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US Government ‘adopts’ Russian Scientologist in religious rights protest

[Ivan Matsitsky and Kristina Arriaga]

On June 5, 2017, agents of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) made one of numerous raids it has carried out on Scientology facilities. This one took place at the St. Petersburg org, and it resulted in the arrest of five Scientologists who were working there.

One of them was a man named Ivan Matsitsky, whom Russian press accounts have described as the org’s “leader,” which is not a Scientology title. (Scientology’s own website doesn’t list a title for Matsitsky, but says he’s been involved in Scientology since 1994.)

More than a year later, Matsitsky and the org’s chief accountant, Sahib Aliyev, are still in pre-trial custody, while the other three, including the org’s 64-year-old executive director, Galina Shurinova, were allowed to go home on house arrest.

The St. Petersburg org had been under scrutiny by Russian officials for more than two years before the June 2017 raid. In February 2015, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russian authorities had violated the rights of St. Petersburg Scientologists when it denied the org status as a legal entity. Among the Scientologists named in that order were Matsitsky and Shurinova. And in June 2016, a year before they were arrested, Matsitsky and several others were questioned at the org and at their homes by the FSB.

Since their arrest, it’s a little unclear what the five Scientologists have been charged with, but it translates to “illegal entrepreneurial activity, leadership of an extremist community, and humiliation of human dignity.”

The “entrepreneurial activity” totaled the equivalent of about $4.5 million, and it apparently refers to taking money from Scientologists for the things Scientologists normally pay for, including personal interrogations.

Russian courts have labeled some of Scientology’s materials as “extremist,” and have repeatedly closed some facilities. The St. Petersburg org itself was closed by court order in 2007 for operating without a license and for gathering private information about individuals. Despite more than a decade of such crackdowns, however, Scientology continues to survive there — though it’s difficult to assess its overall health in comparison to the United States, for example, where it’s been rapidly shrinking since the 1990s.

The US itself cracked down on Scientology in a very visible and harsh way with a 1977 raid which was the biggest in FBI history at the time. Eleven top Scientology officers were convicted and went to prison for an elaborate scheme to infiltrate government offices under the name the “Snow White Program.” Since then, Scientology has repeatedly been accused of subjecting its members to harsh interrogations and then using the private information gathered from those interrogations to punish members who turn away or go public with the organization’s secrets. It also subjects its most dedicated adherents, workers in the Sea Org, to around the clock work schedules 365 days a year, for almost no pay, and subject to harsh punishments. The FBI investigated allegations of labor trafficking in the Sea Org in 2009-2010, but no charges were filed.

In Russia, those practices of information gathering and potential blackmail of former members are repeatedly cited as the reason the raids and arrests have been happening. But the heavy-handedness of the Russian raids has raised concerns from observers in other countries (including this website).

Now, a branch of the US government has announced that it objects to the way the Russian prisoners are being treated, and is committed to “raising awareness” about Matsitsky, who is described as a “prisoner of conscience.”

Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz is vice chair of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a body that was created in 1998 under President Bill Clinton, who had made international religious rights one of his signature issues. (Clinton was also the president who signed off on Scientology re-acquiring tax exempt status from the IRS in 1993, after a two-year process that had begun under his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush.) The same 1998 law that created the USCIRF also created the Office of International Religious Freedom inside the State Department, which under Clinton harshly criticized the German government for the way it was investigating Scientology and Scientologists. To this day, the State Department criticizes other governments for their treatment of Scientology in an annual report on international religious freedom.

The daughter of a Cuban refugee, Arriaga was appointed to the USCIRF in 2016 by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Prior to that, she was executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which advocated for Hobby Lobby in its battle to oppose Obamacare’s contraception mandate. Other current USCIRF commissioners include Trump, Pelosi, Schumer, and McConnell appointees.

This week, Arriaga issued a press release announcing that she was “adopting” two Russian “prisoners of conscience” — Jehovah’s Witness member Dennis Christensen and Matsitsky. Here’s her entire release:

Vice Chair Arriaga Adopts Two Religious Prisoners of Conscience

Vice Chair Arriaga said, “These two cases are examples of the Russian government ‘securitizing’ religion—targeting religious communities it considers illegitimate on the pretext that they pose a national security threat”

WASHINGTON, DC – Kristina Arriaga, Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), today announced that she is adopting two religious prisoners of conscience in Russia, Dennis Christensen and Ivan Matsitsky, as part of USCIRF’s Prisoners of Conscience Project. Mr. Christensen, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was arrested in Oryol, Russia, on May 25, 2017, following the raid of a prayer service in which he was participating. As of September 13, 2018, Mr. Christensen has appeared 38 times before Oryol’s District Court. He faces a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Mr. Matsitsky, the director of the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg, was arrested on June 5, 2017, on various charges including involvement in “an extremist conspiracy.” He has been held in pretrial detention since his arrest.

“The cases of Dennis Christensen and Ivan Matsitsky are emblematic of the Russian government’s complete disregard for religious freedom,” stated Vice Chair Arriaga. “I am committed to doing all I can to raise awareness of Ivan’s and Dennis’ cases and secure their speedy release.”

The government of Russia considers groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists “nontraditional” religious minorities, frequently targeting them with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism. In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization.

Vice Chair Arriaga added, “These two cases are examples of the Russian government ‘securitizing’ religion—targeting religious communities it considers illegitimate on the pretext that they pose a national security threat. But these religious communities only seek to practice their beliefs peacefully and without fear. When they arrested Dennis, he was reading the Bible with fellow believers. The international community must uphold internationally recognized human rights and press for the release of Ivan, Dennis, and the many others imprisoned in Russia for their religious identity or activities.”

In 2018 USCIRF again recommended that Russia be designated as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). To learn more about religious freedom conditions in Russia, click here.

###

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze and report on threats to religious freedom abroad. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief. To interview a Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at Media@USCIRF.gov or Javier Peña at jpena@uscirf.gov or +1-202-674-2598.

 
While the Underground Bunker has expressed its own concerns about the Russian government’s methods — namely, that its justice system is a joke, its rights record is horrendous, and we don’t trust an abject dictator like Vladimir Putin to deal honestly with Scientology’s very real controversies and abuses — it makes us equally queasy to see the US government getting involved with standing up for Scientologist leaders as “prisoners of conscience.”

For some guidance, we reached out to one of our most highly respected sources, Carnegie Mellon Professor Dave Touretzky, who has been studying and exposing Scientology for decades. Here’s what he sent us…

I think it may be helpful to look at the Jehovah’s Witnesses first. Why would the Russians care about some obscure Christian group? A quick glance at Wikipedia reveals that Jehovah’s Witness refusal to serve in the military antagonized the government in the 1950s and led to a mass expulsion. (Read more here.)

As for Scientology, they have plenty of practices that the government could rightly object to, such as the medical quackery of the Purification Rundown, or their fraudulent claims about delivering super powers in this lifetime as opposed to the next.

So we might agree with the government’s antagonism toward Church of Scientology, but still not trust that they are treating an individual practitioner fairly. We don’t know what Matsitsky was up to. If he’s just handing out copies of Dianetics, that’s a lot different than if he’s using high pressure sales tactics to cheat old folks out of their savings. We don’t know, and we have zero faith in the Russian government to truthfully report what he really did.

It’s telling that this USCIRF press release talks about Christensen reading the Bible when he was arrested, but doesn’t try to make Matsitsky sound equally normal. The boilerplate about how religious minorities “only seek to practice their beliefs peacefully and without fear” rings true for Jehovah’s Witnesses but not for the Church of Scientology. Matsitsky isn’t some FreeZoner grooving on Ron with nothing but good will toward his fellow man. His allegiance is to what you and I recognize as an international crime syndicate. So the Russians may be right in their opposition to Scientology on their turf even if they are violating an individual practitioner’s rights.

I’d love to ask the USCIRF if there are any “religious” groups they would not consider worthy of protection. How do they feel about Aum Shinrikyo, or the Peoples Temple, or Heaven’s Gate?

We don’t know how the USCIRF would answer Touretzky’s question, but we do know that Arriaga has handed David Miscavige a public relations miracle. We are expecting a massive ad campaign to come from Scientology soon boasting that the US government has decided that Scientologists are prisoners of conscience deserving the support of the current administration.

And we can’t help wondering how this will be used by Scientology to target those US agencies which have been looking into its abuses in recent days.

Arriaga just handed Miscavige a huge club to use in order to pummel those probes.

 
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Underground Bunker TV

The programming just keeps coming at Underground Bunker TV. We’ve posted short videos about ABCMouse, Bob Duggan, Scientology attorney Gary Soter, David Miscavige’s position in the church,what Scientology says about Jesus and Christianity, Scientology’s obsession with masturbation, the Ideal Orgs, and Narconon deaths. Today we have another short spot that brings up something we’ve covered here before. We hope these vids will draw people back here to the Bunker to seek more information. So please help us get them out into the world!

 

 
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Scientology’s celebrities and ‘Ideal Orgs’ — now with comments!

[Michael Peña and the Melbourne Ideal Org]

We’ve started a new project, building landing pages about two of David Miscavige’s favorite playthings, his celebrities and his ‘Ideal Orgs.’ For the next several weeks, we’ll post a couple of pages each day, and we’re hoping you’ll join in and help us gather as much information as we can about each of them, in order to build a record and maintain a watch as Scientology continues its inexorable decline — and yes, we finally have comments working on these new pages! Head on over and help us with links and photos and comments about all of your favorite celebrites and failing Ideal Orgs

Previously, we posted pages for celebrities Anne Archer, Beck Hansen, Catherine Bell, Chick Corea, Elisabeth Moss, Erika Christensen, Ethan Suplee, Giovanni Ribisi, Greta Van Susteren, Jenna Elfman, John Travolta, Juliette Lewis, Kelly Preston, Kirstie Alley, Laura Prepon, and Marisol Nichols. And for the Ideal Orgs of Portland, Oregon; Sydney, Australia; San Diego, California; Denver, Colorado; Nashville, Tennessee; Perth, Australia; Tokyo, Japan; Sacramento, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Silicon Valley, California; Rome, Italy; Orlando, Florida; Moscow, Russia; and Amsterdam, Netherlands; Seattle, Washington, and Dallas, Texas.

Today it’s Michael Peña and the Melbourne Ideal Org!

 
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MEANWHILE, AT FACEBOOK…

 

 
Please join us at the Underground Bunker’s Facebook discussion group for more frivolity.

 
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Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 5,251 days.
Katrina Reyes has not seen her mother Yelena in 1,854 days
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 397 days.
Geoff Levin has not seen his son Collin and daughter Savannah in 285 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 1,460 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 2,234 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 3,008 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 2,354 days.
Dylan Gill has not seen his father Russell in 10,920 days.
Mirriam Francis has not seen her brother Ben in 2,588 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 2,848 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 1,888 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 1,600 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 1,126 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 5,215 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 2,355 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 2,675 days.
Roger Weller has not seen his daughter Alyssa in 7,531 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,650 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 1,006 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 5,308 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 1,414 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 1,817 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 1,688 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 1,271 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 1,776 days.
Mary Jane Sterne has not seen her daughter Samantha in 2,020 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 13,129 days.

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3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on September 28, 2018 at 07:00

E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2017 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Undergound Bunker (2012-2017), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news

 

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