In Russia, there's a database of extremists. It includes members of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and … Jehovah's Witnesses.
Mind you, that's not because members of the Christian religious denomination have been caught plotting some kind of violence. Pacifism is a core value of members, who believe that the Bible should be taken literally. “I cannot imagine that anyone really thinks they are a threat,” Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which monitors extremism in Russia, told the New York Times. “But they are seen as a good target. They are pacifists, so they cannot be radicalized, no matter what you do to them. They can be used to send a message.”
That message seems to be coming directly from the Kremlin, which has moved decisively against the group in recent weeks, putting their office near St. Petersburg on a list of spots banned “in connection with the carrying out of extremist activities.” Authorities have also claimed that the denomination's followers are spreading “extremist” texts. Its official website is also banned in the country. And in articles from state media, the sect is smeared as a cult.
In a statement to the New York Times, Russia's Justice Ministry defended the decision, saying that a year-long review of the Jehovah’s Witness “administrative center” near St. Petersburg had uncovered unspecified “violations of a Russian law banning extremism.” The statement said that the group — which has 400 registered churches and offices across Europe — should be “liquidated.”
Right now, the country's Supreme Court is meeting to decide whether to outlaw the religious organization altogether. That wouldn't prevent members from gathering in worship, though they could no longer go door to door and proselytize.
There's a long history in Russia of harassing Jehovah's Witnesses. During Soviet times, the KGB accused them of spying. It's true, too, that leaders of the formerly socialist country — where atheism was the official doctrine not too long ago — are naturally skeptical of faith.
But experts say there's something different going on today. The church's 170,000 Russian members don't vote, won't serve in the military and refuse to attend national celebrations that glorify violence. That means they often avoid state-sponsored rallies celebrating, say, the annexation of Crimea. That's a problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is naturally suspicious of groups with pro-Western sympathies (the sect is based in the United States). It's also a way for him to show support to the Russian Orthodox Church.
“The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement earlier this month.
Experts see it, too, as part of a broader campaign against Russian civil society using the 2002 anti-extremism law. Officially, the rule was touted as a measure against radicalized violence from homegrown and foreign terrorists. But it's been broadly interpreted, used to jail anyone from antigovernment activists to Muslims with no ties to terrorism or violence.
One believer, Andre Sivak detailed to the New York Times what that crackdown feels like. Sivak, 43, told the paper that he lost his job as a teacher because of his faith. Security officials secretly filmed his local service, and accused him of “inciting hatred and disparaging the human dignity of citizens.” He says that while he does not vote, he is not an antigovernment activist. (Those who oppose Putin are often brought up on charges of “extremism.")
“They say I am a terrorist,” he said. “But all I ever wanted to do was to get people to pay attention to the Bible.”
Alexey Koptev, a member of the faith since 1992, was arrested after Russian security officials secretly taped worship services. Koptev and the others were banned from traveling. Many lost their jobs. Authorities told them they would be set free if they denounced their faith. “Why me?” he asked The Washington Post's Andrew Roth. “Who did nothing illegal, who read nothing illegal, why was I secretly filmed and listened to?”