The following editorial appeared in the Washington Post.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has told interviewers he wears an Orthodox Church baptismal cross pendant, given to him by his mother. In his annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2014, Putin declared, “Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force … in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state.” He added, “It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore saw themselves as a united nation.”
Although Putin was once an officer of the KGB, devoted to defending the atheist Soviet Union, as the leader of Russia he has embraced religious values and symbols, especially the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian law confers official status on Buddhism, Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity. Russia’s Constitution of 1993 declared, “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.”
But all of these commitments and devotions seem to collapse in today’s Russia when it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses. In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses should be labeled an extremist organization. Ever since, members have been prosecuted as criminals when their only action was to celebrate their faith. Even Putin has expressed puzzlement, saying last December that “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too. I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into. This must be done.”
But the persecution continues. The latest example is a court decision in May to uphold a six-year prison term for Jehovah’s Witness member Dennis Christensen, who was sentenced in February in the city of Oryol, south of Moscow.
The Russian security services tapped his phone and put him under surveillance. He was detained in May 2017 after a police raid on his congregation. All told, 207 Jehovah’s Witnesses are now facing criminal prosecution in Russia for their faith, and detentions are continuing, including in recent days in Makhachkala and Sevastopol.
Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse military service, do not vote and view God as the only true leader. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not violent, extremist or criminal.
Before his appeal was denied, Christensen told the court, “What is being done against me and other Witnesses here in Russia are false accusations of extremism, interrogations, detentions, searches, seizures … threats and now torture.” He added, “I have a clear conscience, I have done nothing wrong. I have not violated any Russian law, and I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
How does Putin square his statement last year with the reality that his security services continue to imprison people for their faith? It is time for Russia to let believers out of jail.