Russian police round up Jehovah’s Witnesses
Rights groups said the charges of religious extremism were unwarranted and unjust.
Dennis Christensen was found guilty this week of violating a Russian law banning “the organisation of a public or religious association … or prohibition of activities in connection with extremist activities”, according to the Kremlin mouthpiece, Tass.
A district court in Oryol (pictured) sentenced Christensen to six years in a penal colony. He says he will appeal against the ruling.
Christensen’s sentencing is part of a campaign against the US-headquartered Christian denomination and other religious minorities, activists say, claiming the Russian Orthodox Church is seeking to maintain its spiritual dominance.
The regional authorities in Khanty-Mansiisk in northwestern Siberia said they had detained suspects accused of “preaching their superiority over other citizens who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
The suspects allegedly held illegal gatherings, “propagating extremist ideas and recruiting new members to the banned religious group”.
In 2017 the Russian Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, labelling the denomination an “extremist organisation”.
Human rights groups, the European Union and the US condemned Christensen’s conviction and called Russia to respect religious freedoms.
Christensen was arrested in Oryol in May 2017, a month after the religious group, which numbers around 170,000 followers in Russia and about 8 million adherents worldwide, was banned.
He was the first Jehovah’s Witness to be detained in Russia following the ban. Since then, many other members of the group have been arrested and face similar extremism charges.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, said she was deeply concerned by the sentencing of Christensen.
“Criminal cases have since then been opened against more than 100 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including at least 18 who are held in pre-trial detention,” said Bachelet. “Others have been subjected to various measures of restraint, including house arrest and travel restrictions.”
The numbers in detention are rising.
The Mordovia region around 550km southeast of Moscow said yesterday (Thursday) “a wide-scale operation … to stop the illegal activities” of Jehovah’s Witnesses has been conducted. It said “organisers of the group were detained and an investigation was opened.”
According to Tass, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “This issue is challenging, but nevertheless it remains on the agenda. The activity of this religious organisation is illegal and this is a priority in defining this situation.”
In December, President Vladimir Putin reportedly noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses were Christians and that he did not understand why they had been persecuted.
Picture credit: Wikimedia