U.S. Jehovah’s Witnesses fear for safety of Russian followers after court bans religion
Judge calls Witnesses ‘extremist’
On Thursday, Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” group, ordering them to liquidate their national headquarters and local offices and turn over all of their property.
The ruling affects more than 170,000 members of the religious organization living in Russia.
Over the past century, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been an integral part of Brooklyn Heights, until recently the home of its world headquarters. The organization is currently selling the last of its properties in Brooklyn as it relocates to Warwick, in upstate New York.
Robert Warren, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, told the Brooklyn Eagle on Friday that the organization is “very disappointed” with the Russian court ruling, especially the charge of extremism.
The decision “is an enormous step backward for Russia’s progress in a modern society,” Warren said.
He called the ruling a “misapplication” of the law on extremism, and said the organization would be appealing the ruling within 30 days.
“Everyone knows that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not extremists. Everything the government asked we complied with,” he said. “They should be trying to find people who plant bombs on subways and do violent things. These are not Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nothing in our religion contributes to such actions.
“We feel everyone has the right to have the opportunity to hear more about the Bible. We feel Russian citizens should have that right,” Warren said.
He also called Russia’s hostility to Witnesses’ prohibition against blood transfusions “a reach.”
“To say that Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking medical treatment … is an extremist activity is an absurd assertion. Jehovah’s Witnesses seek the highest quality medical services — that’s not a threat,” he said.
Are Russian Jehovah Witnesses safe?
At this point, it’s still too early to tell about the safety of followers in Russia, Warren said, “but we do believe there is a real threat. We really fear actual extremist activity against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.”
According to Human Rights Watch, members who continue to be involved with the organization or their activities in Russia could face criminal prosecution and punishment ranging from fines of $5,343 to $10,687 to a maximum of six to 10 years in prison.
Witnesses worldwide are writing letters to Russian officials expressing their concern, he said. “Hundreds of thousands of letters — if not millions — will be arriving for Russian officials.”
Trouble for the Witnesses in Russia has been building for some time. Within the past year, Russian authorities blocked imports of their religious literature and Russian-language bibles, and banned their official website, jw.org.
Experts call the move part of Vladimir Putin’s strategy to cement ties between the government and the Russian Orthodox church, and warn that other religious groups may also be threatened.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are now given the heartrending choice of either abandoning their faith or facing punishment for practicing it.”
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