“Russia has banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization,” reports the Telegraph, “placing the pacifist sect in the company of neo-Nazi and jihadi groups. The justice ministry added the Jehovah’s Witnesses administrative center in Russia and 395 local branches to its register of banned organizations. . . . Criminal charges can now be brought against believers for activities such as proselytizing or simply gathering togethe. . . . “
As reported, on Aug. 17, 2017, Russia’s Justice Ministry formally declared the group to be an “extremist organization.“ On the same day, in a separate decision, the sect’s New World translation of the Bible was also banned.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are well known in the U.S. for their practice of door-to-door proselytizing, offering their iconic Watchtower magazine.
Those who belong to one of its “Kingdom Hall” congregations are notable for their rejection of blood transfusions, a religious conviction that occasionally makes the news when a child’s life is at stake and the case is under legal scrutiny. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also pacifists, who declare themselves “conscientious objectors” when they are included in military conscription. They also refuse to vote.
These distinguishing convictions set them apart from traditional Christians. But they are widely known to be peaceable and law-abiding neighbors and friends. Worldwide, there are about 20 million in their ranks. There are around 175,000 in Russia.
Jehovah’s Witnesses embrace a theology that differs from orthodox Christian theology because of its belief that Jesus Christ is a created being, and that there is no Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the U.S., where the Bill of Rights identifies religion as its First Freedom, Jehovah’s Witnesses have equal rights alongside other faiths.
But in Russia it’s a different story.
The Russian Orthodox Church, although not formally identified as a state church, is deeply intertwined with the Kremlin. The New York Timesand others have reported that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has aligned himself with the Russian Orthodox Church, using it in some respects as a tool of state to advance Russian interests and reinforce his government’s perceived legitimacy.
In Russia, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and some other religions are formally recognized as having historical importance in the country. However, religious groups must register with the state, and because of concerns about “extremism,” many are under intense scrutiny and harassment. These groups — most notably radical Muslims — are subject to bans, confiscations, and even arrests of their religious leaders.
The government’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses was first declared in April 2017. It was appealed, but the appeal was denied by Russia’s Supreme Court on July 17. Branding the pacifist group as “extremist” resulted in the seizure of its St. Petersburg headquarters, as well all property owned by the group’s nearly 400 local religious organizations.
The U.S. State Department denounced the decision.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the decision to uphold the ban “the latest in a disturbing trend of persecution of religious minorities in Russia,” adding, “We urge the Russian authorities to lift the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities in Russia, to reverse the closing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center, and to release any members of religious minorities that continue to be unjustly detained for so-called ‘extremist’ activities.
“We further urge Russia to respect the right of all to exercise the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. All religious minorities should be able to enjoy freedom of religion and assembly without interference, as guaranteed by the Russian Federation’s constitution.”
Thomas J. Reese, the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Newsweek earlier this year that the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects “a lot of paranoia in the Russian government,” adding, “They just look very suspiciously on any organization they can’t control. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses just want to be left alone.”