Long Arm of Russian Law Reaches Obscure Siberian Church

ABODE OF DAWN, Russia — High on a hilltop bathed in the autumnal colors of pine, birch and larch trees, Aleksei Demidov paused for a few minutes of quiet prayer. He was directing his thoughts to his religious teacher, known as Vissarion, hoping he might feel his energy.

As he prayed, a cluster of small bells rang out from a spindly wooden gazebo. They belonged to the Church of the Last Testament, founded in 1991 by Vissarion. Except then his name was Sergei Torop, and he was just a former police officer and an amateur artist.

These days, Mr. Demidov and thousands of other church members consider Vissarion a living god. The Russian state, however, considers him a criminal.

dramatic operation led by federal security services. Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top federal prosecutorial authority, accused them of “creating a religious group whose activities may impose violence on citizens,” allegations they deny.

A year later, the three men are still being held without criminal indictment in a prison in the industrial city of Novosibirsk, 1,000 miles from their church community. No trial has been scheduled.

Since taking power at the turn of the century, President Vladimir V. Putin has gone to great lengths to silence critics and prevent any person or group from gaining too much influence. He has forced out and locked up oligarchs, muted the news media and tried to defang political opposition — like Aleksei A. Navalny.

outlawed in 2017 and declared an “extremist” organization, on par with Islamic State militants.

Though there are accusations of extortion and mistreatment of members of the Church of the Last Testament, scholars and criminal justice experts say the arrest of Mr. Torop underscores the government’s intolerance of anything that veers from the mainstream — even a small, marginal group living in the middle of the forest, led by a former police officer claiming to be God.

“There is an idea that there is a defined spiritual essence of Russian culture, meaning conservative values and so on, that is in danger,” said Alexander Panchenko, the head of the Center for Anthropology of Religion at the European University at St. Petersburg, who has been asked to serve as an expert witness in an administrative procedure that could strip the church of its legal status as a church, an act that he said was based on “false accusations.”

“Somehow the new religious movements are now dangerous as well,” Mr. Panchenko said.

told Russian state-owned media that while there was no requirement to donate money, it was encouraged.

She said that some food items were banned and that seeking medical care was difficult. The church drew notice in 2000 when two children died because the community is so remote that they could not get medical help in time. But Ms. Melnikova also said that conditions had softened since the early days.

The accusations come from a vague Soviet-era law used to punish nonregistered groups like Baptists, evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mr. Lunkin said. The prosecutors’ office did not respond to messages seeking information about the status of the case.

In interviews last month with more than two dozen church members, none said that they had been mistreated or strained financially, and all that they could come and go freely for work or school. They said the church did not impose a financial burden on them. When the authorities searched Mr. Torop’s home, they found only 700 rubles (about $10).

Mr. Torop and his church have not been politically active or spoken out against the government. Instead, followers believe their very independence from normal Russian life is what made their church a target. “We’ve created a self-sustaining society, and our freedom is dangerous for the system,” said Aleksandr A. Komogortsev, 46, a disciple who was a police officer in Moscow for 11 years before moving to one of the biggest villages three years ago.

“We have shown how it is possible to live outside the system,” he said, gushing over a breakfast of salad and potato dumplings about how fulfilling it was to work with his hands.

Tanya Denisova, 68, a follower since 1999, said the church was focused on God’s judgment, not politics. She moved to the village in 2001, after divorcing her husband, who did not want to join the church.

“We came here to get away from politics,” she said.

Like the other faithful, Ms. Denisova eats a vegetarian diet, mostly of food grown in her large garden. Pictures of Vissarion, referred to as “the teacher,” and reproductions of his paintings hang in many rooms of her house.

Each village where followers live, like Ms. Denisova’s Petropavlovka, functions as a “united family,” with the household heads meeting each morning after a brief prayer service to discuss urgent communal work to be done for the day, and with weekly evening sessions where members of the community can solve disputes, request assistance or offer help.

At one recent meeting, members approved two new weddings after ensuring the betrothed couples were ready for marriage.

For many of the believers, their leader’s arrest, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, is a sign that Judgment Day approaches.

Others said they felt his arrest was the fulfillment of a prophecy, comparing their teacher’s plight with that of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.

Stanislav M. Kazakov, the head of a small private school in the village of Cheremshanka, said the arrest had made the teacher more famous in Russia and abroad, which he hoped would draw more adherents.

Mr. Kazakov said his school, like other community institutions, had been subjected to repeated inspections and fines since 2019, with at least 100 students as young as 8 questioned by the police. He said the arrest and intimidation by the police had made the community stronger.

“They thought we would fall apart without him,” he said. “But in the past year, we have returned to the kind of community that holds each other together.”

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Why Tunisia’s Promise of Democracy Struggles to Bear Fruit

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — In the 10 years since its popular uprising set off the Arab Spring, Tunisia has often been praised as the one success story to emerge from that era of turbulence. It rejected extremism and open warfare, it averted a counterrevolution, and its civic leaders even won a Nobel Peace Prize for consensus building.

Yet for all the praise, Tunisia, a small North African country of 11 million, never fixed the serious economic problems that led to the uprising in the first place.

It also never received the full-throated support of Western backers, something that might have helped it make a real transition from the inequity of dictatorship to prosperous democracy, analysts and activists say. Instead, at critical points in Tunisia’s efforts to remake itself, many of its needs were overlooked by the West, for which the fight against Islamist terrorism overshadowed all other priorities.

Now, as Tunisians grapple with their latest upheaval, which began when President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister and suspended Parliament over the weekend, many seem divided on whether to condemn his actions — or embrace them.

terrorism and the pandemic, Mr. Kaboub said.

overthrew the country’s authoritarian president of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

But Western officials were obsessively focused on the Islamists — namely the Ennahda, or Renaissance, party that swept early elections — and where they were going and what they represented.

“In conversations, those sorts of questions ate up almost all the oxygen in the room,” Ms. Marks said. “It was almost impossible to get anybody to ask another question.”

awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 — to the point that it became a “fetish,” she said.

After the 2011 revolution, Al Qaeda and other extremists were quick to mobilize networks of recruits.

Terrorism burst into the open in 2012 when the U.S. Embassy in Tunis came under attack from a mob. Over the years that followed, extremist cells carried out a string of political assassinations and suicide attacks that shattered Tunisians’ optimism and nearly derailed the democratic transition.

training and assisting Tunisian security forces, and supplying them with military equipment, but so discreetly that the American forces themselves were virtually invisible.

By 2019, some 150 Americans were training and advising their Tunisian counterparts in one of the largest missions of its kind on the African continent, according to American officials. The value of American military supplies delivered to the country increased to $119 million in 2017 from $12 million in 2012, government data show.

The assistance helped Tunisia defeat the broader threat of terrorism, but government ministers noted that the cost of combating terrorism, while unavoidable, burned a larger hole in the national budget.

But it is the structure of the economy that remains the root of the problem, Mr. Kaboub said. All of Tunisia’s political parties have identical economic plans, based on World Bank and International Monetary Fund guidelines. It was the same development platform used by the ousted president, Mr. Ben Ali, Mr. Kaboub said.

“Right now,” he said, “everybody in Tunisia is begging for an I.M.F. loan, and it is going to be seen as the solution to the crisis. But it is really a trap. It’s a Band-Aid — the infection is still there.”

Lilia Blaise contributed reporting from Tunis.

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In Nagorno-Karabakh, Land Mines, Bulldozers and Lingering Tensions

When I came to Nagorno-Karabakh after the war last year, the sight of a hillside Armenian military cemetery brought to my mind the layers of tragedy embedded in this land.

After returning in June, I left wondering just how much heartbreak a patch of earth can bear.

In Shusha last October, I stepped into the concrete basement of an apartment block, where Armenian women were sheltering on flattened cardboard boxes. They thought they had known what war was like, one said, recalling the 1990s conflict. But the enormous firepower of modern weapons was different, “a horror, a horror.”

Back then, as Communism collapsed, the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh — an area mostly populated by Armenians within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Armenia won that war, leaving about one-seventh of Azerbaijan’s territory under Armenian control.

As international efforts to mediate the conflict failed, and Azerbaijan’s oil and gas riches boomed, the country invested in modern drones from Israel and Turkey. By the time Azerbaijan attacked last September, its military, supported by Turkey, was overpowering compared with that of poorer and smaller Armenia.

When I returned last month to the Shusha apartment block, it was gone, razed to bare, brown ground. The area will become part of a new “streetscape,” the British architect, Adrian Griffiths, told me.

Rather than allow the Azerbaijanis to simply return to their homes, President Ilham Aliyev, the country’s authoritarian ruler, wants to rebuild Shusha as Azerbaijan’s cultural capital. About 15,000 people, mainly Azerbaijanis, lived there before the 1990s war; until last fall, there were roughly 5,000 Armenian residents.

The striking hilltop city was a cradle of Azerbaijani music and poetry in the 19th century, though Armenians also see it as core to their historical identity.

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As Secular Peace Effort Stutters in Israel, Religious Mediators Hope to Step In

JERUSALEM — The rabbi stood before the grave of the imam, weeping as he gave his eulogy. In life, Rabbi Michael Melchior said, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish had promised him that he would never leave his side. In death, the sheikh had left him feeling as bereft as an orphan.

Sheikh Abdullah died in 2017, four years before the Islamist party he helped found, Raam, became the first independent Arab faction to join an Israeli government coalition. But the sheikh’s funeral and his unlikely friendship with Rabbi Melchior, as well as their below-the-radar attempts at religious-based peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, were all part of an unexpected, decades-long back story of an effort by some Islamists to find a place within Israeli politics.

For Mansour Abbas, a politician standing in tears to the rabbi’s right that day, the sheikh’s death was one of several pivotal way stations in his journey to lead Raam into Israel’s government.

“At Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral and Rabbi Melchior’s speech, it hit me — that I need to be committed to Sheikh Abdullah and Rabbi Melchior’s joint approach,” said Mr. Abbas, who became Raam’s leader in 2018 and entered Parliament two years ago. The speech and the funeral “made me go from being a supporter and minor contributor to it to someone wishing to strengthen it and push it forward,” he said.

violent clashes in May. And Israel had just ended a brief war with Hamas, the militant group that holds sway in the Gaza Strip.

Both Raam and Hamas have roots in the same Islamist movement. And Raam’s leading influence, Sheikh Abdullah, was convicted and imprisoned in the 1980s for links to a militant Islamist group.

To those in and around Raam, its new role makes more sense in the context of Sheikh Abdullah’s spiritual journey since he left jail, when he had an ideological about-face and sought to use Islamic teachings to justify a more peaceful approach.

helped legitimize the idea of Arab participation in government by pursuing Raam’s support.

are fighting to restore momentum to a formal peace process that petered out in 2014. To them, Mr. Abbas’s political maneuver was a natural outgrowth of a long-term project of religious-based peace building begun by Sheikh Abdullah.

“My sheikh went through several stations in his life,” said Sheikh Raed, citing Sheikh Abdullah’s break with militance after leaving prison in the 1980s.

“The whole religious dialogue,” Sheikh Raed said, “started from that point.”

Born in 1948 in an Arab town in what became Israel, Sheikh Abdullah flirted briefly with Communism as a young man before turning more seriously to Islam.

In the 1970s, he founded the Islamic Movement, a group based in Israel that aimed to encourage the Muslim minority to deepen its faith and, ultimately, to create a society governed by Islamic law. The group also had a militant wing that carried out arson attacks on Israeli property.

But in the 1980s, he surprised his followers by pushing to establish better relations between Arabs and Israelis, within both Israel and the occupied territories.

participation of the Islamic Movement’s political wing, later known as Raam, in Israeli parliamentary elections. That caused a split in the movement, with some members forming a now banned splinter group that rejected participation in the Israeli parliamentary process.

But Sheikh Abdullah continued on a path of moderation, writing a book that rejected any religious justification for suicide attacks. He also began to work on several peace-building projects with Rabbi Melchior, then a deputy foreign minister in the Israeli government.

communal violence in the city of Acre, in northern Israel.

In 2014, they coordinated to avoid religious violence in mixed Arab-Jewish cities when the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, fell on the same day as the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha, and tried to taper conflict during a low-level intifada the next year.

Mr. Abbas became involved in the initiatives and later developed a close relationship with Rabbi Melchior, speaking with him several times a month.

To the rabbi, these religious-based peace initiatives offered a way to move on from the secular-led diplomatic efforts of the 1990s and 2000s, which he said failed in part because they did not sufficiently include religious elements from the two populations.

“The traditional and religious population felt that the peace was part of the uprooting of what they felt was their sense of belonging, of their DNA, of their identity, of their narrative,” Rabbi Melchior said.

After Sheikh Abdullah’s death, Sheikh Raed took up his mantle. He worked with Rabbi Melchior to defuse another crisis in 2017, when the installation of metal detectors at the entrance to the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem almost set off another uprising.

In 2020, Sheikh Raed released a lengthy religious tract that provided a theological justification for Raam’s joining an Israeli government. Several months later, Mr. Abbas joined the current governing coalition.

During the coalition negotiations, Mr. Abbas gave a televised speech in Hebrew, largely pitched at Israeli Jews, in which he called for coexistence and presented himself as a citizen of Israel. Analysts later said it played a pivotal role in positioning him as an acceptable partner for Jewish-led parties. The speech was his own, but he spoke beforehand with Rabbi Melchior about its content, both men said.

To some Palestinian citizens of Israel, Mr. Abbas is a sellout for helping put right-wing Jewish politicians in power in exchange for what critics perceive as only token victories.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the left-wing party Hadash, said Mr. Abbas’s approach was transactional, positioning Palestinian citizens of Israel as servants and subjects instead of as true citizens with collective rights.

“I don’t want to work as a politician under a Jewish supremacy,” said Mr. Odeh, whose party includes a mix of Arabs and Jews. “I fight for deep equality on both a civil and national level between the two peoples.”

But to advocates like Sheikh Raed and Rabbi Melchior, Mr. Abbas’s decision was a hopeful byproduct of a long process of religious peace-building that seeks to place Palestinians and Israelis on a more equal footing, and which political leaders would do well to amplify.

“If the religious element is not inside the peace camp, and not included fully, it just won’t happen,” Rabbi Melchior said. “I, for one, do not want to exclude the secular — not from our society and not from the peacemaking,” he added. “I just want to expand that sense of peace.”

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