The council was created under a federal law that grants the Justice Ministry the power to oversee religious organisations in Russia and determine whether they are truly religious or not on the basis of their statutes and activities.
A row has recently broken out between Russian authorities and non-Orthodox religious groups because of one man, Aleksandr Dvorkin (pictured), chairman of the Russian Association of Centres for Religious and Sectarian Studies.
Known for his intransigence towards non-Orthodox religious groups, Dvorkin was recently put in charge of the Justice Ministry’s Council of Religious Studies Experts.
Born in 1955 and a citizen of the United States, he graduated from the Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood/New York in 1983 and has acquired a reputation as a first class expert “inquisitor” on sects and cults.
After graduation he taught at Moscow State University, but was fired because of his discriminatory views on religious minorities. He then moved to Moscow’s Russian Orthodox University and is now a professor at San Tichon University, also in the Russian capital.
He has become a lightening rod for Russian religious minorities. They have blasted the Justice Ministry’s decision to set up the Council of Experts, especially for the people it appointed to it as well as for the powers it granted it. Instead of being neutral body with advisory powers, the council can exert with quasi judicial authority.
Protestant groups and Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the council’s harshest critics, but Muslims, Catholics and even people within the Moscow Patriarchate are raising questions.
Protestants are particularly sensitive to the harassment and controls the council might impose.
Muslims and Catholics are more concerned with the ignorance of the council’s members in religious matters, not only Dvorkin’s, but also that of council vice-chairman Roman Silantyev, who is also director of the human rights centre of the World Russian People's Council, and Valiulla Jakupov, vice-chairman of the Muslim Directorate in Tatarstan, and secretary A. Sarycev, adviser on religious organisations at the Justice Ministry.
Some Orthodox leaders have also spoken out against the incompetence of council members. On 10 April, a few days after the names of council members were announced, religious scholars, legal experts and human rights activists expressed their disappointment over the choices made by the Justice Ministry at a press conference held at the Institute for Religion and the Law in Moscow.
Anatolij Pcelincev, who teaches at the Moscow University for the Humanities and is the editor of Religija i pravo, said that the ministerial order violates the constitution and the law on freedom of conscience.
Other experts who were present at the press conference said that the steps taken by the ministry headed by Konovalov discredit the Moscow Patriarchate before society.
In their opinion there is a real danger that the Russian Orthodox Church might become associated with a body that is destroying confessional peace in Russia.