National Security & Defense

Will Trump Confront Renewed Religious Repression in Russia?

Russian president Vladimir Putin (Aleksey Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin/via Reuters)
Its Supreme Court bans Jehovah’s Witnesses, creating 170,000 prisoners of conscience.

On April 20, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pacifist religious organization it designated “extremist.” The more than 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia can no longer meet without fear of jail, and all church properties will be confiscated. Russia has effectively outlawed an entire religion. President Trump should raise the ban with Putin and take other diplomatic action against it.

It is the culmination of several years of low-level government harassment including audits, planted evidence, disruption of religious services, and prosecutions of local organizations. The nationwide ban on the denomination revisits the scale of Stalin-era religious persecution, when Jehovah’s Witnesses and others were loaded into cattle cars en masse and exiled to Siberia.

The current ban is based on an overbroad 2002 law, which prohibits as “extremism” what would be considered classic free speech elsewhere: claims of “the exceptional nature, superiority or deficiency” of religious beliefs. In 2015, the U.N. Human Rights Committee criticized that language as “vague and open-ended,” noting that “the law is increasingly used to curtail freedom of expression, including political dissent, and freedom of religion.”

The post-9/11 extremism law, designed as a response to violent attacks by religious individuals on the state, has now come full circle, permitting an attack by the state on a non-violent religious group.

How did we get here? Religious discrimination and persecution have been on the rise under Vladimir Putin’s rule. He has brazenly used religion in service of his nationalism as early as 2000, when his government adopted a policy paper on national security with a chapter on “spiritual security.” There it was warned that “foreign sectarian communities such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . under the cover of religion establish extensive governing structures which they use for gathering socio-political, economic, military, and other information about ongoing events in Russia, indoctrinate the citizens and incite separatist tendencies.”

This kind of paranoia and religious discrimination has also affected, to a lesser degree, other “non-historically Russian” minorities such as Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, and Pentecostals as well as Orthodox schismatics and some Muslim groups, including followers of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi.

Religious discrimination and persecution have been on the rise under Vladimir Putin’s rule. He has brazenly used religion in service of his nationalism as early as 2000.

Russia even started a major international row with India in 2012 when a court examined whether The Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, a Hare Krishna text, should be banned as extremist. After this law was turned on the Bible and quotes from the Koran, however, the Russian government swiftly passed an amendment prohibiting any ban of the scriptures of the “historical” Russian religions of Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.

More than any other religious minority, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in the crosshairs of Russian security forces, even in Soviet times. Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union numbered below 2,000 at the time of World War II, but their rapid increase after the war led to KGB paranoia about their power and spread. In The Sword and the Shield (2000), a fascinating account of a treasure trove of highly confidential KGB documents, smuggled out daily over twelve years by a secret dissident working in the KGB archive, the authors note that “the Jehovist obsession of senior KGB officers was, perhaps, the supreme example of their lack of any sense of proportion when dealing with the most insignificant forms of dissent.”

So it is today. And yet Washington does nothing. Two weeks have passed and the only response is an acting State Department spokesman expressing “extreme concern” in an e-mail to U.S. News & World Report. Contrast that with the response of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has denounced the ban as a “politicized assault on a religious group,” or of Angela Merkel, who has spoken to Putin directly on the issue. By not speaking out personally on the worst post-Soviet religious persecution, President Trump and Vice President Pence feed speculation about their ties to Russia and fail those who value freedom of religion and speech. Trump can demonstrate that he is not beholden to Russia only by mobilizing on behalf of the Jehovah’s Witnesses the same pressure that he used to obtain the release of the aid worker Aya Hijazi.

The ban poses a threat “to individual freedom in general in the Russian Federation,” according to a joint statement by the U.N. Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression, Association, and Religion. Russia’s “use of counter-extremism legislation in this way to confine freedom of opinion . . . to that which is state-approved . . . signals a dark future for all religious freedom in Russia.” Through the ban, as a lawyer for the Witnesses argued in his closing statement, “the country successfully acquires 170,000 prisoners of conscience.”


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