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The battle over Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

Last April, Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, which came as a blow to the freedom of religion. How the European Court of Human Rights rules on the many cases against Russia, will reveal much about the future of the Court’s influence and the rule of law in the country.

October 25, 2017 - James T. Richardson - Analysis

Image by Tom Morris

Image by Tom Morris

On April 20th 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court issued a ruling liquidating the administrative centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, as well as all of their 395 local religious organisations. The court ruling also authorises confiscation of all property belonging to the church and directs them to cease all activities. The decision was upheld on July 17th by the appellate chamber of the Supreme Court, and on August 17th the Ministry of Justice added the church to the list of banned extremist organisations.

By virtue of these official actions at the highest levels of the Russian government and its judicial system, the Witnesses have been effectively liquidated and banned throughout Russia. The 175,000 members of Witness congregations are thus subject to criminal charges for practising their faith.

What this means for members of Witness communities in Russia is unclear, but there have already been a number of actions taken by authorities in various parts of the country that have targeted the peaceful efforts of Witnesses to meet and share their faith with others. Moreover, some Russian citizens, emboldened by the official rhetoric, have taken vigilant, often violent, actions against individual Witnesses.

Fighting spiritual opposition

The court decision was based on the Ministry of Justice claim made on March 15th 2017 that the Witnesses are an extremist organisation and should, therefore, be liquidated. This designation has been widely criticised internationally and within Russia by those supportive of individual rights such as religious freedom.

The designation of the Witnesses as extremist is especially ironic given the church’s official opposition to violence. It has long expressed strong support for conscientious objector status, which thanks to Witnesses’ advocacy of alternative modes of serving their countries, has become the norm among many nations. However, the Russian government seems bent on forcing the Witnesses and a few other minority religious organisations to cease activities.

Few observers accept the claim that the Witnesses are an extremist organisation and in any way involved in activities that promote terrorism. This puzzling situation has led to much speculation about the real reasons for government’s change of rhetoric. One prominent suggestion is that the Russian Orthodox Church has encouraged the actions as part of its campaign to deter groups that compete for the allegiance of Russian citizens or are otherwise critical of the dominant denomination.

The second idea is that the Witnesses developed within the United States and that the harassment is part of an anti-American campaign. Finally, according to yet another theory, the campaign against the Witnesses is an attempt to distract the populace from Russia’s real economic and political problems, both at home and abroad.

Whatever the reasons behind the drastic action taken and sanctioned by Russian courts, the effects of the decision place Russia in an almost unique position in the international community of modern nations when it comes to constraining religious freedoms.

Russia and the European Court of Human Rights

The Supreme Court decision and other governmental actions taken against the Witnesses are being contested by both public opinion the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

The ECtHR is the judicial arm of the Council of Europe which was formed after the Second World War in an effort to deter violations of human and civil rights. Russia is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which is the governing document for the Council of Europe, and thus is bound by its provisions.

Article 9 of the Convention guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which, according to the Witnesses, Russia regularly violates.

Since 1992, when Russia was accepted as the Council’s member, the country has lost several major cases before the ECtHR, related to suppressing minority faiths. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been very effective advocates of their rights and the rights of others before the ECtHR, having developed a strong winning record, including some victories in cases against Russia.

Currently, the ECtHR considers 32 cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses and Russia. This includes the case of the March 2nd 2016 warning, issued by the Prosecutor General’s office to liquidate the Witnesses’ administrative centre in the country.

The ECtHR is going to consider Russia’s decision to deem Witnesses’ literature and actions extremist as urgent, under Rule 41 of the Convention. Ten other cases concern raids on Witness congregations, out of which four deal with home searches and literature confiscation, and the other involve prosecution for evangelising and ban on religious literature.

How the ECtHR rules on the many cases against Russia, especially those concerning the church delegalisation, and how the Russian government responds to those rulings, will reveal much about the future of the Court’s influence. It will also say a lot about the rule of law and religious freedoms in Russia.

James T. Richardson, JD, PhD, is emeritus foundation professor of sociology and judicial studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. His most recent publications include Regulating Religion: Case Studies from around the Globe (Kluwer, 2004), Saints under Siege: The Texas Raid on the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (with Stuart Wright, New York University Press, 2011), The Sociology of Shari’a: Case Studies from around the World (with Adam Possamai and Bryan Turner, Springer, 2014), and Legal Cases Involving New Religions and Minority Faiths (with Francois Bellanger, Ashgate, 2014). He can be contacted at jtr@unr.edu 

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