03/29/2021 Russia (International Christian Concern) – Crackdowns on religious freedom have intensified in Russia in 2021, with the arrest last week of a 30-year-old Jehovah’s Witness in the city of Kerch in the Russian occupied region of Crimea, Ukraine. The announcement by Russia’s Investigative Committee came two days after prosecutors in the Crimean city of Sevastopol asked a court to sentence another Jehovah’s Witness to seven years in prison on a charge of “organizing the activities of an extremist group.” Last week, prosecutors in the Russian city of Smolensk also asked a court to sentence three adherents of the same group to up to nine years in prison. Last month, a court in Abakhan, in the Siberian region of Khakassia, sentenced a man and his mother to six years and two years respectively for taking part in the activities of a banned organization.
Since 2017, Jehovah’s Witness has been labeled an extremist organization by the Russian Supreme Court and has been banned within territories under Russian jurisdiction. Since the ban, Russian law enforcement has raided the homes of more that 1,300 adherents and over 400 have been either charged or convicted of extremism. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimates that between 5,000 to 10,000 of its members have fled Russia since the ban came into effect.
The U.S. State Department condemned the crackdown early last month, and groups within Russia have defended the “the inalienable right” of freedom of religion for the outlawed group. In an open letter published earlier this month, the community of Russian Old Believers, an Orthodox Christian group that severed from the mainline Russian Orthodox Church in 1666, stated that “freedom of religion is one of the inalienable rights of the person, which humanity has conquered over the course of many centuries.” The letter goes on to state that although the Old Believers do not share the doctrine and ideas of the religious association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the right to free profession cannot be taken away.
The Old Believers have also cautioned the Russian government, saying that in their experiences with persecution from the Tsarist and Bolshevik regimes, they know that repressions against those who believe differently lead to the growth of various tensions in society and divisions that can only be avoided “if the authorities strictly adhere to the principle of freedom of conscience and religious confession.”
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