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.
Then Kremlin officials launched a legal effort to ban the faith this year. 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.
Jehovah’s Witnesses generally shun political activity and have no record of even peaceful — never mind violent — hostility to the Russian authorities. But it has faced growing hostility from the state since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia began his third term in 2012 and put the Russian Orthodox Church at the center of his push to assert Russia as a great military and moral power. This ban is a windfall for the Russian Orthodox Church, just as it is a death knell for the Watchtower in Russia.
Human Rights Watch criticized the decision Thursday as a “terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.” Thursday’s decision may make it easier for the Kremlin to go after religious minorities in general, some fear. For Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, their ‘Armageddon’ has arrived, and it begs the question: