GUEST AUTHOR: Putin imperils religious freedom in Russia

By Abigail Berg, Director of Government Relations at 21Wilberforce // June 26, 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been branded extremists and their worship banned in Russia [Photo Credit: EvgenyEpanchintsev (Tass)]


Even as the carnival-like mood carefully crafted by Russia for the World Cup soccer competition captivates an international audience, a darker, more sinister drama is unfolding in the shadows. Scores of Russian citizens have been harassed, branded extremists, and quietly imprisoned for their faith.

In recent weeks, Russia has escalated its crackdown on the country’s 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. By some accounts, upwards of 40 members have been jailed, held under house arrest, or forced to sign agreements not to leave areas where they reside. Police raids, under cover of darkness and reminiscent of a bygone era, have become common again. “It always happens at night, when people have returned from work and have gathered together to read the Bible,” said Yaroslav Sivulsky in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A member of the European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses, Sivulsky describes how “security agents jump over fences, break down doors without knocking, or dramatically get into the scene in some other way. If the authorities can do this to us, they can apply the same logic to do this to anyone in Russia.”

In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court revoked the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ status as an approved religious group and declared it was no longer allowed to operate. Even worse, the court has labeled practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists, on par with ISIS. Those who continue to identify as a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia, dominated by traditional Russian Orthodoxy, could face criminal prosecution and punishment ranging from steep fines, confiscation of property, and up to 10 years in prison.

Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia has increased in recent years, according to reports by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The government has banned the translation of the Bible that members prefer to use, prayer meetings have been halted, buildings vandalized and burned, individuals dismissed from jobs, and parents and children have been subject to interrogation. In 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled children may be taken from parents who engage in extremist activity, effectively handing Russian authorities a new and frightening form of coercion against parents who are simply trying to practice their deeply held religious beliefs.

“A campaign of terror has been unleashed against an entire religion, one of the largest Christian religions in Russia,” write the wives of several imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses in an open letter to Russia’s Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. “Fundamental human rights are being trampled on: the right to freedom of worship and personal inviolability, the right to personal dignity, the right to privacy, the right to the inviolability of the home, to freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of worship, the right to private property.”

A campaign of terror has been unleashed against an entire religion

People of faith in the U.S. and around the world cannot afford to be distracted by the bright lights and festive trappings Russia has engineered to host this year’s World Cup. Instead, we should use this occasion — while the spotlight rests firmly on Russia — to focus attention on its dangerous disregard for religious freedom, the worst since the Soviet era.

Thankfully, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement on June 18, condemning Russia’s detainment of more than 150 political and religious prisoners, including Jehovah’s Witness member Dennis Christensen. The statement called on Russia to “release all those identified as political or religious prisoners immediately and cease its use of the legal system to suppress dissent and peaceful religious practice.”

This week, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton will be in Europe to discuss national security issues with U.S. allies. He will travel on to Moscow to discuss a potential meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. If and when such a meeting comes to pass, 21Wilberforce encourages the administration to recognize the value of religious freedom as more than a human rights issue but also an essential national security talking point.

Take Action:

  1. Listen to this report about raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia
  2. Read more about Dennis Christensen, arrested and held in a Russian prison since May 2017 for practicing his faith
  3. Encourage the State Department to continue advocating for religious freedom in Russia and other nations


Abigail Berg is Director of Government Relations at 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.  Abigail graduated from Patrick Henry College in 2013 with a degree in Political Science. She worked on Capitol Hill for two years as an assistant and scheduler for Frank R. Wolf.  Upon Congressman Wolf’s retirement at the end of the 113thCongress, she spent 6 months in Egypt as a volunteer and teacher before returning to work for the 21Wilberforce.

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