The administrative centre of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Solnechnoye, St Petersburg, Russia. The Supreme Court has ordered the disbanding of the group, calling it to hand over all its assets and property to the Russian government.

Russia’s Supreme Court yesterday (17 July) rejected an appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses against a ruling in April which declared it to be “extremist” and has ordered the disbanding of the group on Russian territory.

“The justice ministry had argued that the group distributed pamphlets which incited hatred against other groups,” writes the BBC.

As a result of the ruling, the Russian government will take over all of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ assets and property throughout the country. The group has approximately 175,000 members in Russia.

Spokesman Yaroslav Sivulsky said that “religious freedom in Russia is over”.

Earlier this month operations at its headquarters in neighbouring Kazakhstan were also suspended, and the group now fears that country’s government is going down the same path as Russia.

‘A country of particular concern’

Chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Daniel Mark, in a press release said that “the Supreme Court’s [in Russia] decision sadly reflects the government’s continued equating of peaceful religious freedom practice to extremism. The Witnesses are not an extremist group, and should be able to practise their faith openly and freely and without government repression.”

USCIRF recommended in 2017, for the first time ever, that Russia be designated a “country of particular concern” (or CPC) for “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.

In July last year Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill referred to by one Christian organisation as an “anti-missionary bill”, known more commonly as the “Yarovaya” law. The new law was formally introduced as an “anti-terrorism” measure, allowing the government to monitor extremist groups.

An American missionary, Don Ossewaarde, who was one of the first convicted under the law, took his case to the Supreme Court and in March this year to the European Court of Human Rights. The US Baptist preacher argues his right to religious freedom has been violated.

Ossewaarde is not the only one who has been targeted since the law came into effect, as World Watch Monitor reported in October last year.