Russia Comes Knocking
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are no strangers to harassment. But they may be about to be dealt a final blow
After more than a decade of legal wrangling, controversial anti-terrorism laws are set to deliver a final blow to Russia’s embattled Jehovah’s Witnesses. For years, Russia has chased the group in a game of cat and mouse. Authorities have held shipments of bibles at the border. Meeting houses across the country have been shuttered. Police have raided Sunday services.
But now the group’s religious leaders say their situation is critical. Prosecutors who call the group an extremist sect — responsible for tearing families apart and indoctrinating young people — are now set to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from the country for good.
“We consider this a serious threat,” Robert Warren, a spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses International, told The Moscow Times. “This decision could influence not just Russia, but the whole former Soviet Union.”
According to Warren, Russia’s 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses now fear reprisals inspired by the government’s campaign: “We feel this move will actually spark real extremist activity against our believers.”
A Tightening Noose
The looming closure comes at the end of a drawn-out legal process, directed against regional and national branches of the group.
Regional branches have long been viewed with suspicion by government officials. The group was banned outright in the Russian city of Taganrog in 2014. Other bans quickly followed in Samara and Abinsk.
Then, in early 2016, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ central headquarters near St. Petersburg was issued an official warning to halt “extremist activity.” The warning arrived at the same time as the organization was banned in five more Russian regions: Belgorod, Birobidzhan, Elista, Oryol and Stary Oskol.
The group’s final appeal against the warning was rejected in January 2017. Now, authorities can now use any violation of the anti-terror law, including the distribution of ‘extremist’ materials, to justify shuttering the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters and the organization across the country.
A number of alleged infringements of the anti-terror laws were since discovered during an “unscheduled inspection” of the Jehovah’s headquarters last month. As part of the raid, the organization was forced to hand over 73,000 pages of documents. They were also asked to disclose the names of its 2,277 ministers leading Russian congregations, a request they refused.
Toleration in Moderation
While the authorities have the power to shut down the church, they might not actually follow through with the threat, says Roman Lunkin, head of the center for the study of Religion and Society at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ European Institute.
“Unlike during the Soviet era, Russian authorities are not trying to destroy religion in general,” he says. “They will tolerate many ‘suspicious’ sects or religions as a ‘necessary evil’ including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostal churches and some Muslim communities.”
Rather, the intelligence agencies are after control, Lunkin says. This control could come from the impending threat of closure, or by liquidating the church’s central headquarters.
“By doing this, officials will be able to better control these communities and monitor the groups scattered across the country,” says Lunkin
More concerning for some analysts is the way Russian authorities are using anti-extremism laws, designed to combat terrorists to gain control over problematic parts of society.
Alexander Verkhovsky, director of Moscow’s SOVA Center, which monitors abuses of anti-extremism legislation, says authorities have seized on a draconian intepretation of anti-extremism legislation in a bid to close the Jehovah’s headquarters.
“The problem is that those laws are badly formulated,” he said. “It’s very difficult for these organizations to exist without violating one law or another.”
Law enforcement agencies have focused on the “extremist” literature which Jehovah’s Witnesses distribute on streets or door-to-door.
Government-appointed expert panels, which generally work as a three-person team comprised of a psychologist, linguist and theologist, have so far banned more than 80 Jehovah’s Witnesses publications. In most cases, the censures are for “portraying other religions in a negative light,” or for trying to persuade Russian men to avoid compulsory military service.
Not everyone agrees with the expert conclusions.
Lunkin and Verkhovsky fear that anti-extremism laws are often used unfairly by overzealous prosecutors.
“There is a general tendency to [use these laws] to increase the police’s influence on the public sphere,” Lunkin says. “This affects religion too.”
With sweeping new anti-terror legislation introduced in Russia last year, the problem is set to get worse.
“The legislation we’ve seen comes into play between 2015 and 2016, forcing religious groups to register and increasing surveillance of missionary work is the most destructive and repressive we’ve seen for many years,” says Lunkin.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the first groups to feel the full sting of that new legislation. But they say that they will continue to worship regardless.
“My parents were exiled to Siberia because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses,” says Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. “They worshipped even while they were in those camps. We will continue too.”