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Spokane-area Jehovah’s Witnesses wait anxiously for Russian court ruling

Jehovah's Witnesses listen to the judge's verdict in a court room in Moscow, Friday, March 26, 2004. (MIKHAIL METZEL / AP)

Spokane-area Jehovah’s Witnesses waited anxiously Wednesday for a Russian court ruling on whether the church in Russia will be labeled an extremist organization.

“We’re concerned about what’s going to happen and what could happen to them,” said Doug Hardy, a spokesman for Spokane-area Witnesses.

Hardy added, “If they are going to clamp down on us it could be they clamp down on other religious entities, too.”

Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a case with the Supreme Court to declare the administrative center for Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist organization on March 15.

The court reviewed the case for about seven hours Wednesday before announcing a recess, said Robert Warren, global spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The court will renew deliberations Thursday morning.

Last week many of the 2,000 or so Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area sent letters to Russian government officials, including President Vladimir Putin, expressing concern about the court motion. Worldwide Jehovah’s Witnesses were encouraged to send letters to Russian officials. The church estimates it has 8 million members worldwide.

The Justice Ministry has accused the Witnesses of having extremist literature and beliefs. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible and other promotional materials are outlawed. Warren said Russian Witnesses abide by this law and don’t have the literature in their Kingdom Halls. According to him, Russian government officials planted literature in the church’s administrative building shortly before a government inspection, thus prompting the claim.

On Wednesday the Witnesses asked the court to hear testimony from Jehovah’s Witnesses who claimed they saw government officials planting the materials. The court did not allow those witnesses to testify.

Additionally, the Witnesses filed a counter claim against the Ministry of Justice claiming the Witnesses were victims of political repression. The court dismissed that claim.

“It definitely presents a negative tone that seems to be characterizing the proceedings at this point,” Warren said.

If the court sides with the Ministry of Justice, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ administrative building in St. Petersburg could be seized by the Russian government. Additionally, it could become illegal for Witnesses to meet in groups, advertise their faith or practice their faith.

Already in Russia the religion’s website is blocked, and customs officials don’t allow Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles into the country.

“They don’t want us to even have places of worship to meet in,” Warren said. “They don’t want us to speak about our faith to others.”

The order has raised concerns about religious persecution from organizations around the world, including the United Nations, the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“If that is happening to us, if we’re being targeted then basic freedoms and rights are being targeted in Russia,” Warren said.

Warren said the Moscow courtroom, where the case was heard, was packed – something he doesn’t think Russian officials anticipated.

According to church estimates there are about 175,000 Witnesses in Russia. A 1997 Russian law established freedom of religion in the country. However, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism are considered traditional religions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God, but do not believe in the Trinity. Their faith requires that they don’t get involved in political activity – including voting, military service, politics and political protesting. They do abide by local laws and customs as long as it doesn’t interfere with their faith.

Hardy believes this disregard for nationalism may be part of the reason Russian officials filed the claim.

“We are law abiding citizens as far as it goes,” Hardy said. “But when it interferes with the dictates of what the Bible says, we’re going to stand up for our beliefs rather than what the law says.”

For now all Spokane-area witnesses can do is wait and see what happens. However, Hardy is sure if Russia rules against the Witnesses they won’t abide by the ruling. For example: during the Soviet era most Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to Siberian work camps.

“Well, it didn’t stop them (from worshiping) when they got to Siberia,” Warren said. “Hitler tried to stop us in Nazi Germany. That didn’t stop us either.”

This story has been updated.