Jehovah’s Witnesses, known for their doomsday prophecies, are seen as an extremist cult by the Russian authorities. Banned in many countries, their activities could soon become illegal in Russia as well.
Since appearing in Russia in the early 1990s, Jehovah’s Witnesses have rapidly gained popularity. The organization says they have 200,000 members in the country, but they could soon be classed as criminals.
A high-profile case five years ago branded Jehovah’s Witnesses “an extremist organization” that incites religious hatred and breaks up families.
They were stripped of their Moscow registration, yet even though Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to re-register, authorities have issued over forty official warnings to them in the last three years.
Their faith doesn’t allow them to receive blood transfusions, and several have been tried for denying them to their children. Most notably last year, doctors in Russia’s far eastern city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky had to appeal to court to get permission for a blood transfusion for a six-year-old girl after she suffered serious head trauma. The court ruled in their favor and the doctors managed to save the child.
Some of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for refusing to do their compulsory military service.
Critics of the group warn that the people they recruit into their community end up being brainwashed.
Oleg Zakharenkov’s wife changed completely after becoming a Jehovah's Witness.
“She became isolated. She began to disappear for days and give them all my money,” says Oleg.
Jehovah's Witnesses were founded in the US in the late 19th century. There are over seven million regular followers worldwide.
They say their unusual beliefs – such as refusing to vote or serve on juries – don't make them a dangerous cult:
“Our poor image comes from those in the media and the authorities who have no knowledge about us. When people meet us, they realize what good we do for society,” said Aleksandr Valevich.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned in China, parts of Africa and some former Soviet republics. As for Russia, some say it will be difficult to prove their guilt.
“Personally, I think Jehovah’s witnesses combine the worst features of an international corporation that exploits its own members, and a totalitarian state. But it’s hard to prove what current law they are breaking,” theologist Father Mikhail Plotnikov told RT.