'Extremist' Faith: Russian Jehovah's Witnesses Report Wave Of Police Raids, Detentions

On May 30, agents of the Magadan regional branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) knocked at the apartment of Tatyana and Konstantin Petrov.

"It began about 10 o'clock in the evening and didn't wind up until 4 a.m.," Tatyana Petrova said of the raid. "I didn't see how it started because I was in the kitchen, but I heard my husband go to the door. I heard a woman introduce herself as someone from the electric company. She said she needed to read the meter. My husband opened the door and then a whole crowd of people pushed into the apartment."

"I was too scared to go out," she continued. "I was simply in shock and stood petrified in the kitchen. I heard loud noises as my husband was wrestled to the floor. They started asking him, 'Are you Petrov?'... Then they took him away and I didn't see him again."

On June 14, a Magadan court confirmed Petrov's detention on charges of "fomenting hatred or enmity on the basis of sex, race, nationality or religion." Petrova told RFE/RL she believes the case stems from a Jehovah's Witnesses gathering in a local hotel that Petrov helped to organize.

"As usual at those meetings, we discussed the Bible," Petrova said. "That is the crime that they are accusing my husband of."

The Petrovs' story is far from unique. Yaroslav Sivulsky, a member of the European Association of Jehovah's Christian Witnesses, told RFE/RL that nearly identical stories have been reported in recent weeks in cities from Ivanovo in western Russia to the Petrovs' hometown of Magadan in the Far East.

"It always happens in the evening or at night when people are sleeping and the effect of surprise is most effective," Sivulsky told RFE/RL. "Sometimes security forces have discovered ahead of time where small gatherings of friends are being held, literally three to five people. Apparently, their telephones are being monitored or they are being followed."

Russian human rights monitors say 17 Jehovah's Witnesses have been taken into custody since the Russian government formally tagged the denomination an "extremist organization" in July 2017.

"It always happens at night," Sivulsky continued, "when people have returned from work and have gathered together to read the Bible. And suddenly security agents jump over fences, break down doors without knocking, or dramatically get into the scene in some other way."

Advocates of the Jehovah's Witnesses say they scored a small victory on May 25.

"An appeals court in Birobidzhan ordered the release of our co-religionist Alam Aliyev from custody," Sivulsky said. "The judge even made several critical comments to the authorities. I don't know how that happened, but it happened."

It is a unique case, however. Courts in the other cities have approved the detentions and, in some cases, authorized extensions at the request of prosecutors.

On June 7, Petrova and at least nine other wives of detained Jehovah's Witnesses sent an open letter to members of the presidential human rights council that they described as "a cry of despair." The letter asks the council to inform President Vladimir Putin about the cases and "to use all legal measures to restore the rights of believers."

"Today 17 of our believers are in Russian remand prisons," the letter says. "One of them has been held for more than a year. Dozens of others in 11 regions of Russia are under house arrest and barred from leaving the country. With each passing day, their numbers increase."

The detainees are guilty of nothing more than "reading the teachings of the Bible and praying to God," it adds.

Banned For Bible Reading

Petrova told RFE/RL that she feels a shift in the public's view of her since the government labeled the denomination an extremist group.

"People say to us, 'You should have been thrown in prison long ago,'" she said. "But for what? According to the Bible, Jesus Christ told every Christian to spread the good news of salvation and of the coming of paradise on earth, when people will live forever in happiness. My husband and I believe in this and feel called to tell people about this good news."

Russia's Supreme Court in July 2017 upheld a ruling that the Jehovah's Witnesses should be considered an extremist organization, effectively banning the denomination from the country.

The original ruling, issued in April 2017, was the first time an entire registered religious organization had been prohibited under Russian law.

Long viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general, the Jehovah's Witnesses -- which claim some 170,000 adherents in Russia and 8 million worldwide -- are among several denominations that have come under increasing pressure in recent years.

The denomination began operating in Russia and across the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Siberia Desk correspondent Andrei Filimonov