For the past few months, Russia's 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses have been on edge.
After years, even decades, of persecution against the religious group, the Kremlin moved to get rid of the denomination for good. In February, Jehovah's Witnesses were labeled “extremists” and locked out of their offices.
Then Kremlin officials launched a legal effort to ban the faith. That case quickly wound its way to the Supreme Court, where Justice Ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova said the Christian group posed a “threat” to “public order and public security.”
In court, Borisova brought in former followers to testify that top church officials took “total control” of their “intimate life, education and work.”
Lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses roundly denied those allegations.
It didn't matter. After six days of hearings, the Supreme Court sided with the government on Thursday. They ruled that the group's St. Petersburg headquarters and 395 churches could be seized and liquidated. All church activities, including worship and door-to-door evangelizing, were banned. Those who defy the ruling face a fine of several thousand dollars and six to 10 years in prison.
Human Rights Watch criticized the decision Thursday as a “terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.” And religious leaders promised to appeal.
But they're not hopeful. In the Soviet era, religion (Karl Marx's “opiate of the masses”) was officially banned. Jehovah's Witnesses were targeted as spies and enemies. One group was shipped off to Siberia.
After the Berlin Wall fell, Witnesses hoped that restrictions would ease. That has not been the case. Since 2006, eight local organizations have been banned by regional courts. Nearly 100 pieces of Jehovah's Witness literature have been placed on the federal registry of banned extremist materials, including “My Book of Bible Stories,” an illustrated children's book. The organization's international website is blocked. In Russian state media, the sect is smeared as a cult.
Church members have reported assault, vandalism, seizures and raids on houses of worship and dozens of arrests.
Thursday's decision may make it easier for the Kremlin to go after religious minorities in general, some fear. But the Witnesses may have been targeted for more specific reasons.
Experts like Alexander Verkhovsky, who monitors extremism in Russia, say there is no evidence that Jehovah's Witnesses are a public threat. “I cannot imagine that anyone really thinks they are a threat,” he told the New York Times. “But they are seen as a good target. They are pacifists, so they cannot be radicalized, no matter what you do to them.”
As The Washington Post reported earlier this month:
But experts say there's something different going on today. The church's 170,000 Russian members don't vote, won't serve in the military and refuse to attend national celebrations that glorify violence. That means they often avoid state-sponsored rallies celebrating, say, the annexation of Crimea. That's a problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is naturally suspicious of groups with pro-Western sympathies (the sect is based in the United States). It's also a way for him to show support to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Experts see it, too, as part of a broader campaign against Russian civil society using the 2002 anti-extremism law. Officially, the rule was touted as a measure against radicalized violence from homegrown and foreign terrorists. But it's been broadly interpreted, used to jail anyone from anti-government activists to Muslims with no ties to terrorism or violence.
Even so, experts say it will be hard to eliminate the denomination. For one thing, technology makes religious control more complicated — the faithful can share literature through social media or apps. For another, fully enforcing the ban would require a nearly impossible amount of manpower.
And, of course, the Witnesses have a long history of persistence under persecution. As historian Emily B. Baran said in a recent article,
When the Soviet Union barred religious literature from crossing its borders, Witnesses set up underground bunkers to print illegal magazines for their congregations. When Soviet officials prohibited Witnesses from hosting religious services, they gathered in small groups in their apartments, often in the middle of the night … When these actions landed them in labor camps, Witnesses sought out converts among their fellow prisoners.