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Jehovah's Witnesses wait for Russian court ruling

By Eli Francovich • Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 10:50 PM

(UPDATED at 12:21 a.m. Thursday, April 20) The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation on Wednesday held the fifth day of hearings on a claim from the Ministry of Justice to liquidate the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The aggressive actions by Russian authorities against the Witnesses over the past 10 years were summarized as the Court reviewed 43 volumes of documents submitted as case materials. The court reviewed 43 volumes of documents submitted as case materials.

During the review, the attorneys representing the Ministry of Justice could not specify a legal basis for targeting the Administrative Center for liquidation or any extremist action on the part of either the Administrative Center or any Local Religious Organizations (LROs) used by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, according to a news release posted on the religion’s official website, jw.org.

Yury Toporov, one of the attorneys for the Administrative Center, noted to the court that a number of case materials include awards and letters of appreciation received by the Administrative Center from the government, documenting that the Administrative Center was previously recognized by authorities for positive contributions to society for several years.

It was also noted that the LROs make similar positive contributions in their communities.

Additionally, several volumes of case materials document that the Ministry of Justice has been inspecting LROs used by Witnesses in Russia since 2008 but did not find any extremist activity in the LROs, a point acknowledged by attorneys for the Ministry of Justice.

The court also allowed attorneys for the Administrative Center to include new evidence of raids on the religious services of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In March and April, law enforcement agencies disrupted these religious services and threatened those in attendance with criminal charges.

The court is expected to resume the hearing at 2 p.m. today.

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(UPDATED at 10:58 p.m. Thursday, April 13) With a large number of observers in attendance, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation continued into its fourth day of hearings, considering a claim from the Ministry of Justice to liquidate the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.

The court announced a recess late in the afternoon, and the hearing will resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday, April 19.

Attorneys for Jehovah’s Witnesses opened with arguments in defense of the Administrative Center, followed by a cross-examination from attorneys representing the Ministry of Justice.

Reacting to evidence presented by the defense, the judge requested the Ministry of Justice to identify the specific legal basis for liquidating Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Administrative Center. The attorneys for the Ministry of Justice were unable to provide a response to the judge’s request and other related questions, according to a news release posted at jw.org. The day’s proceedings concluded after hearing testimony from witnesses for both parties.

Next week, the court is expected to begin their review of the case materials.

Last Friday, the court heard more testimony and considered evidence before recessing until Wednesday. The break in the proceedings allowed Jehovah’s Witnesses to gather Tuesday night for their annual Memorial of Jesus’ death.

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(UPDATED at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6) The Russian Federation Supreme Court hearing on Thursday began with the Ministry of Justice arguing that it is necessary to ban all the legal entities of Jehovah’s Witnesses because lower court decisions have concluded that some engaged in extremist activity.

The judge then asked the representative of the Ministry of Justice how the actions of the eight impugned entities can justify action against the Administrative Center and all 395 entities in Russia.

The judge also asked how liquidating all the entities would affect the worship of the Witnesses, and he repeatedly asked how the Witnesses are a threat to public order and safety.

Lawyers for the defense also posed questions that exposed the intent of the Ministry of Justice to ban the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not merely to liquidate their legal entities.

The hearing will reconvene at 10 a.m. Friday.

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(ORIGINAL STORY) The Russian government is continuing its attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation began consideration of a claim from the Ministry of Justice to liquidate the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, spending seven hours in session.

The hearing continued Thursday with motions and oral arguments before the court announced a recess just after 5 p.m. local time. The court will reconvene at 10 a.m. Friday.

Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a case with the Supreme Court to declare the administrative center for Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist organization on March 15.

The Witnesses filed a counterclaim with the court on March 30 against the Ministry of Justice.

On Wednesday, however, the counterclaim was dismissed by the court prior to the recess. The court also refused to allow experts to testify about the basis for the claim of the Ministry of Justice and refused to allow those who witnessed the falsification of evidence against local religious organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to testify.

The high-profile nature of the case is sparking coverage by international news outlets, including an article in Time magazine posted online on Tuesday (“Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah’s Witness Worship”) and a front-page article in the print edition of The New York Times (“Pacifist, Christian and Threatened by Russian Ban as ‘Extremist’”) on Wednesday.

“We certainly hope that Russia’s Supreme Court will uphold the rights of our fellow believers in Russia to freely carry out their peaceful worship,” adds David A. Semonian, a spokesman at the Witnesses’ world headquarters in New York. “Millions of people around the world will be watching carefully to see how the case progresses and if Russia acts to protect its own law-abiding citizens who are Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Mark Sanderson, who is a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses and who was present at the hearing, stated: “It is disconcerting that the Supreme Court dismissed or denied most motions filed by the Administrative Center. Representatives of many embassies and human rights organizations were present for this hearing. The world is watching.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world are anxiously awaiting the court’s ruling, concerned for their fellow believers in Russia.

“We’re concerned about what’s going to happen and what could happen to them,” said Doug Hardy, a spokesman for Spokane, Wash.-area Witnesses.

Hardy added, “If they are going to clamp down on us it could be they clamp down on other religious entities, too.”

Last week, millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses sent letters to Russian government and court officials, including President Vladimir Putin, expressing concern about the court motion. The church estimates it has 8 million members worldwide.

The Justice Ministry has accused the Witnesses of having extremist literature and beliefs. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible and other promotional materials are outlawed.

Russian Witnesses abide by this law and don’t have the literature in their Kingdom Halls, said Robert Warren, global spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

According to him, Russian government officials planted literature in the church’s administrative building shortly before a government inspection, thus prompting the claim.

On Wednesday, the Witnesses asked the court to hear testimony from Jehovah’s Witnesses who claimed they saw government officials planting the materials. The court did not allow those witnesses to testify.

Additionally, the Witnesses filed a counterclaim against the Ministry of Justice claiming the Witnesses were victims of political repression. The court dismissed that claim.

“It definitely presents a negative tone that seems to be characterizing the proceedings at this point,” Warren said.

If the court sides with the Ministry of Justice, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ administrative building in Moscow could be seized by the Russian government. Additionally, it could become illegal for Witnesses to meet in groups, advertise their faith or practice their faith.

Already in Russia the religion’s official website JW.org is blocked, and customs officials don’t allow Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles into the country.

“They don’t want us to even have places of worship to meet in,” Warren said. “They don’t want us to speak about our faith to others.”

The order has raised concerns about religious persecution from organizations around the world, including the United Nations, the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“If that is happening to us, if we’re being targeted then basic freedoms and rights are being targeted in Russia,” Warren said.

Warren said the Moscow courtroom, where the case was heard, was packed — something he doesn’t think Russian officials anticipated.

According to church estimates there are about 175,000 Witnesses in Russia. A 1997 Russian law established freedom of religion in the country, however Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism are considered traditional religions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God, but do not believe in the Trinity. Their faith requires that they don’t get involved in political activity — including voting, military service, politics and political protesting. They do abide by local laws and customs as long as it doesn’t interfere with their faith.

Hardy believes this disregard for nationalism might be part of the reason Russian officials filed the claim.

“We are law-abiding citizens as far as it goes,” Hardy said. “But when it interferes with the dictates of what the Bible says, we’re going to stand up for our beliefs rather than what the law says.”

Hardy is sure if Russia rules against the Witnesses, they won’t abide by the ruling. For example, during the Soviet era most Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to Siberian work camps.

“Well, it didn’t stop them (from worshiping) when they got to Siberia,” Warren said. “Hitler tried to stop us in Nazi Germany. That didn’t stop us either.”

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©2017 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

Visit The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) at www.spokesman.com

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