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Plundering & Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia & occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash

A year after Russia outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a first believer is on trial, facing a ten-year prison sentence and repressive measures are gaining pace.  These include armed searches and arrests, as well as the state theft of Jehovah’s Witness land and property.  It seems only a matter of time before Jehovah’s Witnesses join the ever-rising number of Ukrainians illegally imprisoned in occupied Crimea.  The terminology may have changed, but the persecution is reminiscent of that practised by both the Soviet and Nazi regimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

Despite Article 28 of Russia’s Constitution clearly defending freedom of faith, Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses on 20 April 2017, labelling them ‘extremist’.  This immediately placed an estimated 175 thousand believers in the Russian Federation in danger of criminal prosecution for their faith.  Since Russia is breaching international law by applying Russian legislation in occupied Crimea, up to 8,000 Crimeans are now also at risk. 

The danger swiftly ceased to be potential, with the arrest in Oryol on May 25, 2017 of Dennis Christensen, a 46-year old Danish citizen and a Jehovah’s Witness Elder, who had lived legally in Russia since 2000.  Christensen has been imprisoned ever since – the first Jehovah’s Witness in post-Soviet Russia to be deprived of his liberty for his faith. 

He is charged under Article 282.2 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code (‘organizing the activity of a religious organization whose dissolution has been ordered due to extremist activities’). 

In declaring Christensen a political prisoner, the Memorial Human Rights Centre stated that the charges against him, based solely on the fact that he is a Jehovah’s Witness, are discriminatory and in violation both of Russia’s Constitution and of international legal documents, particularly those enshrining the right to freedom of conscience and religion.

Christensen’s lawyers have told Human Rights Watch that Christensen was not on the staff of the Oryol Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had earlier been declared ‘extremist’, but had given a sermon during the service on May 25.  There appear to be three specific ‘incidents’ (the sermon and two occasions when he took part in discussing a publication), as well as charges of involvement in organizational work and encouraging others to take part in Jehovah’s Witness worship.

In short, Dennis Christensen could be imprisoned for 10 years solely for practising his faith.

The preliminary hearing in his trial began on 3 April at the Zhelezhnodrorozhny District Court in Oryol (under judge Alexei Rudnev).  It was, however, adjourned for a week at the defence’s request to enable them to have time to familiarize themselves with the case material.

It is probably no accident that the first victim of this persecution is a foreign national, enabling Russia to falsely present the Jehovah’s Witnesses as somehow ‘alien’. 

Since Christensen is on trial solely for his faith, others must surely follow.  It seems that Jehovah’s Witnesses now make up a third of the number of Russians in at least one centre for asylum-seekers in Finland. 

The majority of believers will remain.  Even if forced underground as in the worst days of Soviet repression, the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that it is their direct duty to spread the word, meaning that every single active believer could face persecution. 

While Crimea remains under Russian occupation, the danger is real there also.  As reported, by August 2017 18 Crimean Jehovah’s Witness communities had been banned, and several Witnesses had faced administrative fines for so-called ‘missionary activities’ – reading the Bible, singing songs and praying. 

It should be stressed that under Russian occupation, members of other faiths in Crimea, especially Crimean Muslims, have faced persecution and virtually all Christian Churches besides the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarch have come under major pressure.

There is likely to be another group of prisoners of conscience both in occupied Crimea and in Russia, one also tragically reminiscent both of Nazi Germany and of the Soviet Union.  Jehovah’s Witnesses will not bear arms, and therefore refuse even to do military service.  Many Witnesses were executed for their refusal to serve in the Nazi Wehrmacht, and large numbers went to Soviet labour camps rather than accept conscription.

In June 2017, a young Jehovah’s witness from Bakhchysarai was told to provide ‘proof of change of faith’ in order to be eligible for alternative civilian service.  Russia is already in grave violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention over its imposition of conscription on occupied territory.

The list of repressive measures against individual Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea and in Russia, as well as against particular communities, is already very long, and the pace appears to be mounting.

One extraordinarily cynical aspect to this is that the Russian authorities are effectively engaged in appropriating property and land belonging to Jehovah’s Witness communities.  Attempts to avoid such state theft by handing over the property or deeds to communities in Sweden or Finland have been challenged by the Russian prosecutor, with some of the relevant contracts between JW communities already declared null and void. 

One of the most appalling aspects of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the current Russian regime is that it has, at very least, the tacit approval of the Moscow Patriarchate. 



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