Russia’s crackdown on religious activity took a major step forward this week as the Justice Ministry banned Jehovah’s Witnesses. Russia has steadily curtailed rights to evangelize in recent years, but this move signals their commitment to aggressively policing private religious activity.
The Russian supreme court ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses amount to an “extremist group,” and therefore the government is shutting down their headquarters and local chapters, seizing their property, and banning them from meeting. Vladimir Putin’s campaign to strengthen ties between the government and the Russian Orthodox denomination has included the passing of absurdly broad laws that prohibit “religious discord” and can easily be deployed against any religion or sect.
This ruling will directly harm the 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, but it also poses a clear threat to other minority religious groups, such as Protestant Christians. Without genuine protections for the free exercise of religion, the government has remarkably free rein to determine the social benefits of a given religion — and that means trampling the consciences of those who fall victim to government caprice.
This battle may continue in some form. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ lawyers said that they would appeal the ruling, and they may even take it to the European Court of Human Rights. While it is worth pursuing available avenues of recourse, the larger trend of religious persecution in Russia is continuing apace.