Russia's highest court rules against religious freedom

Posted Dec 11, 2009 by Kevin Jess
In consideration of an appeal by a local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme court upheld a ruling by a lower court pronouncing 34 pieces of educational religious literature “extremist.” The congregation now faces “liquidation
Kingdom Hall of Jehovah s Witnesses
Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses
Kevin Jess
The original ruling outlawed religious activities by Jehovah's Witnesses in the Rostov-on-Don region in Russia, seized the group's assets and labeled 34 of its publications as extremist including a children's book of Bible stories, and its signature magazine, The Watchtower.
In an interview with Associated Press, Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses in the region said, "We are deeply disappointed with that decision. We are concerned that it may affect all our activities, including imports of our publications which are printed in Germany."
Sivulskiy reportedly said the Supreme Court was specific in ruling that the 34 publications should be added to the federal list of publications considered extremist, which would bring about a nation-wide ban of the publications.
Vasily Kalin, Chairman of the Presiding Committee of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia said in a press release, "I am very concerned that this decision will open a new era of opposition against Jehovah's Witnesses, whose right to meet in peace, to access religious literature and to share the Christian hope contained in the Gospels, is more and more limited. When I was young I was sent to Siberia for being one of Jehovah's Witnesses and because my parents were reading The Watchtower, the same journal being unjustly declared 'extremist' in these proceedings."
Arli Chimirov, the lawyer representing the interests of Jehovah’s Witnesses, decried the ruling in a press release from the Watchtower Society, “Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is a ruling against the freedom to manifest religious beliefs, and it affirms a misapplication of the Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who distribute these publications internationally. Jehovah’s Witnesses will appeal this matter to the European Court of Human Rights in order to protect freedom of religion in Russia, including the right to worship using religious literature of one’s choice and to peacefully share one’s beliefs with others. Meanwhile, I fear there will be many more acts of religious intolerance and hatred taken against Jehovah’s Witnesses because of the Court’s ruling.”
In an email message to Digital Journal a member of the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in St. Petersburg, who we will call Karin, said "the elders said no further info from the Branch.... and that so far life goes on."
She thought it might be talked about at their ministry school meeting Tuesday evening but "they didn't even mention it during the Local Needs. An elder just made a brief announcement before he did the part about territories. We can still preach, offer literature, be discreet and polite as always."
When asked about her personal religious literature and biblical studies she told me, "He (the elder) said I could read my mags in the subway as usual. Basically we're waiting for further instructions, and I assume the brothers are waiting to see how the law will be implemented by the authorities."
Sivulskiy said they will now appeal the to the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), arguing that the Russian courts misinterpreted the law.
The ECHR ruled in a separate case in 2007 that Russia violated Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to register the Chelyabinsk congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Public opinion in the Russian Federation concerning the case is being swayed against Jehovah's Witnesses by the Russian media showing false images of Jehovah's Witnesses with their newscasts as well as the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) who are known to incite hatred against the group with protests outside of Kingdoms Halls of Jehovah's Witnesses. Such moves by the ROC have been documented by the U.S. Department of State.
Local courts are likely to look to the Supreme Court decision to decide other cases that have come forward such as Anatoly Dolzhenko, a Russian scientist who has filed an 11 page document Prosecutor General’s office in Stavropol, Southern Russia, demanding the Old Testament be declared extremist literature.
According to Russia Today, Dolzhenko has gained the support of arbitrator and organized crime and corruption methodologist Evgeny Trufanov who says, “We want the Old Testament on the basis of the quotes described in the statement which call for violence, genocide and promote brutality to be officially declared literature of extremist content igniting ethnic discord."
Head of public relations of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, Borukh Gorin said, “It’s quite absurd, comical and stupid to take the Lord God to Court. This case is about 3000 year old events, when monotheism simply did not exist and if someone gets the idea, using these views, to teach the rules of modern warfare or modern behavior towards people of different faiths, then this person will be declared demented including by those from his own denomination."
In a Washington Post article, Joel Engardio, a writer and filmmaker, known for his documentary regarding Jehovah's Witnesses entitled Knocking, is calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to draw inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt and "speak out against the blow to the freedoms of press, speech and religion dealt by the Russian Supreme Court."
In the 1940s, Jehovah's Witnesses were losing their freedom to worship when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them. They were jailed for preaching, faced mob violence in 40 states as well as lost their jobs and had their children expelled from school.
In the midst of this Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out publicly, defending Jehovah's Witnesses even though the group's views were unpopular. She urged calm knowing the First Amendment was at stake.
By 1943 the Supreme Court had reversed its decision, and since then according to Engardio "the Witnesses have won a record 50 cases that expanded freedom for everyone -- even groups they disagree with. The precedents set by Jehovah's Witnesses in the 1940s helped pioneer the modern civil rights movement for other unpopular groups who sought Constitutional equality: women, people of color, gays and lesbians."
Without these freedoms that we take for granted in the Western world Mr. Engardio asks, "What happens when Russian citizens want to circulate a neighborhood petition against government malfeasance, or say something critical of Vladimir Putin?"