The upholding of a Russian ban on Jehovah's Witnesses has prompted criticism from the State Department and a federal religious freedom watchdog.
The Russian Justice Ministry labeled the Witnesses an "extremist" group in April, banning the organization and membership therein. This Monday the Russian Supreme Court sided with the Russian Justice Ministry over the Witnesses. Both the original ban, as well as the new ruling, have prompted sharp rebuke from U.S. officials.
The State Department condemned the Court's decision, saying it was "the latest in a disturbing trend of persecution of religious minorities in Russia." It called on Russia to lift the ban and release any unjustly detained religious minorities.
"We further urge Russia to respect the right of all to exercise the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief. All religious minorities should be able to enjoy freedom of religion and assembly without interference, as guaranteed by the Russian Federation’s constitution," a State Department spokeswoman said.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal committee responsible for making policy recommendations on international religious freedom to the president and Congress, also denounced the ban.
"The Supreme Court’s decision sadly reflects the government’s continued equating of peaceful religious freedom practice to extremism. The Witnesses are not an extremist group, and should be able to practice their faith openly and freely and without government repression," said USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark.
USCIRF has designated Russia a "country of particular concern" for "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom." Other countries with that designation include Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.
The condemnations from the United States are good news for the Witnesses, according to Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses. He was present at the court hearing, and said that it attracted representatives from 10 or 15 countries, as well as the European Union.
"It’s very good, because otherwise Russia thought that it will not be noticed by anybody," he told the Free Beacon. "It is very important that international bodies and countries condemn what was going on with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Maybe it will have some effect on further actions."
Because Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have been declared an "extremist" group, worshiping as a Witness is illegal, and official Witness property is subject to government seizure.
"The situation is very bad," Sivulsky said.
"Some lost their jobs … Some children at school were mistreated by principals," he said. "We have a few cases where our meeting halls were burned, and one private house was burned."
Additionally, at least one non-Russian Witness has been detained by the government. Dennis Christensen, a Danish national, was arrested in April, just after the ban was put in place, as part of a police raid on a Witness service. According to Sivulsky, Christensen may see his detention extended for another several months after this most recent ruling.
The State Department has previously documented persecution of religious minorities in Russia as part of its 2015 International Religious Freedom Report.
"Government actions included detaining, fining, and imprisoning members of minority religious groups," the report said. "Police conducted raids on minority religious groups in private homes and places of worship, confiscating religious publications and property, and blocked their websites."
This persecution is a familiar story to Sivulsky.
"It reminds me of Soviet times, when my family was sent to Siberia and my father was imprisoned for seven years merely for practicing his faith and reading the Bible with his family," he said. "Again, he can be criminally accused now, after this decision. It’s kind of a sad story for my family personally."
The Jehovah's Witness denomination was organized in the 1880s in the United States. There are over 8.3 million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide, with about 170,000 of those in Russia.