Moscow — Russia on Tuesday arrested a Siberian cult leader who claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus, along with his top aides, in an operation involving armed troops and aircraft. The Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes, said it had detained Sergei Torop known to his followers as Vissarion the Teacher, or the Jesus of Siberia, and two of his aides.
Footage released by investigators showed 59-year-old Vissarion, with long grey hair and a beard, and two other men being led by masked commandos from a van and boarding a helicopter.
The operation in a remote settlement in Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region included members of the FSB security service and other law enforcement agencies.
Torop, a former traffic police officer, has said he experienced an "awakening" when he lost his job in 1989 as the atheist Communist regime was fast unravelling.
In 1991, he founded what is now the Church of the Last Testament.
Several thousand members of Vissarion's cult live in remote hamlets in Siberia.
One follower, Alexander Staroverov, posted several videos on Facebook showing army helicopters and vehicles parked in a field.
Investigators said the self-proclaimed messiah and his aides solicited funds from disciples and emotionally abused them.
The Investigative Committee said it was planning to charge the cult leaders with organizing an illegal religious organization and causing "two or more people severe harm."
Asked by AFP how he knew he was the son of God, Vissarion said in 2009: "I felt something violently surging up from within me that had been held down until then."
His followers adhere to a jumble of creeds that draw from Russian Orthodox rites and environmentally friendly values.
Converts included musicians, doctors, teachers, Red Army colonels, an ex-minister of Belarus and pilgrims from Cuba, Bulgaria, Belgium, Australia and Germany.
In the 1990s, some of Vissarion's devotees died either by suicide or as a result of harsh living conditions and lack of medical care.