Members found themselves on the country's anti-terrorist watch list.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are knocking on the door of Russia’s Supreme Court. The question on the mind of many who consider religious freedom important is: Will the court open that door?
Though it’s widely assumed that religious liberty is flourishing in Russia almost three decades since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been a campaign against several minority religions. And Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have existed in Russia for about a century, are one of them.
On Wednesday, the highest court in Russia heard the organization’s challenge to a Justice Ministry move to ban the religion. Last week, the ministry put the group’s headquarters, located near St. Petersburg, on a list of the bodies banned “in connection with the carrying out of extremist activities.”
An elder of the church, Andrei Sivak, found out the hard way that his religion is considered “extremist” when he tried to change some money and the teller “suddenly looked up at me with a face full of fear,” The New York Times reported:
His name had popped up on the exchange bureau’s computer system, along with those of members of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other militant groups responsible for shocking acts of violence.
The only group the 43-year-old father of three has ever belonged to, however, is Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination committed to the belief that the Bible must be taken literally, particularly its injunction “Thou shalt not kill.”
The very fact that JWs refuse to take up weapons and fight for Mother Russia puts them in the same “extremist” category as groups that do take up weapons, such as the Islamic State group, in Moscow’s estimation. The fact that the church was founded in the United States and that its publications come from there also makes it suspect.
“Look at it from the view of the state,” Artyom Grigoryan, a former Jehovah’s Witness, told the Times. “Here is an organization that is run from America, that gets financing from abroad, and whose members don’t serve in the army and don’t vote.”
Sivak asserts that undercover security officers posed as worshipers and secretly filmed a service he was helping to lead in 2010. He was accused of “inciting hatred and disparaging the human dignity of citizens.” He was eventually cleared.
But he still showed up on the security watch list.
The extremist charges stem from a law that was enacted in the wake of Russia’s second war in Chechnya and the September 11 attacks in the United States.
“It is wrong to apply flawed counterterrorism laws to those who seek to practice their faith,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent agency of the US Government charged with monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords. “The Russian government is exploiting genuine threats of violent extremism to undermine what little religious freedom remains in that country. This distracts from real efforts to fight terrorism. I urge the Russian government to drop the case immediately.”