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Russia Labels Jehovah's Witnesses An Extremist Group


Russia's Supreme Court has accepted a request from the government to declare Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist group. This puts the Christian denomination in the same category as the Islamic State. We're going to talk about this with Andrew Roth, a Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post who's on the phone. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: What could possibly make Jehovah's Witnesses the same as ISIS?

ROTH: Well, yes, you know, there's a joke that they're the most pacifist extremists in Russia now...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ROTH: ...Because it seems like the Russian government's decided to declare them an extremist group because of pamphlets that they distributed. And the formal argument by the Justice Ministry was that those pamphlets incited hatred against other religious groups. Basically they said that, you know, Orthodoxy is not the true way, our way is the true way. And so that's the main sort of part of the government's argument.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned pacifists. That's one of the beliefs the Jehovah's Witnesses are known for - pacifism. They try to be apolitical. People in the United States know them because they knock on doors. They pass out those pamphlets you mentioned. They do seek converts. You may disagree with them. You may dislike them but they don't seem that threatening. How common are Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia?

ROTH: Right. So today there's about 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. This is part of the history of the fall of the Soviet Union. You know, they were persecuted under Stalin but after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a huge wave of conversions in the country and proselytizing. And they grew quite quickly.

And it seems like what's happening now is that the Russian government is really trying to clamp down and to sort of recreate an idea of what official religion is in Russia. You know, there's official Christianity Orthodoxy. There's official Islam. And these are figures who are both religious and also have a sort of government position. And clearly, Jehovah's Witnesses don't fit into that conception of official Christianity in the country.

INSKEEP: Andrew Roth, is there something bigger going on here? Vladimir Putin has posed broadly as a defender of traditional Christianity and this is part of that?

ROTH: Yeah, I think that that's a fair way to look at the question right now. You know, these are a group of Christians who aren't formally really connected with the state. They're actually not just pacifists but apolitical completely. And that's believed to have made the Kremlin somewhat uncomfortable. There's also a growing strength of the Russian Orthodox Church.

INSKEEP: Wait, you're saying that he supports Christianity that can be supportive to him in a political way, that is what he wants?

ROTH: Yes. You know, the Russian Orthodox Church which is official Christianity in Russia is this sort of - there's an important symbiosis between religion and the political power in the country. And so the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin have walked in lockstep. And I think it's fair to see that this crackdown is in some ways sort of influenced - growing influence of Orthodox Christianity and a view of Christianity that can support the Kremlin's aim.

INSKEEP: Helpful to know. That's Washington Post correspondent Andrew Roth. He is in Moscow, where the Russian Supreme Court has now agreed with the government and declared the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist group. Mr. Roth, thanks very much.

ROTH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.