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Is it a crime to worship God? According to Russia, yes.


Irving, Texas. April 3, 2018

IS IT a crime to worship God? Does government have any business dictating the answer? Those who take religious freedom seriously should pay close attention to the trial of Dennis Christensen, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Orel, Russia, where belief and practice of a religion are being criminalized.

Mr. Christensen, 46, a citizen of Denmark, has been held in pretrial detention for 11 months and is about to be tried on charges of organizing the activities of an “extremist organization,” the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If convicted, he could face 10 years in prison. Last year, the Russian Supreme Court declared the group “extremist ” and banned it from operating on Russian territory; there were 170,000 members in 395 branches at the time. The forthcoming trial of Mr. Christensen is the latest result of the court ruling. The Justice Ministry had earlier called the group “a threat to the rights of citizens, public order and public security.”

How was Mr. Christensen threatening the public order and security by delivering a sermon on May 25, 2017, during a Jehovah’s Witnesses service in Orel, about 230 miles south of Moscow? The charge sheet, according to Human Rights Watch, says he was “actively involved in organizational work aimed at continuing the unlawful activities” of the group. He had apparently unlocked the building where the service was to be held. Police raided the service. In recent months there have been other raids and prosecutions in Kemerovo, Belgorod and Taganrog.

In fact, the worship services of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are no more “extremist” than those performed by the Russian Orthodox Church, now closely aligned with President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses eschew subservience to the state; they refuse military service, do not vote and view God as the only true leader. Members of the group also suffered decades of persecution and stigmatization in the Soviet Union.

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