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Patrick Ryan
Resources to help families and friends understand and effectively respond to the complexity of a loved one's cult involvement.
Resources to help families and friends understand and effectively respond to the complexity of a loved one's cult involvement.

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The Barclays Center was filled with men wearing black and white Sunday, but it wasn’t the Brooklyn Nets battling an NBA foe. It was nearly 20,000 men from the Satmar Hasidic community protesting the Israeli army’s efforts to draft young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

The event, dubbed “Kinus Harevavot,” or “Gathering of Thousands,” was organized by the Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based Satmar organization Central Rabbinical Congress of the U.S.A. and Canada. It brought in school busloads of Hasidim from upstate Monsey, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey.

The men — and it was only men and boys — filled the arena to capacity, listening to a long string of speeches in Yiddish from a dais positioned under a temporarily raised basketball net.

Among the speakers was the leader of the Williamsburg sect of the Satmar community, Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum. After his father’s death, his brother Aaron Teitelbaum split off and now leads a Satmar community in upstate New York. The Aroynem, as the latter’s followers are known, boycotted the event.

The rally aimed to show the Israeli government that the anti-Zionist community in the United States supports its religious kinsmen in the Holy Land who resist serving in the Israel Defense Forces, said Rabbi David Niederman, who runs the Central Rabbinical Congress.

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Brigham Young, born June 1, 1801 in Vermont, made his mark as the American Moses who led his people, the Church of Latter Day Saints popularly known as Mormons, to the “New Jerusalem” established in Salt Lake City.

Young was the second Mormon leader, elected to his position as president after the murder of Joseph Smith, the founder. The Mormons faced persecution wherever they settled, from upstate New York, to Illinois, to Missouri, only to find security under Young’s leadership in the wide-open territory of Utah, first under Mexican control and then under the authority of the United States.

Young was a central figure in what was perhaps the second most contentious debate, after slavery, to inflame the American public of the nineteenth century. Young, who married as a young man only to be widowed soon after, was a polygamist, taking on dozens of wives (although historians debate how conjugal each relationship was). Young said that polygamy was necessary “so that the noble spirits which are waiting for tabernacles might be brought forth,” a reference to how Mormons view the afterlife. According to historian Charles A. Cannon, the debate over polygamy became central to Mormon identity, particularly after Young publicly espoused the practice in 1852. Opponents used the institution to rebuff efforts to bring Utah into the American union.

The 1856 Republic Party platform condemned both slavery and polygamy. President Grover Cleveland in an address to Congress extolled the values of the American family, with the clear exception of Mormons. (Cleveland himself later scandalized the American public by fathering a child out of wedlock.)

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Leah Remini, who exposed many alleged abuses by The Church of Scientology in the first season of her A&E documentary series, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, is gearing up for Season 2, and there is no dearth of new information to impart.

Remini, along with fellow ex-Scientologist bigwig Mike Rinder, is pulling out all the stops in Season 2, and plans to address further allegations and improprieties by the church.

Over this past weekend, Remini and Rinder participated in a 1.5-hour special called Merchants of Fear, which examined the way the church intimidates and attacks its critics. Rather than solely focus on stories from former members (as Aftermath does), this exposé looked at how journalists and other external detractors are stalked, harassed, humiliated and otherwise assailed by Scientology.

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When the Church of Scientology secretly purchased the dilapidated 11-story Fort Harrison Hotel in this western Florida city in 1975, locals didn’t know what to make of their new neighbors.

It would be the following year before the church was publicly identified as the owner of the hotel, which would be renovated to become Scientology’s international headquarters. The church, meanwhile, began scooping up other prime properties – dozens of them, including entire blocks – throughout downtown Clearwater.

It is a tactic that the church has used elsewhere, most notably in its birthplace of Hollywood, where it has assembled a vast array of properties. Although the church tends to improve the condition of its real estate holdings, its purchases — like Scientology itself — are often controversial, surrounded by rumor and suspicion.

So it was in Clearwater, a city of 110,000 that is now Scientology’s international headquarters. County records show that the church owns 66 properties in the city, where an estimated 12,000 Scientologists live. City officials have long grappled with fears that the church’s influence was growing too deep.

All that came to a head last month, when the city of Clearwater went head to head with the church in a struggle over a strategically located parcel of vacant land. The city won, despite offering vastly less than the church was willing to pay. But the repercussions shook City Hall and the highest levels of the church, which has a reputation for sharp elbows and for winning at any cost.

Was the battle for this parcel of land an indication of the church’s unspoken intent to consolidate political power in Clearwater? Residents wondered. Conspiracy theories are nothing new when it comes to the Church of Scientology.

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"On the same day, one guy spat in our cart and another man said people like us should be gassed."

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Melanie is a 34-year-old dental assistant from Berlin, and she has been a Jehovah's Witness since she was 17. She grew up within the community but made the decision to be a full-fledged member at that age by being baptized. While to her it's simply her community, outsiders often consider Jehovah's Witnesses close to a religious sect. That reputation likely springs from Witnesses missionary zeal, their direct interpretation of the Bible and Jesus's words, and the fact that breaking their rules—like having sex before marriage or undergoing blood transfusion—could lead to expulsion from the church and the community. According to some Jehovah's Witnesses, you're still allowed to maintain your relationship with your family and visit gatherings if you're expelled—but there are countless accounts of former members who have been shunned by their loved ones completely.

To understand what it's like on the inside, I met Melanie in the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah's Witnesses assembly in Berlin. The hall is really a sparsely furnished room with rows of chairs alongside more rows of chairs and a small stage with a podium. It doesn't look like a church much—only the posters with Bible verses in four languages give away the fact that this room has a religious purpose. Melanie's husband, Thomas, stayed near during the interview, and a church elder was also present.

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'Merchants of Fear' will explore the complicated relationship between the Church and its vocal critics. The special will also offer a sneak peek at season two.

Leah Remini's Scientology-centered docuseries is expanding.

A&E Network is set to air a two-hour special edition of Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath that explores the relationship between the Church and some of its vocal critics.

Merchants of Fear, set to premiere May 29 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, will specifically invite a series of special guests to candidly describe their personal experiences investigating controversial stories about the Church and how it has responded to their work. The two-hour telecast will offer a sneak peek at the upcoming second season of the docuseries.

Season two is set to return with 10 new hourlong episodes.

Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath centers on the actress and other former members of the Church as they take a closer look at the shocking stories of abuse, heartbreak and harassment experienced by those who have not only left the Church but spoken about their exit.

The series ranked as cable's top unscripted series among total viewers for 2016.

Remini executive produces through her No Seriously Productions, along with Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Devon Hammonds, Amy Savitsky and Elaine Frontain Bryant. The Intellectual Property Corporation produces.

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Promoter Nick Janicki says that when he first proposed his Blacklisted festival to the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation late last year, he could not have anticipated that the event — a music and arts fest featuring politically outspoken artists like moe., Citizen Cope, Beats Antique and Talib Kweli — would suffer what he sees as an an eponymous fate. “The irony is mind boggling,” he says.

According to Janicki, Blacklisted was blacklisted.

Janicki had planned for the festival to take place in late July at the new Los Angeles State Historic Park, in the shadow of Chinatown. But Janicki is now planning to change locations, due in part to criticism from the local community.

George Yu, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, says Janicki should have known that the community might not be thrilled about the proposed event — after all, in some of the event’s marketing materials the word “slaughter” was superimposed over the People’s Republic of China flag.

“He’s supremely arrogant,” Yu says. “He wants to do an anti-China event. Can you imagine having an anti-Mexican event in Boyle Heights? They’d kick his ass.”

Janicki says Yu's anti-China accusations could not be further from the truth. He says the intent of the festival is to spread awareness about injustices occurring in China, such as organ harvesting and censorship within the country and beyond, sanctioned by the Chinese government. “My feeling is that I have a moral and ethical obligation to tell people about what’s happening in China,” he says.

Janicki says he described Blacklisted in his permit application as a festival and benefit concert sponsored by the likes of Alt Power Productions, Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting and his own Blacklisted Studios. (On Janicki’s LinkedIn page, he describes Blacklisted Studios as “a production company aimed at giving a voice to the voiceless. We focus on humanitarian events. Our most recent endeavor is the that is illuminating the genocide of Falun Gong in China. We are seeking sponsors and musicians and are devoted to saving orphans caused by the persecution in China.”)

Janicki himself practices Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that borrows the qigong practice of the Buddhist school, as well as from Taoist tradition. He claims that the majority of organ harvesting in China impacts practitioners of Falun Gong. “The numbers are staggering," he says. "You have about 200 to 250 people a day being murdered for their organs. … That’s almost a billion dollars a month in profits. Billions of dollars can buy a lot of silence.”

Yu says he is against any presence of Falun Gong, which he describes as a “cult,” at the event. Janicki says it is “impossible” to banish Falun Gong from Blacklisted, since it's the festival's central cause. As a result, Yu officially refused to give the festival his and the Chinatown BID’s support.

According to Sean Woods, superintendent of California State Parks' Los Angeles sector, the event is still on the table but has yet to be permitted. “We are holding back on the permit," he says, "but the ball is in their court.” He says the Chinatown BID is one of many community stakeholders Janicki should approach for buy-in as part of the event planning process.

Woods also says that the permit is being held back because the event has transformed into something different than what was first pitched. “The concern for the state is that it has gone from a music festival or concert to a political event, which could increase policing and change the costs,” Woods says. “Are there people going to be protesting, or is it a concert? It changes the whole dynamic.”

Asked if there are any current or past plans to host protests at Blacklisted, Janicki says: “Nope. Never.”

“This is where it gets very confusing for me,” Janicki says. “I have email confirmations [from California State Parks Special Events Coordinator Larry Fulmer] that the date was locked in on Jan. 17. I had sent an email [on Dec. 28] saying, ‘The permits are in, are we good to go?' And I got an email back saying, ‘Yes, everything is locked in and we’re good to go.'”

Janicki admits he never received a signed copy of his permit back, but that he took Fulmer’s email as confirmation enough.

Janicki stands by the way in which the event was originally proposed in his permit application submitted nearly six months ago. “We have 20 artists that have scheduled around this and are also putting a lot on the line to be a part of this,” he says. “I have several hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been invested. … It’s a big deal for everyone involved.”

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For more than three years, a Pennsylvania group claiming to be sovereign citizens—and therefore not subject to U.S. law—schemed to “steal” dozens of foreclosed homes worth millions of dollars and sell them to unsuspecting victims.

The scheme came to light after local officials in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, received documents declaring sovereign citizen status for three residents. Alarmed, the officials contacted the FBI shortly after receiving the documents in May 2010.

Officials had good reason to be concerned: That same month, two so-called sovereign citizens opened fire on police during a traffic stop in Arkansas, killing two officers. The ambush is just one example of how members of the movement often turn to violence.

Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who claim the federal government is operating outside its jurisdiction and they are therefore not bound by government authority—including the courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, and even law enforcement.

They also are prone to engage in numerous types of financial frauds and schemes, based on their skewed interpretation of law.

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Russian security forces have raided a Jehovah's Witnesses service and arrested a Danish citizen in the latest move against the Christian group since Moscow banned it as an "extremist organisation".

"Armed officers from the FSB" detained some 50 worshippers during a service Thursday in the town of Oryol, some 350 kilometres (220 miles) south of Moscow, a senior Jehovah's Witnesses official, Yaroslav Sivulsky, told AFP Monday.

Dennis Christensen of Denmark was then arraigned before a judge on Friday and arrested on charges of "participating in extremist activities," Sivulsky said.

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Jury selection began Tuesday for a North Carolina church minister accused of beating a man to expel his "homosexual demons."

Brooke Covington, 58, a longtime minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, is the first of five church members to face trial in the case. Each defendant will be tried separately.

Covington has pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping and assaulting former church member Matthew Fenner in January 2013. If convicted, Covington faces up to two years in prison.

Fenner, 23, said he was leaving a prayer service Jan. 27, 2013, when nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary. He said they slapped, punched, choked and blasted him — a church practice that involves intense screaming — for two hours as they tried to expel his "homosexual demons."
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