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Why the Russian Ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses is so troubling

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned as an extremist group in a Supreme Court decision that observers fear signals a further step back for religious liberty.

“For Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is going to be a frightening time,” Lorcan Price, ADF International legal counsel in Strasbourg said. “It effectively means that holding their beliefs and manifesting them is tantamount to a criminal act in Russia. They risk new levels of persecution by the Russian authorities,” which reverses positive trends seen in Russia in recent years.

“What we’re seeing really is the slide back into the type of attitude that characterized the worst of oppression in the 20th century by the Soviet regime in Russia,” he added. “It’s obviously very sad and disheartening to see that happening again.”

The Russian Orthodox Church, which is the official state church in Russia and its predominant religion, fears the influence of minority religions, in particular the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But will this lead to the persecution of other churches not favored by the Russian Orthodox Church as well? Russia’s federal security service, the FSB (formerly the KGB), also holds the denomination under deep suspicion.

Russia’s Justice Ministry in March ordered that the Jehovah’s Witnesses denomination be liquidated and disbanded. Judges ordered the closure of the denomination’s Russian headquarters and almost 400 local chapters. The denomination’s property would also be seized.

The denomination’s lawyer, Viktor Zhenkov, said the group would appeal the court ruling upholding the order. “We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissible in contemporary Russia,” Zhenkov told the New York Times.

The Supreme Court’s decision is more accurately characterized as religious repression with political consequences. For instance, Russia has duties under the European Court of Human Rights to protect freedom of worship and belief.

Svetlana Borisova, who represented the Justice Ministry in the Supreme Court, charged that the denomination’s members had shown “signs of extremist activity that represent a threat to the rights of citizens, social order and the security of society.”

“Last year in particular the government adopted some very draconian and far-reaching legislation that has severely disrupted the right of worship and freedom of belief in Russia,” he said. The government made it illegal to invite someone to a religious meeting, even on Facebook and other social media.

Also, anti-terrorism measures have given Russian police powers to disrupt private worship services, to arrest and detain individuals handing out unapproved religious materials, and to outlaw any public preaching without prior approval from Russian authorities.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered intense persecution under the Soviet era until the fall of communism in 1991. A 2002 anti-extremism law and a broader definition of extremism in 2006 once again put legal pressure on the denomination.

Price said an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights could produce a positive response, but Russia has “a long history of ignoring decisions” from that court, which relies on diplomatic pressure to enforce its decisions. “For Christians and minority faiths in Russia this is a frightening time,” he said.

“What we hope is ultimately the Russian government will take notice of international condemnation and reverse these policies.”

The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses lays a foundation for persecution of other religious minorities in Russia once case law has established precedents. The enemy is angling to restrict the true followers of Jesus by first establishing hatred and persecution of others.

“Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” II Timothy 3:12.

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