The Russian Justice Ministry filed a formal petition Wednesday with the nation's Supreme Court seeking to ban Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist group.
According to the Moscow Times, Jehovah's Witnesses have already been banned from working in eight separate Russian regions. The current move against the religious group seeks to upend their central headquarters near St. Petersburg, which was issued an official warning to halt "extremist activity" in early 2016. Their final appeal against the warning was rejected in January 2017, opening the way for authorities to call for the group's overall closure.
In a statement posted to their website, Jehovah's Witnesses said Russia did not notify them that authorities had taken this latest step in what they called "its ongoing attack on their worship."
They noted, however, that if the petition is granted by Russia's Supreme Court, the organization would be devastated.
"A decision by the Supreme Court in favor of the claim brought by the Ministry would have dire consequences for Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. The Witnesses could lose properties dedicated to religious worship, almost 400 legal entities could be dissolved, and each of the over 170,000 Witnesses could be criminally prosecuted merely for meeting for worship, reading the Bible together, or talking to others about their faith," the group said.
Vasiliy Kalin, a representative of the Administrative Center in Russia, commented: "The profound desire of each of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is just to be able to worship our God peacefully. For over 100 years, the authorities in Russia have trampled on the guarantees of their own laws, which grant us this right. I was just a boy when Stalin exiled my family to Siberia merely because we were Jehovah's Witnesses. It is sad and reprehensible that my children and grandchildren should be facing a similar fate. Never did I expect that we would again face the threat of religious persecution in modern Russia."
With a global membership of more than 8 million, Jehovah's Witnesses assert on their website that they are Christians who believe in the almighty God of the Bible whose name is Jehovah. They argue that while they follow the teachings of Jesus and believe He is the Savior and the Son of God, they do not believe He is God.
"We follow the teachings and example of Jesus Christ and honor him as our Savior and as the Son of God. (Matthew 20:28; Acts 5:31) Thus, we are Christians. (Acts 11:26) However, we have learned from the Bible that Jesus is not Almighty God and that there is no Scriptural basis for the Trinity doctrine.—John 14:28," the group notes on their website.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe the Bible is God's word but they do not believe everything literally.
"We recognize the Bible as God's inspired message to humans. (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16) We base our beliefs on all 66 of its books, which include both the 'Old Testament' and the 'New Testament.'...While we accept the entire Bible, we are not fundamentalists. We recognize that parts of the Bible are written in figurative or symbolic language and are not to be understood literally," they said.
They gather for worship in congregations overseen by a body of elders who are "unsalaried." They also do not believe in Hell or blood transfusions and do not practice tithing or take a collection.
"We are organized into congregations, each of which is overseen by a body of elders. However, the elders do not form a clergy class, and they are unsalaried. (Matthew 10:8; 23:8) We do not practice tithing, and no collections are ever taken at our meetings. (2 Corinthians 9:7) All our activities are supported by anonymous donations," the group said.
A number of celebrities are professed Jehovah's Witnesses including tennis greats, Venus and Serena Williams.