On Thursday, after six days of hearing, Russia’s Supreme Court issued a ruling banning all activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and ordered that all the assets of the organization be liquidated. The ban came after the country’s ministry of justice declared the group an “extremist organization,” suspended its headquarters in St. Petersburg and called on the Supreme Court to uphold its claim that the activities of the sect violated the country’s law on religious extremism.
“The Supreme Court has ruled to sustain the claim of Russia’s ministry of justice [that the organization is extremist],” said Judge Yuri Ivanenko, the Independent reported. “The property of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization is to be confiscated to the state revenue.”
“They represent a threat to the rights of people, public order and public safety,” justice ministry spokesperson Svetlana Borisova said, according to Russian news media reports.
However, the ban will not come into effect until after the organization’s appeal has been heard. The attorneys of the group in Russia have confirmed that they will appeal the court’s decision. They also said they will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have consistently denied claims that the group is “extremist,” and warned that the move to ban their activities in Russia would have a damaging impact on religious liberty in the country.
“Millions of believers around the world consider the action of the Ministry of Justice a big mistake,” the group said, according to Newsweek. “If the claim is satisfied, it would entail catastrophic consequences for the freedom of religion in Russia.”
According to the Witnesses, “extremism is profoundly alien to Bible-based beliefs and morality” of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith.
“We will do everything possible [to challenge the ruling],” Sergei Cherepanov, a spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Russia said, according to Interfax news agency.
“I’m shocked,” Yaroslav Sivulsky, another spokesperson for the organization told reporters “I didn’t expect that this could be possible in modern Russia, where the constitution guarantees freedom of religious practice.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization has about 395 branches and about 175,000 members in Russia.
The ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is significant partly because it is the first time that Russia has banned an organized religious group, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The move, according to the USCIRF, reflects fear of the growing influence and independence of the fast growing group in a country where the majority of the population, about 72 percent, identify with the Russian Orthodox Church.
“The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability,” said Thomas J. Reese, S.J., the chairman of the USCIRF.
“USCIRF calls on the Russian government to stop its harassment of this peaceful religious group.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, known worldwide for their proselytizing activity, hold beliefs that mainstream Christian groups consider to be controversial. Beliefs, such as rejection of blood transfusions and rejection of military service, have led to clashes with the authorities in several countries.
The group was first registered in Russia in 1991. The crackdown on the group intensified after Russia changed its legal definition of “extremism” in 2006 to include groups that were not violent but described as “inciting religious discord.”
According to the new expanded definition, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremists.
As part of efforts to crackdown on the group, the authorities blocked their international website in Russia and fined a local chairman in 2010 for distributing “extremist literature.”
After the Russian government tried to ban the organization in 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that the ban violated the members’ rights of freedom of religious and association.
The latest ruling has parked concerns about freedom of religion in Russia.
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