigations as bigotry against her former religion, but the former King of Queens star sees her podcast as a call to action: “Hopefully, more people get activated to do something.”

    Scientology: Fair Game, hosted by Remini and Rinder, premieres Tuesday, July 21 on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Listen to the trailer here.