MOSCOW – A Russian doomsday cult leader whose followers have holed up in an underground hideout will be brought to the site in an effort to win the release of several children, a government official said Tuesday.
Twenty-nine followers of self-declared prophet Pyotr Kuznetsov — including four children, the youngest aged 18 months — retreated to the hideout in the countryside near the village of Nikolskoye, about 640 kilometers (400 miles) southeast of Moscow, earlier this month and have threatened to blow themselves up if forced to leave. They say they believe the world will end in May.
Kuznetsov, who was not among them, is now confined to a psychiatric hospital, and was charged last week with setting up a religious organization associated with violence.
Kuznetsov has agreed to seek the release of the children from the cave-like refuge, and authorities plan to escort him to the site Wednesday for talks with his followers, said Yevgeny Guseynov, a regional government official.
"He is ready to try to get the children out of there," said Guseynov, head of the internal policy department in the Penza region government.
Clerics from the dominant Russian Orthodox Church have sought unsuccessfully to convince Kuznetsov's followers to leave their refuge.
Guseynov said that according to experts with whom officials have consulted, "Only their leader can coax them out."
But the top Russian Orthodox cleric in the region, Archbishop Filaret, said Kuznetsov's followers were at least listening to what clerics speaking to them through a ventilation hole had to say, ITAR-Tass reported.
He stressed that they must not be forced out.
"Only prayer and persuasion — other methods must not be used," ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying. "We want these people not only to calm down but to understand us, and we are calling on them to return to God's sanctuary, to normal Christian life."
"We are patient and we'll wait until May if necessary," he was quoted as saying.
Kuznetsov, 43, an engineer from a devout family, declared himself a prophet several years ago. He left his family and the Russian Orthodox Church, established the True Russian Orthodox Church and recruited followers in Russia and Belarus.
Kuznetsov reportedly told followers that, in the afterlife, they would be judging whether others deserved heaven or hell. Followers were not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or handle money, reports say.