Spokane-area Jehovah’s Witnesses decried the Russian Supreme Court’s decision Thursday to ban the religion from operating anywhere in the country, after the court accepted a request from the Justice Ministry that the religious organization be considered an extremist group.
The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russia headquarters and its 395 local chapters as well as the seizure of its property Thursday.
“It is disheartening, obviously, to see a decision like that, because we are not an extremist group,” said Doug Hardy, a spokesman for Spokane-area Witnesses.
He said Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t doing anything different than Spokane-area Witnesses when they practice their faith.
“Our activities are similar whether we’re in France, Russia, Brazil or the United States,” he said.
Hardy said the 2,000 or so Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area will be praying for their Russian counterparts, and he’s sure that the Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t stop practicing their faith.
“Our brothers around the world in the last century have been in similar circumstances at one time or another in many countries,” he said.
The Interfax news agency on Thursday quoted Justice Ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova in court as saying that the Jehovah’s Witnesses pose a threat to Russians.
“They pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security,” she told the court.
Borisova also said the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to blood transfusions violates Russian health care laws.
“We are greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity,” Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, said in a news release. “We will appeal this decision, and we hope that our legal rights and protections as a peaceful religious group will be fully restored as soon as possible.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim more than 170,000 adherents in Russia. The group has come under increasing pressure over the past year, including a ban on distributing literature deemed to violate Russia’s anti-extremism laws.
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. Robert Warren, global spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, 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.
Warren said the decision was a disappointment, and reminded many Jehovah’s Witnesses of the Soviet Era.
“That’s what’s very disappointing. That the authorities seem to be allocating a great deal of resources against a very small religious group,” he said. “It seems like a waste of government resources.”
Witnesses in Russia now have 30 days to appeal the ruling, which they plan to do. Until then it’s just a matter of waiting.
“It is something that has been on our minds constantly,” Hardy said of the case.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.