(RNS) — Kyrgyzstan is expected to ban 13 Jehovah’s Witnesses publications on Thursday (Dec. 2) for extremism, marking the first time the country has taken an official stance against the religious group since the former Soviet republic granted the church national registration in 1998.
Jarrod Lopes, spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the move echoes the tactics employed against the group in Russia, Kyrgyzstan’s historic ally. According to Lopes, the Russian government, which has put several dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses on trial for proselytizing, often takes a first step of declaring any religious group’s literature as extremist before declaring group members extremist themselves.
“Kyrgyzstan is simply following Russia’s model of repression — ban the Witnesses’ literature with the ultimate goal of banning their organization,” said Lopes, who noted that Russia has more than 60 cases pending at the European Court of Human Rights concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“We hope that the court will hold Russia accountable for violating international human rights law, putting other lands on notice that they will also face consequences if they continue to persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for peacefully practicing their faith,” Lopes said.
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A criminal case initiated in 2019 accuses the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kyrgyzstan of inciting “racial, ethnic, national, religious or interregional hatred” and resulted in a March 2021 raid of the Witnesses’ national center in Bishkek, the country’s capital. The raid led authorities to file a civil claim asking for the publications to be banned. The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have any additional info on the status of the criminal case, but it has not gone to trial yet.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have appealed to Kyrgyzstan’s president in two letters advocating for the right to peacefully practice their beliefs.
“The international community has repeatedly condemned Russia in the strongest terms for such violations of religious freedom and fundamental human rights. Therefore, we respectfully ask that your esteemed government urgently direct that the criminal case be terminated and the court application be removed,” Jehovah’s Witnesses wrote in a Nov. 24 letter.
In July, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security characterized Jehovah’s Witnesses as “totalitarian in nature” and asked the the prosecutor general to ban the group’s materials and consider a possible ban on the group’s activity.
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“Its practices and precepts contravene the basic provisions of the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic and legal norms by forcing its members to renounce personal opinions and beliefs, to limit their freedom, to make regular payments as well as to forfeit material assets for their community,” the letter said.
Today, there are more than 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kyrgyzstan, where the group has been present since the 1950s. The group’s publications have been available in the Kyrgyz language since 1994, and the faith’s national administrative office was built in 2004. Lopes said that if the publications are banned Thursday, raids and imprisonments will likely follow.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently banned in Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.