Global Voices

The Day Russia Outlawed Jehovah's Witnesses

Image: Flickr / Edited by Kevin Rothrock

It’s strange to see this in writing, let alone know that it’s true, but here it is: Russia has formally banned Jehovah's Witnesses. After a decade of legal battles, the Supreme Court definitively ruled on Thursday that Russia’s 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses belong to an extremist organization, putting the group in the same category as ISIS.

The government is already seizing the church’s property.

On Twitter, the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses prompted a wave of wisecracks, Hitler comparisons, and hateful celebrations about the crackdown on “this destructive sect.” In other words, it was a fairly normal day online, though the Supreme Court’s decision will clearly have lasting consequences.

One satirical Twitter account found an amusing way to collapse all Russia’s contemporary political scandals into a single joke, nodding to reports about mass persecution against gays in Chechnya and nationwide strikes by truck drivers:

So today’s ideal oppositionist looks like this: a gay Chechen trucker who’s a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses sect.

Another parody account named “Jesus Christ” jokingly tried to distance himself from these now illegal Christians:

Jehovah's Witnesses have been reclassified as Jehovah's Suspects. Anyway these are some dodgy folks. For the record, by the way, I’m not with these guys.

Pavel Chikov, the chairman of the Agora human rights group, warned that Russia’s Supreme Court just created 175,000 felony criminals:

There are 175,000 active Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia today (Wikipedia). Russia’s Justice Ministry just guaranteed them all criminal prosecution. There are more than 8 million Jehovah's Witnesses throughout the world. Russia’s Justice Ministry has made them all outlaws.

Musician Vasily Oblomov, known for his oppositionist political views, asked why the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses isn’t itself illegal, noting Russia’s criminalization of speech deemed to offend religious people:

How does the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia not fall under the law against “offending the religious feelings” of the members of this organization?

Many Twitter users, including Ekho Moskvy chief editor Alexey Venediktov, compared the Supreme Court’s decision to Fascist Germany’s ban on Jehovah's Witnesses:

Jehovah's Witnesses refused to recognize Hitler as Führer, refused to perform the Nazi salute, refused to serve in the Nazi army, and were banned.

Vladimir Varfolomeev, Venediktov’s deputy editor, took this comparison a step further, listing several recent political scandals (anti-Semitic remarks by federal lawmakers, the persecution of gays in Chechnya, the annexation of Crimea) that seem to repeat Germany’s slide into fascism. Varfolomeev punctuated the criticism with a joke that pro-Kremlin activists like to compare Alexey Navalny, the political opposition’s most prominent leader, to Hitler:

Anti-Semitism. The persecution of gays. A ban on Jehovah's Witnesses. The annexation of foreign territory. And they say Navalny is another Hitler.

Last month, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses International told The Moscow Times that his organization worried an outright ban on their group would provoke “real extremist activity” against believers in Russia, including physical attacks.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday forces all 396 registered Jehovah's Witnesses organizations across Russia to cease activities immediately. It’s now illegal for this group to hold any congregations or distribute religious literature.

Originally published in Global Voices.

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