25 July 2017, The Tablet
Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have tabled an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg after their country's Supreme Court upheld a ban on all their "illegal activities".
"The Supreme Court has violated not just the norms of Russian legislation, but also international norms - this is why we are appealing", Viktor Zhenkov, a lawyer for the Witnesses' Administrative Centre, told Russia's Interfax news agency. "The provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights were clearly breached in this case, since not a single person has decided to engage in illegal activities or been affected by them".
The lawyer was speaking after the Court's rejection of an appeal against its April judgment, branding the Jehovah's Witnesses an "extremist organisation" and authorising seizure of their properties across Russia. Meanwhile, another legal representative said the ban had been "inexplicable and dangerous for ordinary believers", and had already led to several detentions, as well as job dismissals and the torching of private homes.
"Everyone knows the Jehovah's Witnesses aren't extremists - so why have law enforcement structures suddenly acted this way towards them?" said Yaroslav Sivulsky. "Some experts says we compete with the Orthodox church. But we only do what Jesus said: go and spread the word. No civilised country has any complaints against our organisation".
Russian police began seizing buildings and other places of worship after the outlawing of the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose 395 branches have around 175,000 members nationwide. The move was condemned by human rights groups and the US, British and German governments, as well as by Russia's small Catholic Church, whose spokesman, Mgr Igor Kovalevsky, said there were "strong misgivings" Catholics could now also face "new acts of discrimination and limits to freedom of belief".
However, it was welcomed by Russia's predominant Orthodox church, whose foreign relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, described the Witnesses in a statement as a "totalitarian, harmful sect" propagating "false teachings", whose members "do not believe in Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, or recognise the doctrine of the Trinity".
The Witnesses' latest appeal follows European Union and US announcements extending economic sanctions against Russia, which responded by prolonging its own food trade counter-embargo against the West until the end of 2018. In a TV interview last week, Metropolitan Hilarion said he believed the mutual sanctions, imposed over Russia's 2014 intervention in Ukraine, had assisted his country's industry and agriculture by allowing it to develop its "enormous natural, human and material resources".
On Monday, Interfax reported that 79 per cent of Russian had supported the ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses in a new survey by Moscow's Levada Centre, although most admitted knowing knew little if anything about the organisation.
PICTURE: An attendee pictured at an International Convention of Jehovah's Witnesses held in Melbourne in 2014. Over 70,000 delegates from 60 countries attended the conference.