Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Russia calls Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘extremist’ group

- By Andrew Higgins

MOSCOW — Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday declared Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denominati­on that rejects violence, an extremist organizati­on, banning the group from operating on Russian territory and putting its more than 170,000 Russian worshipper­s in the same category as Islamic State radicals.

The ruling, which confirmed an order last month by the Justice Ministry that the denominati­on be “liquidated” — essentiall­y eliminated or disbanded — had been widely expected as Russian courts rarely challenge government decisions no matter what the evidence.

Viktor Zhenkov, a lawyer for the Christian group, said Jehovah’s Witnesses will appeal the ruling, which he said had 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 as extremist.

“We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissi­ble in contempora­ry Russia,” Mr. Zhenkov said. “We will, of course, appeal.” An initial appeal will be made to the Supreme Court’s appellate division, said Mr. Zhenkov, and if that fails, Jehovah’s Witnesses will take its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Hard-line followers of Russia’s dominant faith, the Orthodox Church, have lobbied for years to have Jehovah’s Witnesses outlawed or at least curbed as a heretical sect, but the main impetus for the current campaign to crush a Christian group active in Russia for more than a century seems to have come from the country’s increasing­ly assertive security apparatus.

Founded in the United States in the 19th century, Jehovah’s Witnesses has its worldwide headquarte­rs in the U.S. and, along with all foreign-led groups outside the control of the state, it is viewed with deep suspicion by Russia’s post-Soviet version of the KGB, the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

And tensions between Moscow and Washington have been seen as increasing recently amid reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking over key economic links with two rebel regions of Ukraine; and reports that a twice-convicted Russian pedophile imprisoned in a heavily forested gulag some 500 miles from Moscow appears to be the man a controvers­ial dossier says helped hack into Democratic National Committee computers last year.

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