On April 26, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report on conditions for religious liberty abroad.
Among the countries we reported on is Russia, where just this month, the nation’s highest court issued a chilling decision allowing the government to ban all operations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This ruling, horrifying on its own, was the latest dramatic example of how violations of religious freedom have worsened in recent years. From administrative harassment to arbitrary imprisonment to extrajudicial killings, Russia’s government continues to perpetrate violations in a systematic, ongoing, and egregious way.
The United States needs to send an unmistakable message. We urge the U.S. State Department to do so by designating Russia a “country of particular concern” under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. We should recognize President Vladimir Putin’s government for what it is — one of the most serious violators of religious freedom in the world.
For years, Russia has vigorously applied its anti-extremism law, with Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses often targeted. The law, which does not require the use or threat of violence for prosecution, is so vague as to permit the persecution of virtually any kind of expression — religious, political, or otherwise — that the government opposes. The law has enabled authorities to ban thousands of items from both of these groups, including a Jehovah’s Witnesses children’s book, My Book of Bible Stories.
A year ago, the Kremlin began deploying that law against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in an appalling new way. In March 2016, the Ministry of Justice warned the Jehovah’s Witnesses that the organization was in danger of losing its legal right to exist in Russia due to questions of “extremism.” Subsequently, authorities were captured on videotape planting banned “extremist” material in prayer halls belonging to the Witnesses. Based on this so-called evidence, the Ministry of Justice suspended all activity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And now, with Russia’s Supreme Court having recently ruled for the Justice Ministry, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are legally abolished in Russia. It is the first time that Russia has legally banned a centrally administered religious organization.
This is but one example — though a stark one, to be sure — of how Russia’s religious freedom conditions have gone from bad to worse. Other examples range from an anti-blasphemy statute enacted in 2013 to the Yarovaya amendments enacted last July. including a measure targeting groups that place a premium on sharing their faith with others. The measure makes it illegal to preach, teach, and publish religious content anywhere other than government-approved sites. More brutally, in the North Caucasus, Russian security forces regularly carry out arrests, kidnappings, disappearances, and killings of people suspected of links to “nontraditional” Islam.
Moreover, Russia has spent the last three years imposing its homegrown religious repression on Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine.
It has used its anti-extremism laws as a pretext for persecuting Crimean religious minorities, and authorities have conducted repeated raids on Muslim homes and mosques. In September, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the banning of the Mejlis, the representative body of the Muslim Crimean Tatars, as extremist.
Pro-Russian authorities also have harassed Crimean churches that operate independently of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate, which the Kremlin has made into a de facto state church, forcing some leaders to leave the peninsula. In January 2016, authorities ordered the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate to vacate its last prayer space in Crimea’s capital of Simferopol, and in December they shuttered a Pentecostal church in Bakhchisaray.
Similar abuses have been visited on parts of eastern Ukraine since Russian-backed groups conquered some territory and created separatist enclaves. These forces have seized Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Jehovah’s Witness houses of worship and schools, and perpetrated church attacks, abductions, and assaults on Kiev Patriarchate and Protestant representatives.
Clearly, Russia has vastly escalated and expanded its practice of religious repression. The United States government should respond, shining a spotlight on Moscow’s behavior. A “country of particular concern” designation would be a good place to begin.
Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Daniel Mark is Vice Chairman of the Commission and is an assistant professor of political science and Navy ROTC battalion professor at Villanova University.