After ban, Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia harassed by police during religious services

Russian authorities have already begun breaking up Jehovah’s Witnesses services and collecting members’ identities following a Supreme Court decision to uphold a ban on the religious organization, a spokesman for the faith said Tuesday.

Backing a charge from Russia’s justice ministry that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activity put it in violation of the country’s anti-extremism law, the Supreme Court Thursday ordered all 395 of the religious group's local chapters to be seized and its activities outlawed. The faith, which comprises 175,000 members in Russia and has been active in the country since 1991, has yet to receive the written decision from the court, which it needs in order to launch an appeal, something which it has said it will do.

In the meantime, the group's bank accounts in Russia have already been frozen and most kingdom halls, where members gather for services and prayer, have ceased activity. Where local chapters have remained operating, an intimidatory police presence is being felt, said spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, Yaroslav Sivulskiy.

“We expect that the police will be very active to interrupt meetings,” he told Newsweek Tuesday. “We've already started to receive reports in some places that meetings were disrupted. They take personal data, like copies of personal identity, of who was there. And after that, they let them go, but they want to know who attends those meetings.”

During the six-day Supreme Court hearing, the justice ministry said members of the group could be prosecuted individually if the decision went in its favor. Sivulskiy says he is now fearful of worshippers being placed in prison.

“Probably could happen,” he said. “So far nobody is in prison but this court decision is a major one. It’s opened the door for any unjust action against Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have no illusions that everything will be OK. No, it will not be OK.”

The faith's legal fight was dealt another blow Monday when a district court in Moscow rejected a lawsuit attempting to lift a suspension on the group’s assets put in place when Russia's justice ministry declared it an extremist organization last month. Sivulskiy said he has “very, very little” hope that an appeal will be successful. From there, the only remaining step will be to go to the European Court of Human Rights. But even if that court rules in the group's favor, there is no guarantee Russia would accept the decision.

The anti-extremism law was introduced in Russia following the country’s second war in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000 and the 9/11 attacks in the United States. During the Supreme Court hearing, the justice ministry argued that Jehovah’s Witnesses stance on rejecting blood transfusions was one of the ways it was in violation of that law. The Christian denomination, which was formed and still has its headquarters in the United States, had already been prevented from importing its religious texts.

The Supreme Court ruling was condemned last week by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which called it an act of “paranoia” on the part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. The ruling was also criticized by the U.S. State Department, as well as the European Union and governments in Germany and the United Kingdom. On Tuesday, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) added their voice to the protest, particularly in light of reports of police breaking up religious services.

“I urge the Russian authorities to ensure that rights to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association of individuals belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses community are upheld, in compliance with the obligations of the country under international human rights law and OSCE commitments,” Michael Georg Link, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said in a statement.

Sivulskiy said Jehovah's Witnesses are not a threat to Russia.

“You can’t accuse Jehovah’s Witnesses of being extremist," Sivulskiy said. "It’s insane because we are so innocent. Terrorism and extremism is a synonym. How can Jehovah’s Witnesses be a synonym to al-Qaeda or something like this? It’s… no words. No words.”