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Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia intensifies and targets children

A house where Jehovah's Witness prayed in Zheshart, in northwest Russia, was destroyed by arson. The Witnesses say a Molotov cocktail was found at the site. Photo courtesy of Jehovah's Witnesses

A house where Jehovah’s Witnesses prayed in Zheshart, in northwest Russia, was destroyed by arson. The Witnesses say a Molotov cocktail was found at the site. Photo courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

(RNS) Teachers have humiliated Jehovah’s Witness children in front of their classmates. Arsonists have burned Witnesses’ homes. Security forces have raided their meeting halls.

Since the Russian Supreme Court on April 20 declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group, its members have faced increasing harassment from both authorities and suspicious neighbors.

And last week, for the first time since the decision, a Jehovah’s Witness has been not only detained by police, but jailed by a judge.

“He read the Bible. That’s why he was arrested,” said Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg.


READ: Russian court bans ‘extremist’ Jehovah’s Witnesses


For about a month the Witnesses had not felt the full force of the court decision, which calls for the liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization — not only its Russian headquarters in St. Petersburg, but the 400 or so Kingdom Halls where more than 100,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses across the nation meet.

Yet worship had continued at many of these Kingdom Halls.

Within the past few weeks, however, intensifying persecution has prompted most congregations to move group worship to private homes, Sivulskiy said.

Most worrisome to many Witnesses are the recent instances in which schoolteachers, principals and police have turned on children.

“Officials who were already minded to take action against Jehovah’s Witnesses are now emboldened, and ordinary people who have long disliked them are also emboldened,” said Felix Corley, an Oslo-based religious rights activist who edits the Forum 18 News Service, which tracks abuses in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Sivulskiy, speaking from St. Petersburg, tells the story of an 8-year-old girl recently forced by her school principal to sing a patriotic song at school in front of her classmates.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, founded in Pittsburgh in the late 19th century, see themselves as representatives of God’s kingdom and remain neutral in politics. They pay taxes but do not recite patriotic pledges, sing nationalistic songs or join the military.

Witnesses also report an incident, near Moscow, of another 8-year-old girl, whose parents were brought to her school after she had sung a Jehovah’s Witness song and talked about God to classmates. In the presence of the school’s psychologist and director of security, the principal handed the parents a document informing them that if this behavior continued, the school would no longer educate the girl.

In Bezvodnoye, northeast of Moscow, two sixth-grade girls were humiliated by a music teacher who defended her actions by noting that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “banned.” She reportedly said to the girls’ mother: “You are now extremists and there will be no mercy.”

The encounter with the music teacher is one of 50 detailed in a May 25 report the Witnesses — whose world headquarters are outside New York — released on harassment against their co-religionists in Russia.

The report also describes:

  • Physical attacks, including one in Belgorod, just north of the Ukrainian border, where the perpetrator shouted “you have been banned” and repeatedly punched a Witness in the head, face and upper body.
  • Arson, including an incident in Zheshart, in the northwest, where a building used for religious services was destroyed and a Molotov cocktail was found at the scene. Another attack occurred in Lustino, near Moscow, where the home of a Witness family burned to the ground.
  • Disruption of religious services, such as one that took place in a private home in Pavlovskiy Posad, 42 miles from Moscow. Police officers in plainclothes told Witnesses that the court decision meant they could no longer gather and worship.

Danish citizen Dennis Christensen was detained in Oryol, Russia, after a Jehovah’s Witness service was raided. Photo courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

On May 25, Dennis Christensen was worshipping in another private home — in the city of Oryol, about 185 miles south of Moscow — when 15 armed agents of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, stormed the house and arrested all the men.

The men spent the night in jail and were released in the morning — except for Christensen, according to accounts from the Witnesses. The judge reportedly considered him a flight risk because of his Danish citizenship. Christensen’s alleged crime: membership in an extremist group. He faces six to 10 years in prison.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, with about 8 million followers worldwide, are far from the only religious group harassed in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has aligned the government with the formerly communist country’s dominant religion: Russian Orthodoxy.

Hare Krishna, Muslims, members of Falun Gong, atheists and evangelical Christians have also suffered. But only the Witnesses have been officially labeled extremists. They sit on a list of groups that includes the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.

An “extremist” group in Russia can be defined as one that preaches that its path is the only one that can lead to salvation. Only the Russian Orthodox Church and a select few others may legally make that claim.

Corley said the Jehovah’s Witnesses will not abandon their faith in the face of increasing persecution and will continue to gather to worship, discuss Scripture and educate their children in their beliefs.

“It will then become a head-to-head between the government and community members as to who’s going to hold out the longest,” he said.

The Supreme Court will hear an appeal against the ban ruling on July 17.

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

28 Comments

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  • Though I dispute specific tenets of JW doctrine which I believe are heretical in nature, the persecution of the sect for their desire to practice their faith quietly and without reference to politics is abhorrent to me. As non-political pacifists they are a threat to no one, except in the metaphysical sense that they are in error in their doctrines, and that threat is one confronted by everyone, everyday, everywhere in the world, as function of a variety of spiritual views. Each person who receives such teaching must have the responsibility and discernment to investigate and decide for themselves whether such teaching conforms faithfully to the bible. There is no excuse or justice for and in the actions of the Russian state.

  • Read about half way through the propaganda. Christians do not burn other’s homes. Christian lead those in opposition to their Lord to Him, so they can also share in the blessings..

  • On another Russian religious note, Metropolitan Kirill just announced that gay marriage is just like Nazism. The things yo u can say if you wear beard AND a funny hat!!!!

    Here are some facts about his hole-iness, according to several blogs.

    Guess who makes millions (2012 $5M) importing cigarettes & alcohol tax free? All by the grace of Putin.

    In 1991, the year the Soviet Union fell apart, he earned the title of Mitropolit. The new era of capitalism brought new achievements to Mitropolit Kirill’s life. In 1996, Kirill became a board member of bank “Peresvet” that is responsible for servicing the financial interests of the Russian Orthodox Church. The 1996 September issue (#34) of the Moscow News reports that Kirill, now for two years, had been organizing imports of highly taxable products, mostly tobacco, under the tax-exempt non-profit banner of the Orthodox Church. The claims were supported by other respectable news sources, including the Moskovsky Komsomolets.

    The soon-to-be Patriarch confirmed the import of the highly unchristian products. By 1997, Kirill admitted the import of alcohol and tobacco, but claimed that the Russian Orthodox Church could not refuse the “humanitarian help.” The Russian Orthodox Church and Kirill’s private foundation “Nika” were not-for-profit organizations, and in 1996 alone they imported eight billion cigarettes to Russia. Kirill’s “church” business took off like a snowball, as the legal competitors could not compete with his low prices for tobacco and alcohol. The importers were naturally pushed off the market as they could not match Kirill’s prices after paying the necessary government dues.

    He,s quite the charmer. Russia first!

  • Bang on, Edward.

    The Mormons have a useful concept, which I’m pretty sure they don’t honor in the breach. But at least it’s there.

    It’s called “agency”.

  • First JW’s are not evangelicals.
    Second do we really expect Russia to treat dissidents otherwise?
    Third even tho JWs are not theologically orthodox, Christians can still pray for them.

  • I personally do not like the effect the being part of the JW movement does to people and families, they have a human right to exist,

  • In what way? Certainly it’s going to be sympathetic toward a religious group facing persecution.

  • Few Churches in the US are more authoritarian then JW. Hindu’s ofcourse they are the most educated lot here for sure. Assebmblies of God. (Elvis has not left the Building). Voter turn out even in rigged elections however quiet JW maybe has to be factored. Sect or church they are leftist. Fascism not. Bold fonts are still a part AG in this country. That kind of Blatant symbolism however unimportant is likely in places that went for Trump

  • You’re correct. Christians should not do those things. I think that’s part of the point of the article. People are burning other peoples homes and places of worship in the name of Christianity. It is wrong and the government along with those “Christians” that are following it are the ones that are misguided.

  • Jehovah Witnesses stood up to the Nazis and were persecuted. They are a stark reminder that the secular can not command total obedience. Obedience is not unconditional to secular authority. It is too bad that believers have become blinded by political platforms and have a litmus to test of the the true believer which also defines the faith along secular lines of ideology.

  • JW’s are small e evangelicals, even if they are not big E Evangelicals. That label is used for so many groups of people that it has become practically meaningless. They are evangelical in the sense that they spread their version of the good news.
    They had approximately 20 years of relatively benign treatment from the Russian government. I am sure they are thankful for those years.

  • Thanks for your comment, but I was stating that Christians do no do that. People who are Christian in name only, perhaps, or the political leaning of the author would wish that, but no, a Christian who follows Jesus, would not do that.
    The Bible does not teach to burn heretic’s homes.

  • Evangelicals are normally considered to be those churches descended from the Evangelical revivals of the 18th&19th centuries. But as you said the term has become practically meaningless.

  • As a former Jehovah’s witness, I can understand why some of these extreme measures are needed to encourage jws to follow the law disbanding their cult. They’re threatened by JW HQ in NYC with losing not only their family and friends if they don’t keep practicing, but also made to believe that God will deny them (ending all hope of an afterlife).

    The religion does need to be stopped. 100% mind control cult. I was raised in it so I know better than anyone. But this burning down of homes and beating of members will only serve to embolden witnesses. They view themselves as martyrs and feed on the abuse.

  • It’s funny. I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe for a moment that religious freedom, whether I agree with all of the religious cults or not– and as far as I am concerned, cults is the appropriate word for a good deal of what passes for religion– is a bad thing. So here, once again, I am defending freedom of religion.

    Everything you said about the JW’s pretty much applies to all conservative religion, as far as I can tell. Just because you’re angry about your past treatment– and I also believe you have every right to be– does not justify that restriction on freedom of religion, and certainly doesn’t justify what Russia is doing.

    It’s the same old fascism it always was. LEt’s just be honest about it. the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church wants its gold and power back, and Putin and The ROC see each other as useful tools in their never ending quest for power, money, and dominion.

    1900 years of that sort of thinking led to this: Christian antisemitism justified as sincere religious belief, resulting in the eventual deaths of 6 million Jews, some of whom were my relatives.

  • It’s not just secular authority. The bloodstained hands of the Russian Orthodox Church are also behind this.

  • And this doesn’t even begin to touch the iceberg that is the spiritual and emotional abuse that is shunning from not only entire families but every friend one has ever been allowed to have from birth. Shunned often only because they disagree with teaching or because they no longer wish to be a member. This practice has already been decided to be against human rights by other counties. Not just Russia. Australia’s royal commission is getting on their case about hiding child abusers among their ranks and refusing to protect children by making members aware. So many things wrong with this group. They regularly ruin lives. Everyday.

  • We’re in agreement on much of this, but it doesn’t sound like you are getting my point.

    If there is criminal behavior, such as hiding child abusers– the RCC is just as guilty of this– that criminal behavior should be found and prosecuted.

    But persecuting religion itself is just fascism, whether justified as “sincere religious belief”, “sincere fascist belief”, or anything else. Gay people are subject to the same persecution in a great many countries where conservative religious belief is fornicating with the government. Nigeria, Indonesia, Russia, Chechnya, Malaysia, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina. It’s a great way of consolidating power at the expense of people who are not bothering anyone, but are hated anyway.

    Unfortunately, the idiots that allow it because it is happening to people they despise are simply giving their own government even more power over themselves. It’s very much like the idiots who voted for 2Rump because he promised a lot of things that he could not and would not deliver, but would give them power over others.

    It’s very much like people voting for the “Leopards Eat People’s faces” party, but then whine “But I never thought that the leopards would eat my face!”

  • You don’t believe a word you’re saying . As our manufacturer Jehovah God has the right to tell us what we can and cannot put in our vehicles, as long as we put the item listed in our vehicles what the manual ( the Bible ) say our vehicles will run properly , we might need a oil change or we may even get a flat tire , but we still need to refer to that manual as needed . Try serving God instead of men because we’re all from dust and we’re all imperfect. Jehovah God is love and I know there ere times you regret not being with the friends , go to J W .org and check out the new convention releases and Jehovah loves you and is awaiting your return

  • You don’t believe a word you’re saying . As our manufacturer Jehovah God is the personification of love .He has the right to tell us what to put in our “vehicles ” in order to keep our ‘vehicle ” running properly when we use all the required items needed to make our vehicles run properly not to say you might need an oil change you might get a flat tire along the way but in the long run your vehicle will have a more productive life if they refer to the owners manual (the Bible) when needed

  • I am sad to see so many people inventing lies and slanders about Jehovah’s Witnesses. But, Jesus himself said that would be expected.
    John 15:19: “If you were part of the world, the world would be fond of what is its own. Now because you are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you.”
    Exclusive Interviews​—International Experts Discredit Russia’s “Expert Analysis” in Identifying “Extremism”: https://www.jw.org/en/news/releases/by-region/russia/expert-analysis-identifying-extremism-discredited-interviews/

  • All i hear is fear. You’re a slave. “if I do this i will live. If I do that i will die.” Don’t say you are not… You’re a slave. You prostitute yourself on a street and hand your wages to your owner. A beaten woman trying to please 8 men who promise a reward. Your mind is valueless. You are so used. Just a Commodity.

  • You hear FEAR? Let’s consider. JW’s died in Hitler’s concentration camps because they would not ‘worship’ Hitler over Jehovah. Rwandan’s hid Tutsi’s and vice versa while a million people belonging to the MAJOR religions slaughtered each other. Ditto in Bosnia. Ditto in N. Ireland and countless other places. Were the only unsegregated religion in the deep south when that was extremely unpopular viewpoint? From Jah’s standpoint, its all one and the same. Rev 17:17. There are only two sides in this contest. When is the last time you personally stood your ground against a bully? How about the fact that Putin is even RIGHT NOW trying to force JW’s into his military, and they will not DO IT. No Russian JW will point a gun at the heads of your children. Your welcome. Fear my ass.

  • Hardly the first offense of ‘Christians’ burning other Christians. Or convincing themselves that doing unscriptural deeds for the benefit of ‘Christians, as a whole, have God’s backing and/or approval. Hitler genuinely believed that his charted course was ‘for the common good’. This is exactly why Jesus stated what he did at Matt 7:21-23

  • incredibly misguided statements. First of all, serving Jehovah out of fear of ‘losing family and friends if they don’t keep practicing’ is a bunch of horse manure. That kind of faith practicing (fear of losing family & friends) will wither and die when tested by some genuine persecution. According to Jesus own words, when he was asked what was the most important in life to do was, he simply stated, to ‘Love your God Jehovah with your whole heart, whole mind, whole soul’, and 2nd love your neighbor as yourself. What is incredibly sad to me, having experienced it first hand, is how people change over time, from the loving and kind people that they once were as JW’s, and how they become so haughty, sarcastic, disrespectful, and distainful., also slanderous. Its unreal.

  • The irony, is that in view of future events that are about to unfold, (at least according to whats written in Revelations) is that God will call to mind all of the hypocrisy, getting into bed with world leaders, and not pointing people to the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught us to pray for to end human suffering worldwide (the only leader who actually demonstrated that he HAD the power to deliver that…talk about a brilliant campaign! A leader that actually proved that they COULD succeed where all of these fly by night governments couldn’t) , and will face destruction at the hands of those very political leaders they are in bed with today and yet they don’t believe that this could POSSIBLY happen to THEM!!. Rev. 17: 15-18. Don’t these peeps actually READ their bibles? Act 5:39 Matt 7:38-39

  • There isn’t a single JW that I know to date that does not abhor child abuse. It is an incredibly insidious crime, and one that by its very nature, generally takes place away from view. Until the kingdom we pray for is established ‘on earth’ as it is in heaven, men are limited in their abilities to execute perfect law. Only Jesus/Jehovah can read hearts. Actually, its only Jesus/Jehovah, and the kingdom we pray for that can heal our hearts fully from the garbage we experience on this planet today. 1) Jehovah’s Witnesses did not INVENT the practice of shunning. Jehovah recorded these instructions in the bible, as a means of helping to keep our congregations clean and safe, to the extent that that’s possible in THIS system. I’ve watched the Austrailia’s royal commission investigation in its entirety. The brother that came to these proceedings was hardly there stating that we were a ‘perfect’ organization, but stated several times that we follow the laws of the lands in which we live because they vary. The truth is, that if men could read hearts now, what need would there be to pray for a perfect kingdom to ‘come’? I found myself feeling outraged too (who wouldn’t?) at the thought of someone suffering this horrendous crime, and especially if pleas for help went unanswered. Wow. But I also began to understand just how complex these issues can actually be. So I am going to state emphatically right here and now what I know from the inside… that any person, JW or not, is fully free to seek help from the law, police, etc. if they were suffering at the hands of a child predator. Acts 20:29. That is a fact. I would challenge anyone that states differently.

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