Yesterday Russia’s Supreme Court upheld an initial April ruling that declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group, rejecting the organisation’s appeal and in effect banning the religious group within Russia.
According to a report by BBC News, citing a quote by Newsweek magazine, the group’s Russia spokesman, Yaroslav Sivulsky, stated that “religious freedom in Russia is over”.
“There [was] no real [evidence] of any extremism on [the] part of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s all about bad literature and intolerance. Now anyone who studies the Bible can be jailed,” he said.
Following persecution during the Soviet era, the denomination has gained around 175,000 members in Russia, with 395 local chapters in operation across the country. Each of these will close following the ruling, along with the group’s headquarters near St Petersburg. All of the organisation’s properties, including church meeting buildings known as Kingdom Halls, will be handed over to the Russian government.
Although Russian legislation officially guarantees freedom of religion, the law lists Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four traditional religions. Smaller religious minorities often face discrimination. The Moscow-based SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, a non-profit organisation dealing with human rights abuse, notes that an “official repressive campaign” has been waged against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with many members harassed or physically attacked.
While the Jehovah’s Witnesses may appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, Russia may well ignore any verdict against it.
Critics regard the verdict as another death knell for religious freedom in Russia. It follows a recent statement by the government regarding religious gatherings, which stated that collective Bible reading should be coordinated with the authorities.