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Russia makes ‘world’s worst’ list for religious oppression

‘Blatant assaults’ on freedom include banning Jehovah’s Witnesses

For the first time, Russia has made the list of the world’s worst oppressors of religious freedom, according to a new report.

Russia’s ongoing crackdown on religious minorities, foreign missionaries and evangelism has earned it a spot among the worst offenders list produced by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), released on April 26.

The list also includes the Central African Republic, China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam.

Russia’s Supreme Court officially declared Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group

The report says, “Russia’s continued use of its ‘anti-extremism’ law as a tool to curtail religious freedoms is one of the reasons USCIRF has recommended for the first time that Russia be designated as a ‘country of particular concern’.”

On April 20, Russia’s Supreme Court officially declared Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group and banned all their activity.

The judge ordered all 395 local chapters and its Russian headquarters to close and authorised the government to seize all property. Under the ruling, distributing copies of The Watchtower magazine, discussing their beliefs in public, and even worshipping at a meeting hall have become crimes.

In July 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a suite of new anti-terrorism laws that appeared to severely restrict evangelism and missionary activity.

Under the new laws, it is illegal to share the Christian faith in homes or anywhere except recognised church buildings. The legislation gives the government more access to surveillance of internet activity, and forbids Russian Christians from sending email invitations to any event designed to recruit someone into a religious group. Fines are up to $US780 for an individual and $US15,500 for an organisation.

The legislation gives the government more access to surveillance of internet activity

“The Russian government views independent religious activity as a major threat to social and political stability, an approach inherited from the Soviet period,” the report says.

After 70 years of Communist rule, the government once again treats the Russian Orthodox Church as the state church, it says.

“Religious groups not affiliated with state-controlled organisations are treated with suspicion. Over time, the Russian government has come to treat the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (MPROC) as a de facto state church, strongly favouring it in various areas of state sponsorship, including subsidies, the education system, and military chaplaincies; this favouritism has fostered a climate of hostility toward other religions.”

Many observers have become numb to violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” – USCIRF report

Some of Russia’s violations are not directly targeted at religion, but may focus on requirements for building permits or restrictions on association.

“The state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. The blatant assaults have become so frightening — attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship — that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated. Many observers have become numb to violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” the report says.

Egypt and Iraq, which spent six and eight years on the list respectively, have both been removed from the list this year, because of “improvements in religious freedom conditions.”

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