Jehovah’s Witnesses ruled extremist group
Lawyer calls Supreme Court declaration ‘act of political repression’
MOSCOW — Russia’s Supreme Court declared Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination, an extremist organization Thursday, banning the group from operating in Russia and putting its 170,000 Russian followers in the same category as Islamic State militants.
The ruling, which confirmed an order last month by the Justice Ministry that the denomination’s assets be seized and “liquidated,” was widely expected as Russian courts rarely challenge government decisions.
Viktor Zhenkov, a lawyer for the Christian group, said Jehovah’s Witnesses will appeal the ruling.
“We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissible in contemporary Russia,” he said in a telephone interview.
An initial appeal will be made to the Supreme Court’s appellate division, Zhenkov said, and if that fails, Jehovah’s Witnesses will take its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
He said the ruling focused on the activities of the organization’s administrative center, a complex of offices outside St. Petersburg, but had also branded all of its nearly 400 regional branches extremist.
Hard-line followers of Russia’s dominant faith, the Orthodox Church, have lobbied for years to have Jehovah’s Witnesses outlawed or curbed as a heretical sect, but the main impetus for the current campaign seems to have come from the country’s security apparatus.
Founded in the United States in the 19th century, Jehovah’s Witnesses has its worldwide headquarters in the U.S. and is viewed with deep suspicion by Russia’s post-Soviet version of the KGB, the Federal Security Service, or FSB.
The Justice Ministry’s representative, Svetlana Borisova, told the Supreme Court on Thursday that Jehovah’s Witnesses had shown “signs of extremist activity that represent a threat to the rights of citizens, social order and the security of society.”
Lawyers and witnesses for the religious group repeatedly dismissed the extremist allegation as absurd, arguing that reading the Bible and promoting its nonviolent message could not be construed as extremist. The group shuns political activity and has no record of hostility to the Russian authorities.
Andrei Sivak (left)
greets other Jehovah’s Witnesses as they arrive for a service in Vorokhobino, Russia. The Christian denomination has 170,000 Russian followers.