Russia bans Jehovah’s Witnesses

Uses loose interpretation of extremism laws; civil rights advocates express worry

A dangerous time for religious rights has come in one of the most populous countries on Earth, as Russia has ruled that the Jehovah’s Witness faith is now illegal. This comes after a Supreme Court case arguing against the labeling of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists” was ruled in favor of the Russian government. Justice Ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova called the group a “threat [to] public order and public security” in her closing statements. The organization plans to pursue other appeal options..

Despite the religious organization’s international letter-writing campaign and their legal defense, the Russian government is now entitled to seize the organization’s headquarters in St. Petersburg and its 395 places of worship across the country. The government may also sentence those caught worshipping in public or door-to-door evangelizing, a trademark of the Jehovah’s Witness religion, with up to ten years in prison. This result was not unexpected by the organization, as the religion was banned in the country for the majority of the Communist era. Even in more peaceful times, local courts have often ruled against the religion in cases of alleged extremism. Assault, vandalism, seizures, and home raids were commonplace for Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses even before this decision.

International civil rights advocates are very worried about this result and the precedent it sets. Human Rights Watch called the decision “a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.” Alexander Verkhovsky, a Russian extremism expert, said this, “I cannot imagine that anyone really thinks they are a threat… They are pacifists, so they cannot be radicalized, no matter what you do to them.” The Washington Post presented some reasons for Russia’s disdain of the religion and why this was a long time coming: “The church’s 170,000 Russian members don’t vote, won’t serve in the military and refuse to attend national celebrations… That means they often avoid state-sponsored rallies celebrating, say, the annexation of Crimea. That’s a problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is naturally suspicious of groups with pro-Western sympathies.”

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