The Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia: An International Human Rights Concern

Vladimir Putin

On July 13, 2020, armed officers raided 110 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Voronezh Region. This was the largest number of coordinated raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern Russia. Unfortunately, this action marks an escalation in the persecution of the Witness community following the April 20, 2017, ban imposed by the Russian Supreme Court on the Witnesses’ national organization and its 395 regional divisions on grounds of “extremism.”

Russian officials have repeatedly claimed that the ban does not violate the right of 175,000 Witnesses to choose their religion and engage in religious worship. Yet, as of August 13, 2020, 379 Jehovah’s Witnesses were under criminal investigation in Russia; 186 had served time in pretrial detention; 44 were in jail and 29 under house arrest; 1,107 homes had been raided since 2017; more than 310 were raided in 2020. Confirmed reports include the periodic use of abuse and torture. The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the police.

Even discussing the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses is prohibited. On June 15, 2020, the editor-in-chief of Religion and Law was sentenced for having published an article on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia that failed to mention that the Witnesses’ organization is “forbidden in the territory of Russia as extremist.” On May 1, 2020, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned the raids, arrests, detention, and trials of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, stating that they are “charged with criminal activity on the basis of mere exercise of freedom of religion.” Unfortunately, the Voronezh raids confirm that Russia intends to ignore the conclusions of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. It also ignored the June 10, 2010, verdict of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others v. Russia (Application no. 302/02), which ruled unanimously that Russia’s ban and dissolution of the Witness community violated Articles 6, 9, and 11 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

As institutions and individuals concerned with religious freedom, we have followed the events in Russia with increasing alarm.

The Russian Supreme Court utterly failed to justify the grounds on which it banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist,” by misinterpreting and misusing laws that were originally intended as a response to post-9/11 terrorism and were applied to a case that had noting to do with these concerns. In fact, the 2010 ECHR decision had already examined and dismissed such characterizations of “extremism,” pointing out that similar statements could apply to many religions. For instance, the Supreme Court singled out and punished Witnesses for claiming that they practice the only true religion, and that those who follow “false” religions put their eternal salvation in danger—a view that is hardly unique among religions. The same can be said for the friction that may occur in mixed-belief marriages, no matter the religion, when only one spouse converts to, or leaves, his or her faith. It should be noted that sociologists have documented a lower incidence of discord and divorce among Witnesses, including in mixed-belief marriages, when compared to the general population. This is also true in Russia, as evidenced by a 2001 study by A.I. Antonov and V.M. Medkov. The Witnesses are considered “extremist” because, based on their understanding of the Bible, they choose not to associate with those who have been “disfellowshipped” because they are deemed to have impenitently violated moral tenets of the faith, particularly individuals who actively oppose it. Similar provisions exist or have existed against “apostates,” or those who have been anathematized or excommunicated in Islam, Judaism, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and many other religions. Courts of law in several countries have declared that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ practice of “shunning” disfellowshipped members is part of their religious liberty, and nobody can be compelled by the law to associate, or not to associate, with certain persons.

Russian authorities may ask themselves why Jehovah’s Witnesses are free to operate in all democratic countries throughout the world, where governments and courts have found reasonable solutions to accommodate their religiously motivated refusal of blood transfusion and conscientious objection to serving in the military. It is a deep irony of history that the same community that could not be forced by Nazi coercion to abandon its nonviolent ethic has now been branded as “extremist” and a danger to the Russian state.

We are left with the impression that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are being punished for their success in gaining new adherents, and because they are perceived as a “foreign” religion. Freedom to proselytize and to persuade members of other religions is, however, an integral part of freedom of religion under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On December 11, 2018, President Putin said that “Jehovah’s Witnesses are also Christians, and I don’t really understand why they’re persecuted.” And in 2017, he bestowed the Family Glory award on a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Noviks from Petrozavodsk, calling them a “model family.” However, President Putin’s words were not followed by action, and the “incomprehensible” persecution continued.

We urge President Putin and his administration to take actions to cease the systematic and senseless persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a community of peaceful, law-abiding citizens who only ask to practice their faith in peace.

The speakers in the September 3, 2020 Seminar “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Opponents: Russia, the West, and Beyond”:

Milda Ališauskienė, Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas
Alessandro Amicarelli, attorney and president of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), London
George Chryssides, University of Birmingham
Raffaella Di Marzio, Center for Studies on Freedom of Belief, Religion and Conscience (LIREC), Rome
Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Brussels
Holly Folk, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington
Silvio Ferrari, University of Milan
Massimo Introvigne, Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), Turin
Sergei Ivanenko, Scientific Council of the Guild of Experts in Religion and Law, Moscow
J. Gordon Melton, Baylor University, Waco, Texas
James T. Richardson, University of Nevada Reno
Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, University Bordeaux Montaigne
Rosita Šorytė, European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), Vilnius

Endorsed by:
Francesco Alicino, LUM University, Bari
Kristina Arriaga, Former Vice-Chair, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Washington DC
Eileen Barker, London School of Economics
Jim Beckford, University of Warwick
Domenico Bellantoni, Pontifical Salesian University, Rome
Luigi Berzano, University of Turin
James Beverley, Tyndale University, Toronto, Canada
Dora Bognandi, International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty, Italian Section, Rome, Italy
Bill Bowring, Birkbeck College, University of London
Germana Carobene, University of Naples
Cristiana Cianitto, University of Milan
Angela Coco, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia
Pierluigi Consorti, University of Pisa
Francesco Curto, Fedinsieme, Turin
Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney
Maria D’Arienzo, University of Naples
Alessandro Ferrari, University of Insubria, Como-Varese, Italy
Nicola Fiorita, University of Calabria, Rende, Italy  
Liselotte Frisk, Dalarna University, Falun, Sweden
Maria Cristina Ivaldi, Luigi Vanvitelli University of Campania, Naples, Italy
Constance A. Jones, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, USA
Christine King, Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent, UK
James R. Lewis, Wuhan University
Antonino Mantineo, Magna Græcia University, Catanzaro, Italy
Mario Marinov, South-West University "Neofit Rilski", Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
Sabrina Martucci, University of Bari Aldo Moro
Rebecca Moore, Nova Religio, Berkeley, California
Benjamin Penny, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Frank S. Ravitch, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
Mikael Rothstein, University of Southern Denmark
Hubert Seiwert, University of Leipzig, Germany
Angela Patrizia Tavani, Aldo Moro University, Bari, Italy
Keith Thompson, University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia
Alexander Verkhovsky, Sova Center for Information and Analysis, Moscow
Zdenek Vojtisek, Charles University, Prague, Czechia
Donald Westbrook, San Jose State University, San Jose, California, USA
Stuart Wright, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, USA
PierLuigi Zoccatelli, Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), Turin