Russia's Supreme Court decided Thursday to ban Jehovah's Witnesses as an "extremist" organization and strip them of all property a month after the Russian Justice Ministry filed a formal petition with the court to outlaw the religious sect.
"The Supreme Court has ruled to sustain the claim of Russia's ministry of justice and deem the 'Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia' organization extremist, eliminate it and ban its activity in Russia," said Judge Yuri Ivanenko, according to The Independent.
"The property of the Jehovah's Witnesses organization is to be confiscated to the state revenue," he added.
Svetlana Borisova, a lawyer for the Justice Ministry, said Jehovah's Witnesses "pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security." The religious group's Russian headquarters and 395 local chapters were ordered closed and seized with immediate effect, according to a statement from the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"We are greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity," Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia said. "We will appeal this decision, and we hope that our legal rights and protections as a peaceful religious group will be fully restored as soon as possible."
The ruling comes after six days of hearings over the last two weeks. Jehovah's Witnesses now have 30 days to submit their appeal for consideration by a three-person panel.
According to the Moscow Times, Jehovah's Witnesses had already been banned from working in eight separate Russian regions. The recent decision now upends 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.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker condemned Russia's actions against the Jehovah's Witnesses in a statement Friday.
"Russia's failure to respect religious freedom is yet another inexcusable violation of Moscow's OSCE commitments. People who practice their faith peacefully should never be in danger of being harassed, fined, or jailed. The court order to seize organization property owned by Jehovah's Witnesses adds insult to injury. I am hopeful that this case will be appealed to the European Court of Human Rights," Wicker said.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is an independent agency of the federal government charged with monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords and advancing comprehensive security through promotion of human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental and military cooperation in 57 countries. It consists of nine members from the U.S. Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch also condemned Russia's action Thursday as "a terrible blow to freedom of religion."
"The Supreme Court's ruling to shut down the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia," Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are now given the heartrending choice of either abandoning their faith or facing punishment for practicing it."