Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop, 59, was arrested Tuesday in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee. The police officer-turned-mystic had been living in Siberia for decades as leader of the Church of the Last Testament, a pseudo-Christian commune with more than 4,000 members.
Torop’s followers often called him “Jesus of Siberia” or “Vissarion Christ the Teacher” — not to be confused with Viserion the dragon from Game of Thrones.
He was arrested on several charges, including founding an illegal religious organization, extorting money from his followers and subjecting people to emotional abuse and grievous bodily harm, officials said.
His lieutenants Vadim Redkin, who is a former Soviet-era rocker, and Vladimir Vedernikov were also arrested.
Video released by Russian authorities shows Torop, with long grey hair and a beard, being loaded into an aircraft along with his two aides after his arrest. Several masked commandoes can be seen escorting the suspects.
“In order to extract income from religious activities, they attracted funds from citizens and also used psychological violence against them,” investigators said in a Russian news release. “As a result of prolonged exposure, some of the followers of the religious organization suffered serious harm to their health.”
Witnesses say a large security team showed up to arrest Torop at one of the hamlets in his commune.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, also helped with the arrest.
Torop lost his job as a traffic cop in 1989 and found Jesus in a mirror two years later, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. He started his church on the claim that Jesus was watching Earth from orbit, then eventually claimed to be Jesus himself, The Guardian reports.
“I felt something violently surging up from within me that had been held down until then,” he said in 2009, when an AFP reporter asked about his come-to-be-Jesus moment.
He and thousands of followers established a colony in a remote part of Siberia, where they lived for roughly three decades before the government operation on Tuesday.
“I am not God. And it is a mistake to see Jesus as God. But I am the living word of God the father,” he told The Guardian in a 2002 interview. “Everything that God wants to say, he says through me.”
Photos and videos from the commune show simple wooden homes, dirt roads and people in white clothing.
The Church of the Last Testament’s website features many lectures from Torop. The most recent ones are dated “60 A.R.,” which appears to refer to “After the Resurrection” of “Jesus.”
The site describes Torop’s writings as the “Last Testament.” Redkin also appears to have penned several religious texts for the movement, which are called “Vadim’s Chronicles.”
The group’s beliefs include a mishmash of Buddhist, Russian Orthodox, apocalyptic and environmentally conscious ideas, as they explain in a popular VICE documentary from 2012. They also believe in aliens.
Torop styled himself after popular images of Jesus, photos captured over the years show. He wore his hair long, grew a scraggly beard and often dressed in white robes.
“Requests to join us have tripled since the start of the virus,” Redkin told the paper in May. “People are searching for something and have become attracted to our lifestyle. They are looking for a way out of isolation and loneliness.”
Redkin mentioned that the group was under investigation in a Facebook post on Sept. 9.
The three suspects could face up to 12 years in prison if convicted on the charges.
—With files from Reuters