Russian authorities opened a criminal case this week against five Jehovah’s Witnesses on suspicion of “organizing and participating in the activities of an extremist organization” for allegedly promoting their namesake religious group, which is officially outlawed as an “extremist ideology” in Russia.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, its main federal investigating body, announced the criminal case in a statement issued March 4.
Five residents of the city of Syktyvkar, in Russia’s northwestern Komi Republic, allegedly “carried out active organizational actions aimed at continuation of the organization’s illegal activities and the involvement of new participants in it” over a four-year period between 2017 and 2021.
“In particular, acting in secrecy, they carried out general management of the organization’s activities, coordinated illegal activities, organized and held meetings of members of a banned organization, and collected funds to finance the activities of a banned extremist organization,” according to the statement.
A Syktyvkar court has ordered that one suspect in the case be placed in pretrial detention. Russian federal authorities have placed two others accused in the case under house arrest and prohibited an additional two suspects from leaving Syktyvkar pending an ongoing investigation into the illegal activity.
“In the criminal case, searches were carried out at the places of residence of the defendants and other alleged members of the banned organization. More than 10 persons were questioned as witnesses,” Russia’s Investigative Committee revealed on Thursday.
The statement confirmed earlier reports by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Syktyvkar that “police searched at least 14 homes of members of their congregation” on March 3.
Russia’s Supreme Court designated the Jehovah’s Witnesses group an illegal extremist organization in 2017 after the Russian justice ministry accused the organization of distributing “extremist” pamphlets that incited hatred against other groups.
One such Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlet allegedly quoted the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy “describing the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church as superstition and sorcery,” according to the Russian Ministry of Justice.
Moscow has cracked down on Jehovah’s Witnesses since banning the organization in 2017, detaining and imprisoning dozens of the group’s members for practicing the now-illegal religion. Many observers accuse the Russian government of unfairly targeting the group because it opposes the dominant Russian Orthodox Church championed by the Kremlin.
Established in the U.S. in the 19th century, the Jehovah’s Witnesses group is known by many for sharing its message door-to-door. The Jehovah’s Witnesses movement is not considered a mainstream Christian denomination by traditional Christian churches “because it rejects the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which it regards as both irrational and unbiblical,” according to the BBC.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia found guilty of promoting the religion face up to ten years in prison based on its designation as an “extremist” group. A court in Russia’s Republic of Khakassia, located in eastern Siberia, sentenced two local Jehovah’s Witnesses to two and six years in prison respectively in February for “organizing an extremist group.”