Jehovah's Witnesses banned in Russia as court declares it 'extremist'

Russell Hope, News Reporter

The Jehovah's Witnesses group has been banned from activities across Russia after the country's highest court declared it was an "extremist organisation".

The decision to seize the group's assets and close down its St Petersburg head office followed a request from the ministry of justice, which claimed it had found signs of "extremist activity" within the organisation.

Justice minister Svetlana Borisova said: "They represent a threat to the rights of people, public order and public safety."

The group, which says it has more than 170,000 followers in Russia, has said it is "shocked" and will appeal against the decision in the European Court of Human Rights.

Spokesman Yaroslav Sivulsky said: "I didn't expect that this could be possible in modern Russia, where the constitution guarantees freedom of religious practice."

But Russian authorities have long claimed the group destroys families, fosters hatred and threatens lives and it has come under increasing pressure in the past year.

In January, police raided a Siberian branch, and discovered extremist literature, which the Jehovah's Witnesses accused officers of having planted.

A few weeks later, the ministry of justice demanded that its headquarters hand over all information on their Russian congregations.

The material obtained convinced officials that it was showing signs of "extremist activity", leading to several congregations being shut down, as well as bibles being impounded at customs and several of its publications banned as extremist.

The group, a Christian denomination based in the US, is known for its door-to-door preaching and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

It has around eight million followers worldwide and has faced court proceedings in several countries, mostly over its pacifism and rejection of blood transfusions, but Russia has been most outspoken in portraying it as an extremist cult.