March of 2016 marked the first official indication that the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses was in the cross hairs of the Russian government.
Citing what it termed “extremist activities,” the General Prosecutor’s Office issued a formal warning to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Administrative Centre in St Petersburg. According to the notification, failure to heed the dictate would lead to liquidation of all assets of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organization on Russian territory.
The nature of the “extremist activities” are vague, but appear to center around some of the non-conformist beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including refusal of blood transfusions. A representative for the Ministry of Justice, Svetlana Borisova, cited an instance where Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses refused a blood transfusion for their ill child, who subsequently died.
Legal attempts by the Jehovah’s Witness Organization to defend itself and appeal the legitimacy of the March 2017 warning, failed.
Subsequently, in April of 2017, the Russian Supreme Court officially declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an “extremist organization”, and ordered the liquidation of all the organization’s assets, including real estate property.
The edict included the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as all 395 branches of the organization. The legal order entailed complete disbanding of the religious group, in addition to handing over all assets to the Russian government. The group was given 30 days to launch an appeal the decision to a three-judge appellate panel. The appeal was launched, and a date has been set of July 17, 2017.
Since the legal decree, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have endured an alarming rise in persecution, vandalism, threats and imprisonment.
In May 2017, a Danish man was arrested during an impromptu raid that took place in the middle of service at a Kingdom Hall in Oryol, Russia. Dennis Christensen was arrested for the “serious crime” of engaging in “extremist activities” during the raid by the FSB (successors to the KGB). At the time of his arrest, Mr. Christensen was sitting and reading the Bible along with fellow worshippers.
Materials were confiscated by the FSB during the raid, including a New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures Bible, various literature, and laptops and hard drives. More disturbing, worshippers’ passports were examined, and many were taken to FSB headquarters for further questioning until early the following morning. Certain worshippers’ homes were subsequently searched by the FSB.
Scare tactics such as these have been used throughout the ages to dissuade religious worshippers. In the Acts of the Apostles 16:16-24, Paul and Silas are whipped and imprisoned for passing on the message of God. In 2015, a white supremacist gunned down nine innocent people as they were praying in their church in Charleston, South Carolina. Jesus himself endured taunts and ridicule for his preaching, even in his hometown (Matthew 13:53-58). The over 175,000 believers known as Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are now the object of persecution, with the threats of violence and imprisonment over their heads.
The homes of Witnesses in Russia have had graffiti spray painted on them, stones thrown through windows and property vandalized. Pedestrians known to the police as Jehovah’s Witnesses have been detained and intimidated on the street for no apparent reason. Bank accounts have been frozen, and in one particularly frightening incident, the home of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses was burned to the ground.
All these things have taken place despite the fact that the final verdict has not even been declared. The Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses has until July 17 to appeal the Russian government’s edict to disband and have all assets liquidated. Yet the persecution has already begun.
Worshippers are already being forced to meet in private and secret locations in order to practice their faith. Kingdom Halls around the country are already being raided, having their contents seized, well ahead of any official permission to liquidate the assets of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When the legal system in a second world country fails to protect a registered religious organization, and goes so far as to label it as extremist; when the FSB, local police and ordinary citizens are permitted to freely victimize and persecute said organization without hindrance or legal authority – what are the chances for the individuals who worship as a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia? Will their personal assets be seized? Will families of Jehovah’s Witnesses be dragged from their homes and imprisoned?
The world stands watching.
~ 1776 Christian