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Orthodox Church warns against force in Penza sect standoff

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MOSCOW, November 23 (RIA Novosti) - The Orthodox Church has spoken out against using force in a standoff with a religious sect, who have sealed themselves in a cave to await the end of the world, the Russian church's chief spokesman said Friday.

The sect, which calls itself The True Russian Orthodox Church, was formed by one Father Pyotr, a 43-year-old diagnosed schizophrenic currently in custody. He is believed to have ordered his followers underground last week. The group of 28 adults and four children are threatening to set themselves on fire if police try to force them out.

"Persuasion and negotiations should be used, as people there [in the cave] are brainwashed and difficult to reason with," Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad said. "A violent solution should be avoided at all costs, it is very dangerous."

The church metropolitan explained the situation through the "religious ignorance" of the cult followers.

Orthodox priests have pitched a tent near the shelter and are praying for the sect members, and trying to engage them in "peaceful dialogue" a source in the Penza diocese said, adding that Archbishop Philaret of Penza had written to them.

"We are constantly engaged in talks, trying to make them change their minds, but it is difficult," the source said. "It took a long time to form their convictions, and reversing that process will not be quick."

Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian expert on religions and sects, earlier said that totalitarian sects were common in Russia, and that "control over their members is absolute, and anything that comes into the heads of their leaders has a direct impact on the entire group".

He also said the group in the Penza Region was similar in outlook to the pseudo-Russian Orthodox groups calling for the canonization of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible, adding that the actions of the Penza group could "act as a detonator," provoking other sects to "announce the end of the world."

The group leader is currently being held in a psychiatric hospital, and a criminal case has been launched against him.

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