With masks and rifles, police came to Anatoly Vilitkevich’s door in the early morning and made him pack a bag. He was wanted for religious extremism — as a Jehovah’s Witness.
“Forget it,” they told his wife, Alyona, taking away the couple’s tablet devices, computers and phones. “Go and find a new phone, a new tablet and a new husband.”
Vilitkevich was one of more than 20 members of the US-founded Christian movement detained across Russia in recent months. They risk up to 10 years in jail, Human Rights Watch said.
Various groups have been targeted under a 2016 anti-extremism law. A Russian Supreme Court ruling last year targeted the Jehovah’s Witnesses specifically, ordering their dissolution in Russia.
“Officially, it’s a totalitarian sect of extremists, but in fact, these are people who because of their faith are not susceptible to propaganda,” a man identified as a Russian Federal Security Service officer by Radio Liberty said.
“The system sees them as a threat because they are organized and independent. One day they may seek power,” he told the station in an interview this year.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses said that 22 of their members were in jail in Russia, including a couple detained together on Wednesday last week.
Human Rights Watch said police threatened the Jehovah’s Witnesses in raids, in some cases holding guns to people’s heads.
“We don’t see any reasonable explanation for it,” senior Jehovah’s Witnesses representative Yaroslav Sivulsky said. “But we do not forget the words of Christ: ‘Just as I have been persecuted, so will you be persecuted.’ For us, that explains it.”
Alyona Vilitkevich, 35, said investigators classed their Bible readings and prayer groups as “extremist activity.”
“I talk to people as the constitution permits. I share with them what I have gained from the Bible as I think it can help them,” she said by telephone.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination that originated in the US in the late 19th century. They have spread worldwide, seeking converts and giving out leaflets. They say they number nearly 172,000 in Russia.
“They are close to the people, they preach and promote their religion openly, so that makes for competition and rivalry with the Russian Orthodox Church,” said Maria Kravchenko, an expert at the SOVA Center, a civil research group.
Senior Russian Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev said Jehovah’s Witnesses “destroy people’s minds and destroy families,” but added that the prosecutions were a judicial matter, not a religious one.
“The Church generally does not call for the prosecution of heretics, sectarians or dissidents,” he told television channel Russia 24 in April. “Such a decision is made by the state, not on the basis of any doctrinal guidelines, but because the sect is engaged in extremist activities.”
“Maybe this decision of the Russian authorities to ban all Jehovah’s Witness organizations in Russia could be connected with this recent anti-Western trend,” Kravchenko said.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say about 200 of their members have fled from Russia to Finland and thousands more to other nations.
Anatoly Vilitkevich, 31, was held for nine days in April and then transferred to house arrest pending trial. He is not allowed to talk to journalists.
His wife, Alyona, said they are appealing his case at the Russian Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights.
“I will not renounce my faith. It is my life, my principles,” she said. “I cannot live any other way.”
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