MOSCOW -- The Federal Security Service (FSB) has raided several buildings in Russia belonging to the Church of Scientology in connection with a fraud investigation that authorities say involves the embezzlement of more than 800 million rubles ($12 million) by people affiliated with the U.S.-based religious group.
According to a statement by the Interior Ministry cited by TASS, the raids on March 28 were tied to a criminal probe launched in 2017 into a major case of fraud in the St. Petersburg region, involving 400 people cheated of their investments in a housing development.
The raids took place in St. Petersburg and at least two locations belonging to the church in the Moscow region and the Russian capital.
Tatyana Zakharchenko, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg, told RFE/RL that the church itself was not being investigated but certain individuals affiliated with its St. Petersburg branch were.
"This is the same as if an Orthodox believer broke the law and the FSB raided an Orthodox church," she said of the raids. The church's Moscow chapter declined to comment for this story.
In videos of the police operation aired on Russian state TV on March 28, masked FSB officers can be seen breaking into and scouring a building in St. Petersburg whose tenants are shown lined up on either side of a wide corridor.
The report opens with a promise to reveal "technologies of siphoning money right inside the offices of the Scientologists," but ends up providing no evidence and few details of the alleged fraud.
'Lure And Deceive'
As cameras zero in on books written by the church's American founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the presenter says the faith's followers in St. Petersburg had sold their apartments to live in double bed "barracks" constructed inside the premises while money allegedly stolen from them was used to finance the lavish lifestyles of the church elite.
"Lure and deceive: that's the way the Scientology cult has lived for decades," the report concludes.
Zakharchenko, the church representative, did not elaborate on the ongoing investigation but she sent a statement from the religious organization saying that law enforcement has previously raided its church in St. Petersburg "in an effort to shift suspicions of a crime from a specific person onto the entire religious community."
"We believe that what's happening is an example of the continuing discriminatory politics toward Scientology, provoked by specific individuals who work toward the destruction of our Russian society," the statement said.
The Russian government has long been opposed to recognizing the church’s status as an official religion, and has waged a protracted battle to get affiliates in Russia shut down.
The Russian Orthodox Church considers the organization a religious sect, a view often advanced on the airwaves of Russian state TV. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favor of several regional chapters of the church in Russia.
In November 2015, the Justice Ministry declared the Church of Scientology in violation of Russian law and called for the liquidation of its chapters in Russia. Several raids have since been conducted on premises used by the organization, and some members have become embroiled in high-profile fraud investigations.
In October 2018, a court in St. Petersburg sentenced Yekaterina Zaborskikh, one of the church's adherents in the city, to 6 1/2 years in prison for allegedly transferring money to the church that was stolen from people who had invested in housing projects by her construction company.
Between 2012 and 2014 Zaborskikh allegedly defrauded over 70 families of investments totaling more than 130 million rubles, Interfax reported at the time.
Since 2016 the government has expanded its campaign to rein in foreign-based religious groups. The Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses was outlawed in 2017 and equated in practice with supporters of the Islamic State extremist group. The Supreme Court announced the confiscation of all its property in Russia, and its estimated 170,000 members now risk jail time for congregating.
Over 500 charges have been brought against religious groups in connection with the clampdown. The majority are fines for proselytizing in public, incorrectly marked literature, and the absence of plaques designating places of worship -- religious groups like the Church of Scientology have been subject to searches and increased scrutiny.