SEPTEMBER 22, 2016
This is Part 1 of a three-part series based on exclusive interviews with noted scholars of religion, politics, and sociology, as well as experts in Soviet and post-Soviet studies.
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—The Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation is attempting to declare Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists.” If the court rules in favor of the prosecution, it could lead to the Witnesses’ national legal entity being liquidated, effectively banning their activity throughout the federation. The Witnesses have appealed the charges against them and court proceedings are expected to resume on September 23, 2016.
The case against the Witnesses is based on Russia’s anti-extremism law, which scholars are calling “discriminatory,” “deeply flawed,” and “patently absurd.”
“The kinds of extremism that should be combatted are those that endanger the physical lives of persons,” says Dr. Derek H. Davis, former director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. “Combatting anything else is itself a form of extremism.”
The reason for such extreme action against a nonviolent religious group like the Witnesses is explained by Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara: “The curtailment of religious freedom in the name of combatting extremism is a regrettable ploy.” Additionally, explains Dr. Jim Beckford, fellow of the British Academy, “elements within the Russian Orthodox Church connive with the forces of order to promote their own interests and to suppress any perceived competition.”
Experts explain that the problem is not only the abuse of the law but also that the law’s framework accommodates the abuse. According to the Moscow-based SOVA Center for human rights: “As we have repeatedly stated, the anti-extremist legislation, with its vague wording, makes a perfect instrument for prosecution of political opponents or other groups that stand out from the mainstream.”
“Russian citizens should be troubled by the State’s decision to discriminate against Witnesses,” reasons Dr. Emily B. Baran, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European history at Middle Tennessee State University, “because it suggests that the State is prepared to revoke equal rights for other groups, and to take similar measures against other minority communities.”
International: David A. Semonian, Office of Public Information, 1-718-560-5000
Russia: Yaroslav Sivulskiy, 7-812-702-2691