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US Cites Russia in Freedom Report over Persecution of Religious Sect

Jehovah's Witnesses at Sunday Worship Service. Photo: Evgeny Epanchintsev (TASS)
Jehovah's Witnesses at Sunday Worship Service. Photo: Evgeny Epanchintsev (TASS)

For the second time in two years, the U.S. State Department is listing Russia as a “Country of Particular Concern” regarding religious freedom.The “CPC” designation was included in the 2018 annual report on international religious freedom – released on May 29.

“Most notably, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned outright, as was their translation of the Bible, and their followers persecuted nationwide,” the summary on Russia in the report reads.

Russia’s constitution states that the country “shall be a secular state” and “religious associations shall be separate from the State and shall be equal before the law.” However, in April 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court designated the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist organization,” and a number of raids and arrests followed.

Most recently, a 21-year-old staffer for Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny was arrested in Chelyabinsk for “extremism.” According to the Interfax news agency, police officials found church literature which they deemed “extremist,” as well as a certificate showing the suspect was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In April, several other Russian citizens around the country were arrested for alleged connections with the church. A Danish citizen was arrested in April and is currently facing a ten-year sentence for his involvement in the church.

Jehovah Witness literature in Russian. Such materials are now considered "extremist literature" by the Russian government.
Jehovah Witness literature in Russian. Such materials are now considered "extremist literature" by the Russian government.

Why does Russia consider the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be “extremist?” In April 2017, investigated the Russian Supreme Court’s rationale and found it to hinged on two claims, both of which are either false or misleading.

The main claim against the church concerns its doctrinal prohibition on blood transfusions as a medical procedure. According to the Russian authorities, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position on receiving blood transfusions is dangerous and could lead members to refuse necessary medical treatment. However, this claim was examined in the European Court of Human Rights and found to be groundless.

The European Court of Human Rights cited a case from 2000, when the Supreme Court of the Republic of Tatarstan (a federal subject within the Russian Federation) refused a prosecutor’s attempt to charge a Jehovah's Witness mother whose child had allegedly died due to her refusal of a blood transfusion. In that case, the court noted that the mother consented to the use of blood substitutes which were available at the time. That decision also noted that the church does not require believers to refuse blood transfusions, but rather allows members to make that decision on their own.

The European Court of Human Rights also noted the Jehovah’s Witness practice of carrying a medical directive card known as a “No blood card.” The small folded card informs healthcare providers that the bearer freely refuses to receive blood even in situations which might save their life, but that they do consent to blood substitutes and alternative procedures which do not require blood.

The church’s website has a page explaining its position on blood transfusions. It notes that many procedures can be carried out without the use of blood transfusions and that such alternative methods are fully approved by the church. The medical community has noted the positive aspects of so-called “bloodless surgery.”

The Russian authorities have also charged that the church “propagates exclusiveness” – a claim that addressed in its April 2017 fact check. The European court dismissed this claim by noting that “all religions preach some form of exclusivity” and claim to teach the “correct truth.”

The Jehovah’s Witness church is included in the Russian Justice Ministry’s list of banned extremist organizations, alongside neo-Nazi and radical Islamist groups. The Russian authorities regard the group’s literature, and even its version of the Bible, as extremist. The State Department report urges the Russian government to amend its law on extremism so that it conforms to international human rights standards, “such as adding criteria on the advocacy or use of violence.”