Russia: Impact of the court ban of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow on members elsewhere in the country; consequences of that ban on members in Moscow and whether they can be arrested while practicing their faith
|Publisher||Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada|
|Author||Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada|
|Publication Date||17 December 2004|
|Citation / Document Symbol||RUS43223.E|
|Cite as||Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Russia: Impact of the court ban of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow on members elsewhere in the country; consequences of that ban on members in Moscow and whether they can be arrested while practicing their faith, 17 December 2004, RUS43223.E, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/42df61742.html [accessed 17 December 2014]|
Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia
The International Religious Freedom Report 2004 indicates that as at 15 September 2004, there were 386 registered Jehovah's Witnesses organizations in Russia (15 Sept. 2004, Sec. I).
Sources indicated that there were 10,000 (HRWF 28 June 2004; International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004. Sec. II) to 11,000 followers of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, out of 133,000 in all of Russia (ibid.; BBC 26 Mar. 2004; IHT 17 June 2004; HRWF 16 June 2004).
The Moscow Ban
On 26 March 2004, a Moscow court banned the operations of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia's capital (BBC 26 Mar. 2004; Toronto Star 25 Apr. 2004; HRWF 23 Aug. 2004). According to the court, the ruling was based on the court's findings that "[Jehovah's Witness] broke up families, encouraged suicide and threatened its members' health by not allowing blood transfusions" (BBC 26 Mar. 2004), as well as "'violating the equal rights of parents in the upbringing of their children, violating the Constitution and freedom of conscience ..., and inciting citizens to refuse both military and alternative service'" (International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II). The Toronto Star indicated that under the ban, it would be illegal for Jehovah's Witnesses to practice their religion in Moscow, and this ban would extend to holding religious services or group meetings in private residences, distributing religious literature, or proselytizing (Toronto Star 25 Apr. 2004).
In an unprecedented action (HRWF 21 June 2004), on 16 June 2004, the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses formally came into effect, immediately following the Moscow City Court's decision to uphold the lower court's decision (ibid. 8 Sept. 2004; Bigotry Monitor 18 June 2004; FSU Monitor 16 June 2004; IHT 17 June 2004; RFE/RL 23 June 2004; International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II). The ruling also forced Moscow's Jehovah's Witnesses "to liquidate their legal entity" (HRWF 8 Sept. 2004) and refrain from renting space for services (IHT 17 June 2004). Citing information obtained from Forum 18, Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) indicated that the law that would be used to enforce the ban would be Article 14 of the 1997 Russian law on religion, which references Article 239 of the Criminal Code, "which punishes the participation in an organisation found to have violated the person and rights of the citizen with penalties ranging from a fine of 100 times the minimum wage... [US$2,107] to imprisonment for up to two years (21 June 2004).
However, it should be noted that the ban affects Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow only (International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II), while members in the rest of Russia can "register and operate unhindered" (RFE/RL 23 June 2004). Citing a 2003-2004 Jehovah's Witness Country Report for Russia, the International Religious Freedom Report 2004 stated that while Jehovah's Witnesses could theoretically register in 399 communities throughout Russia, in practice there were obstacles to registration in some instances (15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II).
Reactions to the Moscow Ban
Because of Moscow's prominence within the country, several sources have acknowledged fears by the Jehovah's Witnesses and their legal counsel that bans could eventually spread to other areas of the country (Toronto Star 25 Apr. 2004; HRWF 28 June 2004; Christianity Today 17 June 2004; International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II), where Jehovah's Witness leaders already complain of "bureaucratic obstacles and other forms of harassment" faced by members of their church (IHT 17 June 2004), harassment which might increase as a result of the ban (HRWF 28 June 2004). According to HRWF, citing an open letter from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin,
Jehovah's Witnesses were subjected to harassment throughout Russia already before the Moscow City Court decision, often with reference to the lower court ruling against them: they were refused contracts to rent meeting halls and build places of worship, they were dismissed from work, defamation campaigns were carried out against them and their members were physically ill-treated. It is feared that the ruling will serve as a legal basis for the closure of places of worship and cancellation of rental contracts for meeting halls, thus relegating the believers to meet in private homes – reminiscent of the Soviet era when their activities were regarded [as] illegal.
Moreover, Jehovah's Witnesses' property may be confiscated and their members may be arrested like common criminals and punished for exercising their freedom of religion (ibid.).
Sources reported that people from other faiths also opposed the ban, contending that it might later be extended to their own religions (ibid. 23 Aug. 2004; Christianity Today 17 June 2004).
Regarding the Moscow ban, HRWF highlighted the concerns of the United States government, which was noted that the move infringed on freedom of religion (5 July 2004). Besides one open letter from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which expressed regret over the Moscow ban (HRWF 28 June 2004), HRWF reported on 23 August 2004 that a petition with 315,000 signatures was sent to Vladimir Putin in further protest of the ban. HRWF noted that the majority of signatories were not members of the Jehovah's Witnesses (23 Aug. 2004).
Situation of Jehovah's Witnesses Following the Moscow Ban
The International Religious Freedom Report 2004 reported an "upswing in anti-Jehovah's Witnesses activity" in the wake of the Moscow ban (15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II). For instance, it cited incidents of cancelled or almost cancelled rental contracts for Jehovah's Witnesses facilities throughout Russia following the Moscow ban, while several landlords cancelled such contracts in a misinterpretation of the ban (International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II).
On 23 July 2004, a regional congress of over 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Yekaterinburg, which had taken place every year in the city stadium since 1996, was disrupted to the point where it was eventually cancelled, according to an article published by Forum 18 (F18) on 27 July 2004. According to F18, the stadium's managers had suddenly demanded four times the original fee for the weekend rental of the stadium, men who appeared to be security guards blocked the entrance to the stadium, the stadium's power was turned off, loud music was played to disrupt speeches, and the delegates were eventually forced to leave the premises (27 July 2004). This incident was apparently preceded by the sudden cancellation, in April 2004, of a rental contract involving a Jehovah's Witness congregation in Yekaterinburg (F18 27 July 2004).
The International Religious Freedom Report 2004 indicated that, in addition to problems at conventions held in Yekaterinburg, Jehovah's Witnesses experienced "disruptions" at meetings in Moscow, Vladimir, Khabarovsk, Stavropol Kray, Nizhniy Novgorod, and Pyatigorsk by mid-September 2004 (15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II). The report also mentioned that in June 2004, Russia's Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, FSB) initially barred Jehovah's Witnesses in Sochi from meeting in a conference centre (International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II ). Also, in Vladimir, Jehovah's Witnesses could hold a conference only with the permission of a Russian Orthodox Priest, and in Krasnoyarsk, Jehovah's Witnesses were required to seek the assistance of a religious expert in order to rent a venue (ibid.).
The International Religious Freedom Report 2004 also reported the refusal of the city of Sosnovyy Bor to permit the construction of a Jehovah's Witness congregational building, following a 14 March 2004 referendum in which 90 per cent of city residents expressed their opposition to the construction (15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II).
A 10 August 2004 article published by HRWF spoke of occasional incidents of "local state obstruction of evangelism" among protestant groups in the Urals region of Russia. However, the article also indicated that in Tyumen, where a Jehovah's Witness congregation has recently been established, a local religious official claimed that there were no signs that the Jehovah's Witnesses would be banned in his city (HRWF 10 Aug. 2004).
HRWF also indicated that Russia had become home to a wave of "hysteria against the Jehovah's Witnesses," (30 Aug. 2004), with the International Religious Freedom Report 2004 noting "societal hostility toward ... non-Orthodox religions" and negative publicity campaigns and demonstrations by conservative groups against Jehovah's Witnesses, among other religions, throughout Russia, although no information corroborating such assertions could be found within time constraints (15 Sept. 2004, Sec. III).
This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.
BBC News. 26 Mar. 2004. "Moscow Bans Jehovah's Witnesses."
Bigotry Monitor [Washington, DC]. 18 June 2004. Vol. 4, No. 22. "Jehovah's Witnesses Ban Upheld." Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.
Christianity Today. 17 June 2004. "Weblog: Why Moscow's Ban on Jehovah's Witnesses Is Bad News for All Christians."
Forum 18 (F18). 27 July 2004. Geraldine Fagan. "Russia: Jehovah's Witness Congress Broken Up."
FSU Monitor. 16 June 2004. "Moscow Court Upholds Ban on Jehovah's Witnesses." Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ). (UCSJ/The Associated Press)
Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF). 8 September 2004. "Russia: Deaf Russian Citizens Take Fight for Religious Freedom to the European Court." (HRWF/Jehovah's Witness Office of Public Information)
_____. 30 August 2004. Lawrence A. Uzzell. "Russia: Autocracy or Theocracy?" (Moscow Times/HRWF)
_____. 23 August 2004. "Russia: Over 300,000 Russians Sign Petition to President Putin Protesting Moscow Ban on Jehovah's Witnesses." (HRWF/Jehovah's Witness Office of Public Information)
_____. 10 August 2004. Geraldine Fagan. "Russia: Urals Protestants Kept out of Sight?" (HRWF/F18)
_____. 5 July 2004. "Russia: International Support of Moscow Jehovah's Witnesses." (HRWF/Bureau of International Information Programs, United States Department of State)
_____. 28 June 2004. Aaron Rhodes. "Russia: Open Letter of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights to President Vladimir Putin." (HRWF)
_____. 21 June 2004. Geraldine Fagan. "Russia: Jehovah's Witness Ban Comes Into Effect." (HRWF/F18)
_____. 16 June 2004. "Russia: Moscow Appeal Court Outlaws 11,000 Jehovah's Witnesses." (HRWF/Jehovah's Witness Office for Public Information)
The International Herald Tribune (IHT) [Neuilly-sur-Seine]. 17 June 2004. Steven Lee Myers. "Russia Curtails Activities of Jehovah's Witnesses." (Dialog)
International Religious Freedom Report 2004. 15 September 2004. United States Department of State. Washington, DC.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFL/RL). 23 June 2004. Don Hill. "Russia: Jehovah's Witnesses Come under Pressure from Officials." (RFE/RL)
The Toronto Star. 25 April 2004. Michael Mainville. "Moscow to Ban Witnesses; Prosecutors Call Zealous Group a 'Totalitarian Sect' – Russia's 133,000 Believers Brace for More Restrictions." (Dialog)
Additional Sources Consulted
Unsuccessful attempts to contact a spokesperson of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Canada.
Internet Sites, including: Amnesty International (AI), European Country of Origin Information Network (ECOI), Freedom House, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Watchtower News, World News Connection (WNC).