A Danish Jehovah’s Witness, Dennis Christensen, was sentenced to six years in prison by the Russian Court system on charges of “organizing a banned extremist group”.
Russia’s Supreme Court had banned Jehovah’s Witnesses back in April of 2017, and labeled the religious group as an extremist organization. Many human rights groups have spoken up about this issue and its disregard for religious freedom, as, to this day, around 170,000 Jehovah Witnesses are being persecuted in Russia for this very reason.
Indeed, Denmark’s Foreign Minister, Ander Samuelsen, stated on Twitter, “Deeply concerned by the sentencing of Dennis Christensen. Again, call on #Russia to respect freedom of religion. Danish MFA will continue to follow closely and assist Dennis Christensen should he decide to appeal #dkpol.” Many others have also been advocating for Christensen. Paul Gillies, a Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman, believes Christensen had been arrested purely on the grounds of practicing his faith. To the New York Times, Gillies stated that, “This verdict reveals just how fragile religious freedom has become in Russia,” and that the Jehovah Witness Community will “continue to appeal for justice.”
And as reported in the Washington Post, Christensen himself lamented, “I do not agree with this judgment, it’s a big mistake… I’m really sad that such a thing is happening in Russia, very sad. The same thing could happen to any of us.” This statement rings true across the globe, as religious persecution can be seen in the Rohingyas treatment in Myanmar, in Christians being massacred in Nigeria, to name a few instances.
According to the New York Times, back in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin had issued a statement, declaring that, “[Russia] should treat the representatives of every religion equally,” which gave hope to many Jehovah Witnesses, although current events would deem those words moot.
Those who give voice to those suffering injustice should be applauded. Jehovah Witnesses are a sect of Christianity which had been started in the United States by Charles Taze Russell in the 1900s. Religious freedom is a basic right that every person should have, and Vladimir Putin should be urged to honour his words and remove Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization under the 2002 anti-extremist law.
Christensen, who had been arrested while praying in the town of Oryol, has lived in Russia for two decades prior to his arrest. Although his arrest has garnered headlines, he is not alone. Many Jehovah’s Witness prayer halls have been raided, driving many to seek shelter in neighbouring nations. According to the New York Times, 22 other Jehovah’s Witnesses have been arrested in Russia, and 25 are currently under house arrest. Many hope that Christensen’s case will shed light on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ treatment in Russia.
The goal of promoting fundamental human rights and freedoms, in this case, the freedom of religion, ought to be pursued. As James Madison once stated, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”