By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Russia’s Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses of an earlier ruling that classified the denomination as extremist, effectively banning it entirely from the country.
The Russian court on July 17 turned away arguments by the group, which sought to overturn an initial decision made by the court in April.
“While we were prepared for a negative ruling, it is still very disappointing,” David Semonian, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement. “It is very concerning that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, powerful elements within Russia continue to frame our organization as extremist.”
The decision means the group will be forced to close its doors at its St. Petersburg headquarters and some 395 local chapters across the country. Its properties, known as Kingdom Halls, will be handed over to the Russian government.
The group, which says it has around 170,000 adherents in the country, has long been viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general.
Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia but legislation sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four traditional religions, and smaller denominations frequently face discrimination.
In recent years, there have been a growing number of reports of worshippers being targeted for harassment.
A home and several cars belonging to a Jehovah’s Witness outside of Moscow were vandalized in an arson attack on April 30, and masked security agents raided a worship service on May 25 in the central city of Oryol.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are likely to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but the court has no power to enforce its decisions and Russia may ignore any verdict against it.