The Russian government has “dramatically” escalated its persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses since the group was banned as an “extremist” organization in 2017, the non-profit organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) declared on January 9.
The group interviewed two lawyers defending Jehovah’s Witnesses in numerous regions, as well as the spouses of seven men convicted or facing criminal charges. HRW also reviewed court verdicts and other documents, media reports, and Russian government statements.
In a report, the human-rights group found that a year after President Vladimir Putin said the crackdown against them should be “looked into,” the number of house raids and people under criminal investigation has more than doubled. Some 32 JW worshipers have been jailed for practicing their faith so far.
At least 313 additional people are facing charges, are on trial, or have been convicted of criminal “extremism” for engaging in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities, or are suspects in such cases, according to the report. Most of those targeted have been middle-aged.
“For Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, practicing their faith means risking their freedom,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There is nothing remotely justifiable about this. It’s time for President Putin to ensure that law enforcement stop this harmful persecution.”
Human Rights Watch said Russian authorities should release detained Jehovah’s Witnesses immediately, drop any outstanding charges, expunge all related criminal records, and halt the persecution.
According to HRW, known Jehovah’s Witnesses have been added to a government list of “terrorists and extremists.” By being put on Rosfinmonitoring list, their assets are seized. Many of those on the list do not even realize why they cannot access their fund, a lawyer involved in the cases explained.
“We certainly hope that the weight of the growing body of criticism will soon move Russian authorities to halt their aggression against peaceful believers, release all of the Jehovah’s Witnesses from prison, and clear their records of all criminal charges so they can return to being fully productive members of their communities,” JW spokesman Jarrod Lopes told The Liberty Sentinel.
Troubles for the global religious movement in Russia began in 2017, when the Russian Supreme Court upheld a request from the Russian Ministry of Justice to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and seize the organization’s property under the guise of fighting “extremism.”
The estimated 170,000 Russian adherents are forbidden from meeting or worshiping. Literature produced by the group is also banned as “extremist.”
The targeting of Witnesses follows similar attacks on religious freedom by Russian authorities aimed at evangelical Christians and other Christian denominations.
“The United States is extremely concerned by the Russian government’s actions targeting and repressing members of religious minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, under the pretense of combating extremism,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said after the decision.
Russian authorities should not misuse legislation on terror and extremism to target “peaceful religious minorities,” added Toner.
Numerous European governments have also spoken out about the issue.
The government-affiliated Russian Orthodox Church praised the Supreme Court ruling, however, saying it would protect families and the lives of people who may otherwise shun blood transfusions, which Jehovah’s Witnesses reject for religious reasons.
There are numerous important doctrinal differences between Jehovah’s Witnesses and traditional Christianity. The Witnesses, for instance, have highly unorthodox views on the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the existence of hell–all of which they reject.
But the Witnesses are not alone in facing the wrath of Russian authorities under Putin. Laws purporting to ban “extremism” are being used to prosecute more traditional Christians, as well. The Kremlin even banned Christian evangelism outside church buildings registered with the government.