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House Torched As 'Acts Of Vandalism' Target Jehovah's Witnesses In Russia

  • Tom Balmforth

The Jehovah's Witnesses administrative center in Moscow has ceased its activities in the wake of a Russian Supreme Court ruling that branded the group as extremist. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- A home inhabited by Jehovah's Witnesses outside Moscow was destroyed in an arson attack, the religious organization said, citing it as the starkest example of a string of "acts of vandalism" targeting the group since it was branded as extremist by the Russian Supreme Court.

An inebriated resident of the village of Lutsino in Moscow Region on April 30 threw a bottle containing burning liquid at a home and garage, destroying the building as well as cars belonging to a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, the group said in a statement on its website on May 8.

The attacker had made disparaging comments about the Jehovah's Witnesses before the attack, the group said.

Yaroslav Sivulsky, a spokesman for Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses, told RFE/RL on May 11 that the worshipers were at home at the time of attack, although no one was hurt. Sivulsky said the attacker made no attempt to hide afterwards and was detained by police. He later blamed his actions on alcohol.

Sivulsky said the attack exemplified a spate of "acts of vandalism" that have targeted the Christian denomination since the court ruling last month.

On April 20, the Supreme Court labeled the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization, ordering the seizure of the group's property in Russia and effectively banning worshipers from the country.

The United States and European Union have denounced the court ruling, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called it "a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia."

The Jehovah's Witnesses have long been viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general. Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia but legislation sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country's four traditional religions, and rights activists say others frequently face discrimination.

In Media Crosshairs

The court ruling has put the group's worshipers in the crosshairs of state-run and Kremlin-loyal media outlets, which have portrayed the group as a pernicious sect that destroys families and threatens lives through their stance on blood transfusions.

Sikulsky pointed to a string of alleged cases of intimidation and vandalism listed on the group's website alongside photographs.

Several hours after the Supreme Court ruling, a group of men threw bricks and stones at the Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters in St. Petersburg, smashing windows.

On the night of April 30, in the city of Achinsk in Siberia's Krasnoyarsk, a local resident allegedly smashed a window of a place of worship of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

On May 2, in the Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea, a window of the home of a family of Jehovah's Witnesses was broken when a rock was thrown at it.

On May 5, in Novomoskovsk in Tula Oblast, the door of a building formerly used by Jehovah's Witnesses was defaced with the threatening message: "Friends, soon we're coming for you all."

The group's main administrative center has stopped its activities in line with the demands of the Supreme Court.

The court ruling, however, has not yet fully entered into force -- the Jehovah's Witnesses' property has not yet been seized by the state, for instance -- as the group has until May 20 to file an appeal to the court.

Sivulsky said he believes there is "practically no chance" they will be successful in their appeal.

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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