In July 2017, the Russian Supreme Court rejected an appeal of an earlier ruling sanctioning Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group.
As of now, Jehovah’s Witness gatherings and preaching are criminal offenses in Russia.
The Russian government also has the legal authority to liquidate any property held by Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organization.
The Russian Supreme Court maintains that the country needs to be protected from disloyal religious fanatics.
There are over eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses in 240 countries worldwide. Russia, with a population of more than 150 million, has a total of 117,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses – one Jehovah’s Witness per 850 people.
Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and why would the Russian, or any, government consider them to be a threat?
The story of Jehovah’s Witnesses begins in the late 19th century near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a group of students studying the Bible.
The group was led by Charles Taze Russell, a religious seeker from a Presbyterian background.
These students understood “Jehovah,” a version of the Hebrew “Yaweh,” to be the name of God the Father himself.
Russell and his followers looked forward to Jesus Christ establishing a “millennium” or a thousand-year period of peace on Earth. This “Golden Age” would see the Earth transformed to its original purity, with a “righteous” social system that would not have poverty or inequality.
Russell died in 1916 without witnessing the return of Jesus Christ.
But his group endured and grew. The name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was formally adopted in the 1930s.
Early Jehovah’s Witnesses believed 1914 to be the beginning of the end of worldly governments that would culminate with the Battle of Armageddon. Armageddon specifically refers to Mount Megiddo in Israel where some Christians believe the final conflict between good and evil will take place. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, expected that the Battle of Armageddon would be worldwide with Jesus leading a “heavenly army” to defeat the enemies of God.
They also believed that after Armageddon, Jesus would rule the world from heaven with 144,000 “faithful Christians,” as specified in the Book of Revelation. Other faithful Christians would be reunited with dead loved ones and live on a renewed Earth.
Over the years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have reinterpreted elements of this timeline and have abandoned setting specific dates for the return of Jesus Christ. But they still look forward to the Golden Age that Russell and his Bible students expected.
Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the Trinity. For most Christians, God is a union of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Instead, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is distinct from God – not united as one person with him. The “Holy Spirit,” then, refers to God’s active power. Such doctrines distinguish Jehovah’s Witnesses from mainline Christian denominations, all of which hold that God is “triune” in nature.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have no political affiliations, and they renounce violence. However, they make an easy target for governments looking for internal enemies, as they refuse to bow down to government symbols. Many nationalists call them “enemies of the state.”
As a result, they have often suffered persecution throughout history in many parts of the world.