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Russia Seizes Property From Jehovah's Witnesses After Ban

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 3/6/2019 Ann M. Simmons
a close up of a sign © Demianchuk Alexander/Zuma Press

MOSCOW—Russian authorities have confiscated millions of dollars’ worth of property from Jehovah’s Witness organizations, in a move that raises concern the group is under deepening persecution despite assurances from the Kremlin that the faith isn’t being targeted.

The action follows the recent imprisonment of a Danish Jehovah’s Witness in Russia, where the faith is outlawed, as well as allegations that its members have been detained and tortured.

Human rights advocates said the widening crackdown signaled a growing intolerance for religious freedom. While religious organizations—many of them Islamic—are also banned under an anti-extremism law, “the scale of this repressive campaign [against Jehovah’s Witnesses] is incomparable to any others,” said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA center for Information and Analysis, a Moscow-based advocacy group and think tank. 

Jehovah’s Witness representatives said Wednesday that they had received official documentation dated March 1 confirming that the organization’s former administrative center campus in St. Petersburg, valued at around 2 billion rubles ($30.4 million), was now government property.

“It’s getting worse for Jehovah’s Witnesses” in Russia, said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The pressure is increasing, he said. “We have many who are in prison, many home searches, many raids. And now the taking of the property.”

Details of the real-estate transfer are documented in an excerpt from Russia’s “Unified State Register of Real Property”, a government list of property ownership seen by The Wall Street Journal.

In 2000, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia transferred the legal ownership of the property to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit corporation based in the U.S., according to the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxedo, N.Y.

The corporation had since paid some $3 million in property taxes, Jehovah’s Witnesses officials said. But a St. Petersburg district court ruled in Dec. 2017 the real-estate transfer invalid. Since Russia banned the organization in 2017, the court ruled that the property be returned to the Russian state. The decision was upheld by the St. Petersburg City Court in 2018. This week, the organization was officially notified that the government had appropriated the property.

The administrative center is the Jehovah’s Witnesses most expensive piece of real estate in Russia, but representatives said the organization was at risk of losing other property in Russia with an estimated value of over $75 million. Some 20 of its 303 properties have already been confiscated, according to the organization, which said it is challenging its ban and the seizure of its property in the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2016, Russia amended its antiterrorism laws tightening restrictions on religious groups, particularly smaller sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The measures prohibit “missionary activities” including preaching, praying, proselytizing, and distributing religious materials outside of officially-designated sites.

The following year, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses violated the new laws and ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters in St. Petersburg and all of its almost 400 local religious organizations.

In February, a Russian court sentenced Dennis Christensen, a Danish Jehovah’s Witness, to six years imprisonment for organizing activities associated with an outlawed extremist group. Later that month, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that at least seven of its members detained in the Siberian city of Surgut were subjected to torture by regional officials of Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s main federal investigating authority.

Investigative Committee officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the torture allegations, but have previously refuted them.

The Kremlin has also rejected accusations that it is intolerant of religious freedom in general, and of Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular.

At a meeting of the Human Rights Council in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin called it “complete nonsense” to include Jehovah’s Witnesses among extremist organizations. He promised to review the matter with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev.

Mr. Lebedev told reporters last month that the country’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses wasn’t motivated by the group’s religious practices, but was based on its violation of the law.

Write to Ann Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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