On Thursday, February 28, the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) delivered a statement to the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna about reports of torture of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the hands of Russian law enforcement. The issue has been met with equivocation by Russian president Vladimir Putin, but it sheds light on a serious problem: Jehovah’s Witnesses are being persecuted and driven out of Russia.
The report states that the United States is “gravely concerned” by the behavior of the Russian authorities who conducted early-morning raids on the homes of Witnesses in the Russian town of Surgut on February 15. They arrested 19 Witnesses and opening criminal cases against them for “organizing an extremist organization.” The victims described beatings, electrocution, and suffocation; they also report that the authorities stripped the men naked, put bags over their heads, tied their hands behind their backs, and began smashing their fingers, electrocuting them, and pouring water over them.
This incident is especially gruesome, but it’s yet another violent blot on Russia’s record of treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They have been subject to raids on their homes and worship centers, physical violence, property confiscation, and classification as an “extremist organization” among the ranks of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS — despite being pacifists. In Russia, heightened tensions with the West have brought hostility to “foreign” religions, and in July 2016, Putin supported legislation that made missionary work by Mormons and Baptists illegal. Less than a year later, the Russian supreme court would classify Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists because they were a threat to “public order and public security.”
There are 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Of the 480 organizations classified by Russian authorities as extremist and/or terrorist, 404 are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Out of 303 properties owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations, 20 have been confiscated by the Russian government. On March 1, Russia confiscated a $30.4 million property in St. Petersburg belonging to the American-based Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. According to Jarrod Lopes, the communications representative of the Office of Public Information for the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York City, despite the aforementioned U.S.-based group having paid $3 million in property taxes to the Russian Federation, the Russian government schemed to steal this former administrative campus by claiming that ownership was invalid. The tax money was never returned.
Despite the daily transgression toward Witnesses that has spanned years, at the Presidential Human Rights Council meeting in December, Putin called the classification of Jehovah’s Witnesses “complete nonsense.” “It is true that we should treat representatives of all religions the same,” he said, “but it is also necessary to take into account the country and the society in which we live.”
Some cases, such as that of Dennis Christensen, who was sentenced in February to six years in a penal colony for violating Russia’s extremist-organization law, have drawn plenty of attention. But there are hundreds of lesser-known cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ fleeing Russia for neighboring Finland due to the persecution they face at home, out of fear that they, too, could be doomed to a fate similar to Christensen’s. According to the Finnish Immigration Service, there was an increase from five applications from Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2016 to over 100 in 2017 and 2018, after the extremism laws targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses were enacted. Applications for asylum seekers grew from 193 in 2016 to 309 in the first eight months of 2018.
Today, people such as Evgenii Chusovitin and Sergey Kotelnikov live in refugee camps in Finland, forced to leave their homes in Russia out of fear of being the next victims of raids on their homes, torture, and criminal charges for practicing their faith. Kotelnikov, 32, says that belief in God became a part of his life at an early age. In April 2017, he says, the mass persecutions of Witnesses began while he and his wife were living approximately 30 miles from the Finnish border with Russia. When they learned they were to be expecting a child, they fled Russia to seek asylum in Finland in September 2017, and they have spent the past one-and-a-half years there as refugees alongside refugees from war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan while awaiting a Finnish court response for their asylum case.
“We want to save our family, we want to protect our child,” Sergey tells me. “Now if we return to Russia, I face up to ten years in prison, my wife will be left without a husband, and the child without a father for such a long time.” While Sergey and his family would like to return to Russia someday, their return is entirely dependent on the status of Jehovah’s Witnesses persecution, which Sergey notes is only becoming more frequent and more violent.
Evgenii, 43, also fled Russia with his family after Jehovah’s Witnesses were classified as extremists. He initially lived in a refugee camp until they could afford a small apartment in Finland. An experience with Russian police in 2011 suggested to him that conditions were worsening for Witnesses, and that staying in Russia would put him and his family’s safety at risk. While he was serving as head of a religious organization for Witnesses that arranged activities such as Bible readings, performances, and discussions about God, Russian police pressured him to cooperate with them in their searches of Jehovah’s Witness gatherings, which Sergey refused, thinking that they weren’t serious. After police returned with a search warrant, he realized that they were serious and that staying in Russia could mean a long prison sentence for practicing his faith.
“Because of belonging to the ‘wrong’ religion, a person may lose his job, face a search, humiliation, arrest, and more,” he tells me. “In any civilized country, a citizen, when he is in danger, seeks help from the state. But where do you look for protection when the state itself has made you its enemy? How do you live in a country where there is a war against you? You just live and wait for trouble to knock on your house’s door.”
The infringement of the most basic right to freely worship in Russia does indeed warrant “grave concern.” The raids of Jehovah’s Witness homes — which are available online to watch — are reminiscent of what Putin suggests is a bygone era and are a de facto example of the Kremlin’s repressive regime. It is especially harrowing that Jehovah’s Witnesses, a denomination known for their refusal to engage in war and their devotion to non-violence, are being sadistically tortured under the expectation that they will not retaliate.
Evgenii and Sergey are skeptical that they will return with their families to Russia anytime soon; and this is a reasonable prediction, given that Putin has given statements that suggest his opposition to the “extremist” status of Witnesses in Russia, while his security forces continue to raid homes in the middle of the night and torture innocent Russians behind closed doors. The U.S.’s human-rights groups should continue pressing him on this topic, and not accept mendacity as a response.