Russia’s Supreme Court is reviewing a government request to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses and designate the religious group as an extremist organization.
The Justice Ministry in Moscow has been investigating the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Russian headquarters near St. Petersburg over the last year and claimed it discovered violations of a Russian law banning extremism. The ministry accused the organization of disseminating “extremist” pamphlets and said the center, and nearly 400 other local branches of the group, should be “liquidated.”
One pamphlet the ministry reportedly took issue with quoted the novelist Leo Tolstoy and described the beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church as superstition and sorcery, according to the BBC.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a counter lawsuit against the Justice Ministry, calling its actions unlawful and asking the court to recognize the organization’s members as victims of political repression. The Supreme Court dismissed the counter lawsuit on Wednesday, reportedly saying it wasn’t eligible to rule on issues of political repression, according the Russian Legal Information Agency. The court adjourned the hearing until Thursday.
The ministry filed its claim on March 15, urging the court to shut down all worship activities by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country. David A. Semonian, a spokesman at the Witnesses’ world headquarters, responded in a statement, saying: “Prosecuting non-violent, law-abiding citizens as if they were terrorists is clearly a misapplication of anti-extremist laws. Such prosecution is based on completely false grounds.”
There are more than 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, according to the U.S.-based religion’s website. Like Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and other religious minorities in the country, they have recently been subject to Russian anti-extremism laws that ban proselytizing and curtail the dissemination of religious literature.
Andrei Sivak, a Russian elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was arrested in 2010 after undercover security officers infiltrated services and secretly filmed him leading worship. The government accused Sivak and another elder, Vyacheslav Stepanov, of “inciting hatred and disparaging the human dignity of citizens.”
“Their disregard for the state erodes any sense of civic affiliation and promotes the destruction of national and state security,” claimed a report prepared for the prosecution, according to The New York Times.
The current crackdown echoes previous eras of antagonism toward the religious group. Vasily Kalin, chairman of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Russian arm, was deported with his family to Siberia when he was a child ― during a time when the Soviet Union outlawed the religion and deported thousands of members.
“It is sad and reprehensible that my children and grandchildren should be facing a similar fate,” Kalin told The New York Times. “Never did I expect that we would again face the threat of religious persecution in modern Russia.”
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement: “The Russian government’s latest actions appear designed to eliminate the legal existence of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.... USCIRF calls on the Russian government to stop its harassment of this peaceful religious group.”