Russia's Supreme Court on Thursday accepted a request from the Justice Ministry to declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an "extremist" group, banning the Christian denomination from Russia and ordering the seizure of its property.
The court issued an order requiring the closure of the group's Russian headquarters and all 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of Jehova's Witness property.
"The Supreme Court has ruled to sustain the claim of Russia's Ministry of Justice and deem the ‘Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia' organization extremist, eliminate it, and ban its activity in Russia, Judge Yuri Ivanenko ruled, according to Sputnik News.
"The property of the ‘Jehovah's Witnesses' organization is to be confiscated to the state revenue," Ivanenko added.
The judicial action came after a request from the Russian Ministry of Justice to label the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist group. The government had earlier applied for an order and launched an investigation to shut down the denomination's national headquarters near St. Petersburg.
Justice Ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova said in court that Jehovah's Witnesses "pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order, and public security," according to the Interfax news agency. Borisova also said that Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal to accept blood transfusions was in violation of Russian health laws. Russian prosecutors have long said the organization destroys families, fosters hatred, and threatens lives, a description the group rejects.
A Jehovah's Witnesses representative, Sergei Cherepanov, said the group will appeal the court's decision in the European Court of Human Rights.
"We will do everything possible," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
The ruling has not gone into effect yet, according to Sputnik, which reported the court's decision will come into legal force when the appellate resolution is announced. If no appeal is brought forward in 30 days, the ruling will become final.
The Jehovah's Witnesses previously won a similar case against the Russian government in 2010 in the European Court of Human Rights, which overturned a decision to outlaw the religious group.
There are some 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, many of whom have decried the Russian government's efforts to shut them down. The group's activities were suspended in March.
"Considering that the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is professed by hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, [liquidation] would be a disaster for rights and freedoms in our country," said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters, in March while the case was still pending. "Without any exaggeration, it would put us back to the dark days of persecution for faith."
The Jehovah's Witness denomination was organized in the 1880s by Charles Taze Russell in the United States. According to the organization, there are over 8.3 million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide in 240 "lands," and over 119,000 congregations.
The group has a long history of persecution in Russia. The organization was banned following the 1917 Russian Revolution, and Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted under the Soviet Union. Jehovah's Witnesses first registered as a religious group in Russia in 1991 and registered again in 1999, but have faced repeated targeted efforts by Russian authorities.
The organization has faced legal pressure in the year leading up to Thursday's ruling, including a ban on distributing literature, which was deemed to be in violation of Russian anti-extremist laws.
Russia has been the subject of criticism more broadly for its treatment of minority religious groups. According to the U.S. State Department's 2015 International Religious Freedom Report, Moscow has persecuted such groups in a variety of ways.
Russia "imposed restrictions limiting the activities of Muslims and other religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Scientologists," the report stated. "Government actions included detaining, fining, and imprisoning members of minority religious groups. Police conducted raids on minority religious groups in private homes and places of worship, confiscating religious publications and property, and blocked their websites."
"Authorities applied anti‑extremism laws to revoke the registration of minority religious groups and imposed restrictions that infringed on the practices of minority religious groups and their ability to purchase land, build places of worship, and obtain restitution of properties confiscated during the Soviet era," the report explained.