Russia seeks to declare Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist group

USA Today/March 16, 2017

By Doug Stanglin

Russia's justice ministry has filed a lawsuit with its supreme court to declare the national headquarters of the country's Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist organization.

The legal filing is noted on the court's website with no date given for legal action. The group's administrative center in Russia is located about 25 miles northwest of St. Petersburg.

The press office for the Russian branch of the religion says on its website that such a declaration, if successful, would “entail disastrous consequences for freedom of religion in Russia" and directly affect about 175,000 followers at more than 2,000 congregations in the country.

"Extremism is deeply alien to the Bible-based beliefs and morality of Jehovah's Witnesses," the statement said. "Persecution of the faithful for peaceful anti-extremism legislation is built on frank fraud, incompetent individual 'experts' and, as a result, a miscarriage of justice."

The Jehovah's Witnesses first legally registered as a religious group in Russia in 1991 and re-registered in 1999, according to the organization's international website.

For almost two decades, however, Russian prosecutors in various localities have periodically sought to outlaw or curb the group, charging it is a cult that destroys families, fosters hatred and threatens lives.

In response to the latest pressure, Vasily Kalin, chairman of the religious group's steering committee, said members simply want to "peacefully worship their God," according to the press office.

"Unfortunately, after more than 100 years in power, Russia violates its own legislation that guarantees us that right," he said. "In Stalin's time, when I was a child, the whole family was deported to Siberia only because we were Jehovah's Witnesses. It's a shame and sad that my children and grandchildren will be faced with something like that. "

Jehovah's Witnesses have come under growing pressure from Russian authorities in recent years, including a ban on distribution of church literature that authorities say violates anti-extremism laws.

In February, investigators inspected the headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses in St. Petersburg, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported. More than 70,000 pages of documents were confiscated for the General Prosecutor's Office, according to Russia's Sova Center of Information and Analysis, which monitors hate crimes and the enforcement of anti-extremist laws.

The religious group's press service said its religious programs do not include banned materials and that officials have notified authorities whenever anyone brings such literature into their building.

In 2009, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld a lower court ruling that declared 34 pieces of Jehovah's Witness literature as "extremist," including their magazine The Watchtower in Russian.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been officially banned from the port city of Taganrog since 2009, after a local court ruled the organization guilty of inciting religious hatred by “propagating the exclusivity and supremacy” of their religion, according to the British newspaper The Independent.

In 2015, a court in Rostov convicted 16 Jehovah's Witnesses of practicing extremism in Taganrog, handing out jail sentences — later suspended — of more than 5 years for five of the defendants and stiff fines for the others.

That same year, the supreme court of Russia banned the religion's international website as "extremist."

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