Russia's Crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses Hits Critical Mileston

Russia's Crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses Hits Critical Mileston
10 2019

On Feb. 6, a court in Oryol handed down the first actual – and not suspended sentence against a Jehovah’s Witness, the Danish citizen Dennis Christensen, for the crime of confessing his faith. Basedon current Russian legislation, the judge effectively had no choice but to send Christensen to prison.

This case and the sentence itself show what a dangerous trap Russian law enforcement agencies and authorities have fallen into by waging an anti-religious campaign against Jehovahs Witnesses, and in their desire to control society as a whole.

It turned out that the pressure they have been applying to society and non-profit organizations has had a direct effect on religion which has become a bargaining chip in political disputes and an integral part of the new “patriotism.”

Dennis Christensen at the Oryol court

Dennis Christensen at the Oryol court

Courtesy of Jehovahs Witnesses

Many former Soviet republics are similar in this regard. In Ukraine, thetoy in the hands of the authorities is the new Orthodox Church. In Central Asia, it is the dispute over which are the right and wrong forms of Islam. In Russia, it is the JehovahsWitnesses organization.

The campaign against the group has been underway since 2009, when Dmitry Medvedev was president, and yet many liberals and conservatives both in politics and the public do not consider these actions as persecution. On the contrary, they see the ban against Jehovahs Witnesses as part of the larger battle against sects and as supporting Russias traditional religions.

The authorities gambit has proved successful: Isolated from other denominations and seen by other Christians as distorting the Bible, almost no one has come forward to support the Jehovahs Witnesses.

Following the book of law

The campaign against Jehovahs Witnesses became more politicized when laws regulating Russian NGOs were tightened in 2012 and especially afterthe Russian-Ukrainian crisis began in 2014. As the authorities stepped up their efforts against Western spies, they were naturally fearful of the Jehovahs Witnesses organization, that has a centralized structure and a global governing body which is headquartered in the United States.

It would be difficult to claim thatthe ruling against Dennis Christensen was illegal — it was based on current anti-extremism legislation and an earlier decision by Russia's Supreme Court declaring Jehovahs Witnesses anextremistorganization.

Giventhat Jehovahs Witnesses consider themselves to be the most truebelievers, the Russian authorities gradually concluded that their organization and literature were extremist and decided to ban them entirely.

The prosecution claimed and the judge will probably note in the ruling that Christensen led the activities of an organization previously banned as extremist.

Not just Jehovahs

By cracking down on Jehovahs Witnesses, the Russian authorities sent a clear signal to all religious minorities in the country: Be wary of Western support, do not engage in missionary activity as aggressively as the Jehovahs Witnesses do and restrict the movement of your foreign missionaries.

Moscow directed this message primarily at the Protestant churches Baptists, Evangelists, Pentecostals, and Adventists because they have become the largest branch of Christianity in Russia after the Russian Orthodox Church and have outgrown the definition of a minority.

The authorities could not label Evangelists extremists as they did with the Jehovahs Witnesses because they profess a more mainstream form of Christianity and because of what could provoke a much stronger reaction from the United States.

In a legal move aimed at those Protestants, however, Russia passed the so-calledpackage of reforms known as"Yarovaya Laws"in 2016 that introduced fines for missionary activity in public places and residential premises.

But whereas the authorities have sought administrative penalties against Protestant missionaries in the more than 600 such cases they have initiated since 2016, when prosecuting Jehovahs Witnesses they level criminal charges.

Kremlin's mixed signals

Itis still unclear how the Kremlin will react to the latest ruling. When the campaign against the Jehovahs Witnesses began gaining momentum and hundreds of Russian citizens were under investigation, the government signaled that it might soften its stance against the organization.

At a session of the Presidential Human Rights Council in December 2018 at which Vladimir Putin was asked why hundreds of harmless branches of Jehovahs Witnesses had been included on the list of extremist organizations when the country should be fighting real criminals instead, the president expressed unexpected outrage over the fact that the "pacifist believers" were considered terrorists.

At the time, the Russian Justice Ministry had responded to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by stating that individual Jehovahs Witnesses were free to profess their faith even if the organization itself had been banned.

In the end, the ECHR condemned the campaign against the Jehovahs Witnesses and fined Russia almost 80 million euros ($90.1 million) for having confiscated the organizations property.

For now, Russian law enforcement agencies have made the Jehovahs Witnesses the first individuals since the Soviet era to be persecuted exclusively for their faith because they could find no other crimes to pin on the pacifist and law-abiding citizens.

The situation surrounding the Jehovahs Witnesses shows that Moscows policy on religion has hit an impasse, and that Russia, as a European and largely Christian country, will have trouble convincing its own citizens that faith and religiosity hold an exalted station in this society.

Roman Lunkin heads the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Europe. The views and opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.

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