The Russian Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses community on April 20, 2017 ruling the group to be an “extremist” cult and required the organization to relinquish all property in St. Petersburg and throughout the country. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights conferred by the United Nations, which Russia is a member of, reads as follows:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The ruling comes as a clear violation of international Human Rights that all member states are required to respect and preserve. However, this is not the first time the Jehovah’s Witness community has been legally attacked in Russia.
A history of prejudice
In 1995, a Russian NGO, Committee for the Salvation of Youth from Totalitarian Cults, which is aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, filed a complaint against the Jehovah’s Witness community with the Savyolovskiy district prosecutor’s office in Moscow alleging that Jehovah’s Witnesses charged “exorbitant membership dues” leaving families financially challenged, which led to widespread hatred of the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the prosecutor could not find any further private complaints against the JW or documentation of civil disobedience or the group posing a certain threat to the public, the complaint was dropped.
The Salvation of Youth from Totalitarian Cults filed three more criminal complaints against the JW, which all failed to bear fruit in banning the group. In 1998, a new investigator re-opened the case, but eliminated the criminal aspect due to lack of evidence that the group committed criminal offenses in spite of violating Russian and international law. The Investigator suggested a civil suit instead.
Upon the advice given, in 1998 the prosecutor of the Northern Administrative District of Moscow filed a civil action against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. The charges escalated to include “religious discord; destroying the family; encouragement of suicide or refusal on religious grounds of medical assistance to persons in life- or health‑threatening conditions; infringement of rights and freedoms of citizens; and luring minors into the religious organisation.” The Moscow City Court remitted the claim stating that the District Court “had not properly assessed the circumstances of the case” and should have conducted a fresh examination into the activities of the JW community.
Fast forward over a decade and the Russian Ministry of Justice reports that since 2007, Russian courts banned at least eight local Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations and 95 pieces of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature. The literature was placed on the federal registry of banned extremist materials due to the claim that the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation of the Bible was superior to other religions. In light of these rulings, anyone found with large quantities of banned Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature can be charged with a misdemeanor offense of distributing “extremist” materials.
Jehovah’s Witnesses fight back
In June 2010, the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Russia filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights citing “a violation of their rights to freedom of religion and association, the right to a hearing within a reasonable time and a breach of the prohibition on discrimination” per Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Case of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow And Others v. Russia (Application no. 302/02), which outlines the previous allegations against the church noted above and many others, reported that the court unanimously ruled in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community citing violations of Articles 1, 6, 9, and 11 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms enacted by the Russian government.
To this very day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community will have to continue the fight for religious freedom in Russia. Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia stated, “We will appeal this decision, and we hope that our legal rights and protections as a peaceful religious group will be fully restored as soon as possible.” There is a 30 day window for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to file their appeal, which will then have to be reviewed by a three-person panel.
The church, the state, and freedom
Whether the source is the Russian Orthodox Church, known to be supported by Putin, or the agenda of an oppressive Russian government, there seems to be an ongoing scheme to establish an all-powerful state religion — The Russian Orthodox Church — in the face of a world of inclusiveness and religious diversity. One could suppose that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular, are being singled out due to potential success in the growth of the community in Russia. In any case, Thursday’s ruling comes not only as a blow to international human rights laws that ensure the liberties of freedoms of all humanity but also as a reminder of the reality of the continued fight for religious freedom around the globe.
Read details on the saga and updates on the appeal at the Jehovah’s Witness website.