Jehovah’s Witnesses case spotlights religious freedom issue in Russia

Jehovah’s Witnesses case spotlights religious freedom issue in Russia

A young woman is baptized in a pool during a regional congress of Jehovah's Witnesses at Traktar Stadium in Minsk, Belarus, July 25, 2015. (Credit: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters via CNS.)

A U.S. official praised Belarus for releasing a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses that Russia wanted extradited.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A U.S. official praised Belarus for releasing a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that Russia wanted extradited.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, praised the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev.

Wicker described the Witnesses as a “peaceful faith community” and welcomed the release of Makhalichev, who faced 10 years of jail in Russia for being a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In a statement May 19, Wicker cautioned that Russia and other “autocratic governments” were using Interpol warrants to “engage in transnational repression,” as well as foreign “surveillance, abduction and assassination.”

A senior Russian Catholic priest voiced concern at the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, adding that it had damaged the reputation of Russia and its predominant Orthodox Church.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses have been stripped of Russian citizenship and are being deliberately persecuted. This is scandalous and deeply worrying,” said the priest, who asked that his name not be used. He added, “There may be various reasons for extradition, such as the committing of a crime unconnected with faith — so each case must be considered separately.”

Russian police began seizing places of worship belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose 395 branches had 175,000 members nationwide, after Russia’s Supreme Court upheld a decree in July 2017 outlawing the group as an “extremist organization.”

At the time, the ruling was condemned by Russia’s small Catholic Church, whose spokesman, Msgr. Igor Kovalevsky, warned that Catholics could now also face “new acts of discrimination and limits to freedom of belief.”

However, the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion, branded the Jehovah’s Witnesses a “totalitarian, harmful sect” propagating “false teachings.”

At least 330 arrested Jehovah’s Witnesses have since been fined or jailed after nationwide raids, while the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized dozens as political prisoners.

Makhalichev, from Khanty-Mansiysk in northern Russia, appealed to the United Nations following his Feb. 21 arrest near Vitebsk, Belarus. Russia wanted him extradited for belonging to a “banned religion,” but Makhalichev was freed after the Belarusian general prosecutor dismissed the extradition warrant April 7.

Father Yuri Sanko, spokesman for the Belarusian bishops’ conference, said most people fleeing persecution in Russia were more likely to seek help in Western Europe than in Belarus.

“There’s a strong desire to avoid tension between Belarus and Russia, backed up with bilateral institutions and projects, and it’s hard to imagine people coming here and requesting refugee status because they’re persecuted in Russia,” said Sanko.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry is currently considering an asylum request by Makhalichev.

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