Jehovah’s Witnesses Face Legalized Persecution in Russia


Sophia Lauer, Senior Editor

Last Wednesday, February 6th, a Russian court found a Danish Jehovah’s Witness man guilty of conspiring with a banned religious extremist group and sentenced him to six years in prison, a move facing criticism as a form of religious persecution.

Dennis Christiansen, a 46-year-old construction worker, was arrested in May 2017 at a prayer meeting in Oryol (200 miles south of Moscow) for being a Jehovah’s Witness, a violation of a year-old law outlawing Jehovah’s Witness practices in the region.

The Russian Supreme Court ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group and ordered Jehovah’s Witnesses to disband nationwide. Christiansen’s arrest was the first of dozens of arrests on this new charge of religious extremism among Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This Wednesday, reports BBC, Christiansen was found guilty after a long trial on the charges he was arrested for in 2017. Reuters reports Christiansen pleaded innocent, citing the clause of the Russian constitution which ensures freedom of religion. Fearing a dangerous and illegal verdict, Anton Bogdanov, Christiansen’s lawyer, plans on appealing the verdict.

Denmark’s Foreign Minister, Anders Samuelsen, implored Moscow to respect religious freedoms and criticized its classification of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a terrorist group.

The Russian Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin, and has for years been characterizing the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a dangerous foreign sect which erodes traditional government and secular institutions.

Having over 8 million followers worldwide, including 170,000 in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a US-headquartered Christian denomination known for their door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and refusal of military service. They believe the end of the world is coming very soon, and only “the obedient” will survive to occupy the Kingdom of God which is to follow.

Christiansen has an established life in Russia, where he has lived since 2000 with his wife, a fellow Russian Jehovah’s Witness. Reuters reports he speaks Russian fluently and is a fan of Russian culture.

Since Christiansen’s arrest, over 100 criminal cases have been opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses are on or awaiting trial, and about as many on house arrest. Some Jehovah’s Witness publications have been added to the national list of banned literature.

“In essence we have returned to Soviet times,” said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose own father was jailed for seven years in 1959 for printing Bible literature. “It’s sad that in the 21st century people are being jailed for holding what the authorities believe to be the wrong beliefs.”