Cast in Russia as the enemy within, Jehovah’s Witnesses see Soviet history replay
First adherent detained for extremism has likened the authorities’ behaviour to that of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union
Oryol, Russia — The first Jehovah’s Witness detained for extremism in Russia has likened the authorities’ behaviour to that of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union ahead of a verdict in his trial.
Armed police scaled the gates of a compound where the Christian denomination was meeting in Oryol, about 320km south of Moscow, in May 2017 and detained Dennis Christensen, a Danish national, on extremism charges.
He has spent the last 20 months in jail and has only been allowed to meet his wife, separated by bars and a corridor, twice a month. If convicted, he could spend up to a decade in jail.
The trial of the 46-year-old builder is seen by the US and the EU as a litmus test for religious freedom, and the latest twist in a worsening East-West standoff.
The US-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.
But Russia’s latest falling-out with the West, triggered by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, spurred a more determined drive to push out “the enemy within”.
After Crimea was seized, a giant poster hung in central Moscow bearing the faces of Kremlin critics and labelling them as “a fifth column”. One of them, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, was later shot dead.
‘History is repeating itself’
It was in that atmosphere that a court in Oryol outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2016, and Russia’s Supreme Court in 2017 found the group to be an “extremist” organisation and ordered it to disband nationwide.
More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses and some of their publications are on a list of banned extremist literature.
“I'm afraid that history is now repeating itself,” Christiansen said during breaks in his trial. “I’m afraid that it’s actually like Stalin has come back.”
The atheist Soviet Union regarded Jehovah’s Witnesses as anti-Soviet because of their refusal to serve in the army. Under Stalin, hundreds of their leaders were jailed and thousands were deported to Siberia in 1951 after much of their property was confiscated.
The group has about 8-million active followers globally and has faced court proceedings in several countries, mostly over its pacifism and rejection of blood transfusions. Russia has been the most outspoken in portraying it as an extremist cult.
Christensen, whose trial is due to conclude within weeks, is accused of continuing to organise group activities in Oryol despite the local ban.
Right to practise religion
His lawyer, Anton Bogdanov, contends that the ban applies to the group’s legal entity only and does not prevent Jehovah’s Witnesses from continuing to practise their religion.
Article 28 of the Russian constitution guarantees the right to practise any or no religion.
Speaking from a glass cage in the courtroom, Christiansen denied organising the activities of an extremist group, but said he fears he will be sentenced to at least six years in jail.
“Of course I hope that he [the judge] will be just,” he said. “But I also know which country I’ve been living in.”
Court hearings have heard that Christiansen had his phones tapped for nine months and that someone infiltrated the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol and secretly filmed them.
Irina, his wife, said she finds it hard to believe that Russia is going after Jehovah’s Witnesses after recognising that the Soviet Union’s treatment of them had been illegal.
“They’re being persecuted again for the same thing — their beliefs,” she said. “The only difference is that at that time they were called ‘enemies of the people’. Now they are called ‘extremists’.”
She said the crackdown is only helping the group to attract more followers in Russia, where it has about 170,000 adherents, including some 300 in Oryol. “It’s good advertising,” she said. “I’m not afraid of anything and Dennis is not afraid either.”