The European Union and a U.S. government commission have sharply criticized a Russian Supreme Court decision that they say amounts to a nationwide ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The EU and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) spoke out after the court rejected an appeal by the Jehovah's Witnesses of an earlier ruling that classified the denomination as extremist.
The Russian court on July 17 turned away arguments by the religious group, which sought to overturn an initial decision made by the court in April.
The USCIRF said the ruling "sadly reflects the [Russian] government’s continued equating of peaceful religious freedom practice to extremism."
"The Witnesses are not an extremist group, and should be able to practice their faith openly and freely and without government repression,” USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark said in a statement.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini's office said the Supreme Court decision "confirms the ban on the peaceful worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country."
This ban has already resulted in cases of criminal prosecutions against Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as police raids on their prayer halls, arson attacks, and other forms of harassment," Mogherini's spokesoman, Maja Kocijancic, said in a statement on July 18.
"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," the statement said.
The Jehovah's Witnesses, which says it has around 170,000 adherents in the country, has long been viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general.
"While we were prepared for a negative ruling, it is still very disappointing," David Semonian, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witness, said in a statement on July 17. "It is very concerning that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, powerful elements within Russia continue to frame our organization as extremist."
The decision means the group will be forced to close its doors at its St. Petersburg headquarters and some 395 local chapters across the country. Its properties, known as Kingdom Halls, will be handed over to the Russian government.
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 smaller denominations frequently face discrimination.
In recent years, there have been a growing number of reports of worshippers being targeted for harassment.
Earlier this year, the USCIRF for the first time recommended that Russia be designated a “country of particular concern” for what it called "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom."
Mark said the ruling on the Jehovah's Witnesses confirms that the recommendation from the USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, was "well-deserved."
"The Russian government is intensifying its crackdown on religious freedom at home while also extending its repressive policies to neighboring states,” he said.
A home and several cars belonging to a Jehovah's Witness outside of Moscow were vandalized in an arson attack on April 30, and masked security agents raided a worship service on May 25 in the central city of Oryol.
The Jehovah's Witnesses are likely to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but the court has no power to enforce its decisions and Russia may ignore any verdict against it.