April 4, 2017
USCIRF Condemns Actions That Would Eliminate the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Legal Existence in Russia
Washington, D.C. – Russia’s Justice Ministry suspended the Jehovah’s Witnesses on March 24, alleging that its activities “violate Russia’s laws on combating extremism.” The Russian authorities have used their extremism law to systematically harass the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a legally registered religious group in Russia with close to 200,000 adherents. That law, which requires neither the use nor advocacy of violence for activity to be labeled extremist, was enacted after a sustained Russian campaign against this group began in early 2006.
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) stated, “The Russian government’s latest actions appear designed to eliminate the legal existence of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. If the Supreme Court rules in April that this group is ‘extremist’ it would mark the first time that Russia legally has banned a centrally-administered religious organization and would effectively criminalize all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activity nationwide. USCIRF calls on the Russian government to stop its harassment of this peaceful religious group.”
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. This approach dates back to the Soviet period and impacts other religious groups, including peaceful Christians and Muslims. These groups are also being persecuted for their beliefs in the Russian-occupied areas of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
In March 2016, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office warned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ national headquarters that the organization could be banned and its activities shut down nationwide if further evidence of alleged “extremism” was found within a year. In January 2017, an appellate court rejected the Witnesses’ appeal of the warning, and in March 2017 the Ministry of Justice filed a formal request for the Russian Supreme Court to designate the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters as extremist.
USCIRF calls on the Russian government and judiciary to respect the freedom of religion or belief and halt their harassment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups.