A Russian court has banned the Jehovah's Witnesses' translation of the Bible following a drawn-out legal battle, another blow to followers of the pacifist Christian sect who have been branded extremists and driven to practicing their faith underground, as in Soviet times.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' parent organization in Russia and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the Justice Ministry's list of extremist groups Aug. 17, a procedural move following the Supreme Court's decision to ban the group's activities and seize its property earlier this year.
In a separate case that same day, a court in the northwestern border town of Vyborg banned the New World Translation of The Holy Scriptures, the group's version of the Bible. Several other publications by the Jehovah's Witnesses, including a brochure, The Bible — What Is Its Message? — were also labeled extremist.
The case against the religious group's Bible dates to July 2015, when a shipment of the books from Finland was stopped at the border and impounded by customs officials on suspicion of extremism.
Ban to be challenged
The ban on the Bible used by the Jehovah's Witnesses has not come into legal force, as the group intends to challenge the ruling in a regional court.
"Soon it will be illegal not only to gather [to worship], but also to read," said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a member of the European Association of Jehovah's Christian Witnesses, adding that the court proceedings felt like theater.
"Whatever our lawyers said, it was as if the ruling was already known," he said.
The Jehovah's Witnesses international headquarters in New York decried the ruling.
"Just how far will Russia's resistance to religious freedom go? We certainly hope that respect for sacred texts will prevail when we pursue this case on appeal," said spokesman David Semonian in comments circulated by the group's press service.
The statement said the court ruling contradicts legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2015 stipulating that sacred texts such as the Bible and Koran cannot be labeled extremist.
'Not a Bible'
The statement said the court relied on the findings of an expert panel that determined the book is not a Bible.
The Moscow-based Sova Center, which monitors the misuse of extremism legislation, criticized the "invalidity, helplessness, and glaring absurdity" of the panel's findings.
"It's just a typical translation," Aleksandr Verkhovsky, Sova's director, told RFE/RL. "It differs a little, of course, in language. There is always a variation between translations. It is not fundamentally different [from other versions of the Bible]."
He added: "It's written in more modern language, and there is a certain difference [in the translation] which reflects their religious beliefs. Some things are written, for instance, with a small letter, not with a big letter. Or where different names for God are used, [the Jehovah's Witnesses] write Jehovah everywhere. That's the level [of variation that] we're talking about."
The Jehovah's Witnesses, known universally for their door-to-door proselytizing, are viewed with suspicion in Russia for their rejection of military service and voting. Their refusal to take blood transfusions has seen them accused of being a threat to themselves, their children, and public safety.
The Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted in the Soviet Union, most severely under Josef Stalin. After the Soviet collapse, tight restrictions on religious groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses were suddenly relaxed, leading to a surge in popularity for the Orthodox Church and other religious and faith groups.
Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses are estimated to number 175,000 today.
The group was driven underground this year after the Supreme Court labeled them extremists, Sivulsky said. "When the ruling came into full force after July 17, then of course everyone without exception stopped gathering in big groups because it is a criminal offense. No one is consciously trying to be accused of criminal activity," he said.
The Supreme Court ruling stipulates that all property belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses' organization should be seized by the state, although Sivulsky said this provision had not yet been implemented. "We haven't seen any action on this. [But] it's a question of time."
The banning of the group fits into a broader conservativism advocated by Moscow in a rejection of liberal Western values. It has also been seen as a victory for conservative factions of the Russian Orthodox Church, which view the Jehovah's Witnesses' rejection of elements of mainstream Christian doctrine as a threat.
However, Vsevolod Chaplin, the ultraconservative former church spokesman, disapproved of the banning of the group in comments to the NTV channel on August 17.
"Perhaps it would be better to keep them in the field of play to keep an eye on how they are developing so as to perhaps restrict it in its extreme activities," he said.