The United States and the European Union have denounced a Russian Supreme Court decision to brand the Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist organization and ban its activities.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a statement that it was "disappointed, but not surprised" by the court's move.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.
“The court’s decision sadly reconfirms the disregard of the government for religious freedom in present-day Russia," the statement quoted USCIRF chair, Thomas J. Reese, as saying.
"Individual and community expressions of faith, and even private religious beliefs, are not safe from state-sponsored repression and coercion in Russia today,” Reese said in the April 20 statement.
Reese also dismissed the Russian Justice Ministry's statement that the Jehovah’s Witnesses “pose a threat to the rights of citizens, public order, and public security” as “simply a politicized assault on a religious group known worldwide for its pacifism and avoidance of politics.”
Reese went on to say that, "With this decision, the Russian government takes another unnecessary step away from the international community and toward isolation,” and urged Russia's judiciary to "overturn this unjustified ruling" if the Jehovah’s Witnesses choose to appeal it.
Meanwhile, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini's office said on April 21 that the ruling “could make it possible to launch criminal prosecutions against Jehovah's Witnesses for mere acts of worship.”
"Jehovah’s Witnesses, like all other religious groups, must be able to peacefully enjoy freedom of assembly without interference, as guaranteed by the constitution of the Russian Federation as well as by Russia's international commitments and international human rights standards," it said in a statement.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the court’s April 20 decision was “a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.”
A senior British government official also said she was "alarmed" by the Russian court's move.
"This ruling effectively criminalizes the peaceful worship of 175,000 Russian citizens and contravenes the right to religious freedom which is enshrined in the Russian Constitution," Baroness Joyce Anelay, human rights minister, said in a statement on April 21.
"The United Kingdom calls on the Russian government to uphold its international commitment to this basic freedom," the statement said.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses denomination in Russia, which says it has 170,000 adherents and 395 local branches in the country, said it would fight the ruling.