The U.S. State Department is urging Russia to reconsider their new ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Monday, the Russian Supreme Court rejected an appeal on an earlier ruling that labeled the group extremist, ordering the Christian denomination to disband immediately on Russian territory.
The State Department called the court decision “the latest in a disturbing trend of persecution of religious minorities in Russia.”
It said, “Religious minorities should be able to enjoy freedom of religion and assembly without interference as guaranteed by the Russian Federation’s constitution.”
The State Department urged Russian authorities to lift the ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities in Russia, and to release any members of religious minorities unjustly detained for so-called “extremist’ activities”.
The Russian government maintains the religious group was distributing inflammatory pamphlets designed to incite hatred, including one that printed the novelist Leo Tolstoy’s criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to the group, which is best known for door-to-door evangelizing, there are 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Russia. The ruling will allow the government to ban members from assembling and preaching, and force the group’s headquarters in St. Petersburg to close along with 395 local chapters. The government will also seize Jehovah’s Witnesses properties, known as Kingdom Halls.
Following the court decision, the Jehovah’s Witnesses issued a statement asking “fellow believers worldwide [to] pray that the Russian government will reconsider its position and respect fundamental human rights.”
“The worldwide community of Jehovah’s Witnesses are deeply concerned for the welfare of their spiritual brothers and sisters in Russia,” said Philip Brumley, General Counsel for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They have become outcasts in their own country.”
The denomination, which believes that Jesus Christ will soon return to Earth and establish a thousand-year Golden Age, have suffered persecution before.
The group is apolitical, refusing to vote in elections, fight in the military, or salute flags. American Jehovah’s Witnesses were put in jail during World War II for evading the draft and a 1940 U.S. Supreme Court decision, now overturned, allowed schools to expel Jehovah’s Witnesses children who declined to stand for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Members were killed in concentration camps in Nazi Germany and were persecuted in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
The religious sect became legal in Russia in 1991.