April 5 (UPI) — Russia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday considered a request by the government to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and declare the Christian group an extremist organization.
On March 16, the Russian government filed suit to outlaw the organization, which is already considered an extremist group in St. Petersburg where it is headquartered.
The group has 175,000 members in Russia and 395 branches across the country. Worldwide there are more than 7 million members.
Lawyers for the group filed a counter suit before Wednesday’s hearing, saying they are victims of political repression.
The court, however, said it’s “ineligible to review this lawsuit” because other courts are responsible for determining whether a person or group have been politically repressed. The court adjourned hearing the case until Thursday.
The ministry said the Jehovah’s Witnesses “violate Russia’s law on combating extremism” and their pamphlets incite hatred against other groups.
The government wants to eliminate all local chapters and confiscate their assets.
Russia’s Supreme Court won’t let the 395 local chapters of Jehovah’s Witnesses participate in the hearings.
“Right now the rights of local chapters are being violated,” a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses told Russia’s state-run news agency Tass. “Regional law enforcement authorities interrupt believers’ peaceful prayers. In its lawsuit, the Justice Ministry demands these organizations be shut down and their property confiscated, but none of them are represented here in this court.”
A Justice Ministry spokeswoman said the lawsuit concerned an organization called the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“We object to letting local religious chapters participate in the hearings, because they are structural units of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the spokeswoman said.
In 2009, prosecutors in southern Russia wrote a report that found that Jehovah’s Witnesses “undermined respect” in other religions.
The group, which was founded in the United States in the late 19th century, was banned during Joseph Stalin‘s reign in the Soviet Union. Thousands of members were deported to Siberia.
The ban was lifted in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Russian officials raided the group’s national headquarters in February and confiscated a reported 70,000 documents.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian government,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, told Time magazine. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.”