Russia’s Supreme Court outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses Thursday, declaring the group a threat to national security and seizing its property.
The ruling will force the group to close its Russian headquarters and 395 chapters nationwide. The ban followed a request from Russia’s Justice Ministry to label the religion an extremist group.
Justice Ministry spokeswoman Svetlana Borisova told Interfax news agency that the Jehovah’s Witnesses “pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security.”
“The Supreme Court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are now given the heartrending choice of either abandoning their faith or facing punishment for practicing it.”
Violators of the new ban could face fines ranging from $5,343 to $10,687 or six to ten years in prison, according to Human Rights Watch. Leaders of the group could face as many as 10 years in prison.
Russians are predominantly Orthodox Christian, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim more than 170,000 followers in the country. The Russian government cracked down on the group last year when it banned Jehovah’s Witnesses literature they considered a violation of national security laws.
The Justice Ministry began an investigation into the group’s practices in February. It found the group was still funding chapters previously banned for extremism. Additionally, the investigation claimed the group’s headquarters failed to take action to change “extremist” literature, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the allegation.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses plan to appeal the Russian court’s decision in the European Court of Human Rights.
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