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. Continue reading