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, going on now in Orel, Russia, where belief and practice of a religion are being criminalized.
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 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 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.
In his recent address to the Russian Federal Assembly, Putin insisted that Russia “must expand freedom in all spheres” and “strengthen democratic institutions” including “civil society institutions ... and courts, and also open the country to the world and to new ideas and initiatives.”
If Putin believed what he said, he would throw out the arbitrary prosecution of Christensen and others so charged. He would explain to the courts that they should read Article 28 of the Russian Constitution, stating that everyone “shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.”
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