- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Tuesday decried a Russian court’s conviction of another church member under the increasingly authoritarian government’s anti-extremism laws.

“We are not surprised that Russia has convicted yet another one of Jehovah’s Witnesses for peacefully practicing his Christian beliefs,” said Paul Gillies, an international spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Gregory is the first Witness convicted in Russia in 2020, but we anticipate the number of convictions to exponentially increase this year.”

Grigoriy Bubnov, a 54-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, received a six-year suspended sentence Tuesday from Judge Natalya Dervyagina of the Volno-Nadezhdinskoye District Court in far eastern Russia near the border with North Korea, the World Headquarters said. The prosecution marked Mr. Bubnov as an extremist.

Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church, which has formed a close alliance with the government of President Vladimir Putin, has long targeted the Witnesses, condemning them as a dangerous foreign sect which seeks to undermine the Kremlin’s authority and traditional Russian values.

Last year, 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia received sentences ranging from large fines to imprisonment. Nearly 800 raids by Russian authorities against church members have been reported since 2017.

Mr. Gillies estimated some 70 Witnesses could be convicted and sentenced in Russian courts within the next six months.

Russia has shown no signs of slowing down despite repeated criticism from prominent international bodies and human rights advocates,” he said, adding that Jehovah’s Witnesses have “resolutely held to their religious convictions,” even during Soviet-era persecution.

Suspicion of Jehovah’s Witnesses has waxed and waned for more than a century in Russia. The recent crackdown was sparked by an April 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation that labeled Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group and ordered that it be disbanded. It is estimated fewer than 200,000 followers of the faith live in Russia.

Last month, Russian authorities reported on an underground group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Murmansk, a northwest city on the Barents Sea. They noted the group was “holding meetings personally delivering sermons, distributing religious literature, and bringing its texts to participants in meetings.” Authorities said they acquired their information via an FSB-aided infiltration of the group.

Mr. Bubnov was apprehended during raids by masked Russian police officer in the village of Razdolnoye in July 2018. His supporters say he was never part of the legal entities of Jehovah’s Witnesses that were banned and liquidated in Russia in 2017.

Jehovah’s Witness officials say Mr. Bubnov’s six-year suspended sentence does not end his problems.

“When, like Mr. Bubnov, you’re convicted as an extremist, try going to a bank. ‘Can I open up an account?’ ‘Sorry, Mr. Bubnov, you’re an extremist,’” church spokesman Jarrod Lopes said Tuesday. “It would be like that in the U.S. Try getting a job.”

The term extremist, Mr. Lopes argued, has been widely misapplied in Russia toward Witnesses.

“We’re not extremists,” he said. “We’re not dangerous or violent. That term is applied to ISIS and the like.”

International condemnation has been vocal. The Human Rights Watch this month called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to “stop this harmful persecution.”

In December 2018, Mr. Putin claimed he had no knowledge of the crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Polygraph — a U.S. government-funded website launched by Radio Free Europe and Voice of America — labeled his statement as “false.”

Since 2017, the State Department has listed Russia — in part because of its sentencing of Jehovah’s Witnesses — as a “country of particular concern” for religious liberty violations.

“We continue to call upon the Russian government to release the nine Jehovah’s Witnesses already serving long prison terms for their peaceful religious practice, as well as the dozens of others under pretrial detention or house arrest for supposed criminal ‘extremism,’” a State Department spokesperson said Tuesday.

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