By Paul Goble
Moscow’s repressive approach to Protestants, Muslims, and New Religious movements like the Jehovah’s Witnesses not only continued throughout 2019 but intensified, according to Olga Sibiryeva, an expert at the SOVA Information-Analytic Center, in advance of its annual report on the state of freedom of conscience in Russia.
Especially severe and widespread have been the repressions against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sibiryeva says. Ostensibly this is because the group has been classified by the courts as extremist, but in fact, she continues, its members are being persecuted because they continue to engage in collective worship at all (ng.ru/ng_religii/2020-03-03/11_482_owl.html).
More than 300 Witnesses have been arrested, eight have been given sentences including three who have been sent to prison colonies for up to six years. And for the very first time, members of this faith have been subject to tortures. Unfortunately, all indications are that this trend is continuing in 2020, the SOVA analyst says.
Russian officials continue to use anti-extremist legislation against other religious groups as well, “in the first instance, against Muslims,” she says, although the number of individuals charged with illegal missionary activity has somewhat declined except with regard to Protestants and new religious groups.
“Protestants and new religious groups not less and possibly even more than a year ago have encountered problems with the use of their religious facilities, up to and including the prohibition of their use and demands that the structures be taken down,” according to the SOVA report.
Media coverage of all this has been increasingly unfortunate, portraying official actions as entirely justified. All too often, Sibiryeva says, the outlets treat as normal those who are labelled “dangerous ‘sectarians.” Protestant leaders are among the few who have decried this practice.
Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, head of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians, told the Presidential Human Rights Council that he felt that the practices of the Soviet past were retuning and that the state was sending a message to all but the Orthodox that “you have no place here.”