The Russian Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sect, are an “extremist” group and ordered their Russian property turned over to the government.
Supreme Court Judge Yuri Ivanenko declared the denomination’s Administrative Center, its head office in Russia, an “extremist organization” and, on that basis, ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses group in Russia “dissolved” and its activities banned.
Russia’s Justice Ministry had sought the order, which the group said it will appeal.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, best known worldwide for their door-to-door preaching and distribution of religious literature, has 175,000 adherents and 395 branches in Russia.
It registered in Russia as a religious organization in 1991 and again in 1999. But Russian authorities repeatedly targeted the group in a wide-ranging crackdown on religious freedom.
In 2006, Russia changed its definition of extremism, eliminating the requirement for violence or hatred, but saying the criteria included “incitement of … religious discord.”
Russia blocked the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ international website two years ago over alleged extremism, and the group’s Bibles were banned last year.
Russian authorities had also placed several of the group’s publications on a list of banned extremist literature. Prosecutors claimed that the organization destroys families, foments hatred and threatens lives, which Jehovah’s Witnesses says is a false characterization.
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a previous Russian judgment against the organization was “unlawful.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses has more than 8 million adherents worldwide, but the group stands apart from key aspects of Christian doctrine as practiced by Roman Catholics and numerous Protestant denominations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not observe Christmas, Easter, birthdays and other holidays, which they consider to have pagan origins that are not compatible with Christianity. They also reject military service and blood transfusions.
Human Rights Watch condemned the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling against Jehovah’s Witnesses in a statement Thursday.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, the New York-based group’s deputy Europe and Central Asia director. “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are now given the heartrending choice of either abandoning their faith or facing punishment for practicing it.”