WORLD: Are Christians the most persecuted religion? Pew report on religious harassment by L. Arik Greenberg, PhD

By WRN Guest


World Religion News (18.01.2020) – – In the summer of 2018, the Pew Research Center released a report on the state of religious persecution, restriction and harassment in the world; it was immediately coopted and misconstrued to advance certain agendas which unfortunately miss the point of the report. The report demonstrated that there was a measurable uptick in governmental restrictions on religions globally, along with acknowledging the growing presence of nationalist movements in countries that are repressive toward religious minorities. Additionally, there has been a relatively stable, but sizeable level of social harassment (from non-governmental sources) of religious minorities.


As part of their report, summaries were posted which provide key findings in easily readable format. One of the key findings is that in 2016, Christians experienced harassment by governments or social groups in the largest number of countries (144 countries), just slightly ahead of Muslims (142 countries). Many conservative Christian commentators and news sources were quick to interpret these results to their advantage, as if giving them arguably solid data to support their long-standing claim to be the most persecuted religion in the world. Headlines such as “Religious freedom getting worse around the world; Christians remain most persecuted group: Pew” from the Christian Post appeared immediately, bolstered by “Christians most persecuted religious group in the world” in the ADF International newsletter, and “Pew: Christian, Muslim persecution most widespread” from the Baptist Press.1 Even one of my favorite students, an evangelical Christian himself, was quick to ask me this fall, “But aren’t Christians the most persecuted religion in the world?” confidently citing the Pew Forum report as evidence. But this is not what the Pew study concluded, despite misguided interpretations of their data.


In fact, the report deliberately avoids the term, persecution.


“[T]his study provides data on the number of countries in which different religious groups are harassed or intimidated. But the study does not assess either the severity or the frequency of the harassment in each country. Therefore, the results should not be interpreted as gauging which religious group faces the most harassment or persecution around the world.”2


Were one to include persecution within the methodology of such a report, would one define it as merely harassment or socio-economic repression, or must it include real and lethal physical violence in order to be called persecution? And in terms of comparing differing intensities of persecution, what would be the parameters and rubric of such a comparison?


The aforementioned spate of articles most commonly cited only one particular set of numbers from the report, reproducing one chart that focused exclusively on the number of countries in which a religion experienced harassment (defined broadly, as stated above, and not specifically any type of persecution). Such a rubric for the most persecuted, which takes the number of countries in which the demographic experiences persecution as the primary determinant, is fundamentally flawed. By the mangled logic used by certain Christians to define their religion as the most persecuted in light of these data released by Pew, it would be hypothetically possible for there to be one Christian in each of the 144 countries reported, for a total of 144 Christians in the world, and still be considered the most highly persecuted religion in the world. This one number has been grossly misinterpreted and trotted out as a prized horse in the contest of whose religion is the most persecuted, a game which provides bragging rights that under some circumstances will be used to justify greater military involvement in global regions where Christianity is the minority, as well as justify domestic legislation and policy changes which further establish Christianity as the dominant and most favored religion — a status which is still in effect, but rapidly changing.3


An interesting article in the Friendly Atheist, called “Are Christians Really the Most Persecuted Religious Group in the World?” by Hemant Mehta, challenged some of these misinterpretations of the data and made reference to a parallel, but separate report simultaneously released by Pew, which included data for 2017 as well and emphasized some of the increased effects on the religiously unaffiliated.4 In the article, he addresses the problematic nature of some of the claims by evangelical Christians, pointing out that the methodology used in the report does not support grand and spurious claims that the Christian religion is universally and perennially under attack. Firstly, he points out that harassment (the primary term used in the report) can include anything, from “verbal hate to government oppression” and the chart cannot accurately indicate how many of these instances were life-threatening. Secondly, he points out the lack of persecution of Christianity by the U.S. Government, in light of the so-called “Muslim Bans” enacted under the Trump administration, which do severely affect the lives of many Muslims in the U.S. Mehta writes:


“Remember, also, that the United States isn’t a country where Christians are persecuted by the government. Muslims certainly are. It’s almost insulting for U.S. Christians to say they’re being persecuted when there are Christians who literally can’t practice their faith out in the open in some other countries. The U.S. is actually listed as “moderate” on the survey’s “Government Restrictions” index, which shows how oppressive different countries are to all religions…. Our nation needs to do better to defend religious freedom. When we do it, other nations inevitably follow suit. When we’re passing Muslim bans for the hell of it, it gives other countries license to discriminate against people on the basis of faith, too.”


Some other problems with the standard, adversarial approach to these numbers must be addressed. Christians are highly divided. The unity of Christians is often only trotted out as a rhetorical argument by conservative Christians to highlight their overall persecution. Many of the evangelical Christians propagating these claims rarely if ever acknowledge the validity of Catholics and Orthodox Christians until it serves their arguments, conveniently choosing to enumerate them among global Christianity in order to include them in persecution statistics. But often, Orthodox Christians of the Middle East will complain of evangelicals trying to convert them to “real” Christianity during primary interactions with them, as if their brand of Christianity was not sufficient. In an ironic turn of events, in most places where Christians face persecution, Christians are the majority religion, such as in Nicaragua, where the government is openly antagonistic to and oppressive of the Catholic majority in that country.5


This constant one-upmanship to decide who is more oppressed, as if it were a game, leads us further from the most important lesson to take from the Pew report, which is to prevent further atrocities and religious repression. There are horrendous human rights abuses happening all over the world. Some of them are perpetrated by religious and ethnic extremists, while others are perpetrated by corporate and national interests that run roughshod over the very lives and bodies of unprotected ethno-religious groups, some numerical minorities, and others in a disenfranchised and disempowered majority. I would draw the reader’s attention to at least two major instances of religious and ethnic persecution: that of the Uighurs and of the Rohingya.


In the last several years, it has become more highly reported that the Buddhist majority government of Myanmar (formerly Burma) has engaged in systematic displacement and elimination of the indigenous minority grouping, known as the Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim and live in the Rakhine State. For decades, this government has attempted to delegitimize the Rohingya through repressive legislation and policy and to challenge their identity as the indigenous people of Burma, and ultimately to justify the large-scale relocation of nearly one million Rohingya since 2015. Many have been murdered, their homes destroyed, with widespread reports of punitive rape and other atrocities. The government of Myanmar, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been complicit in the genocide of the Rohingya, perpetrated by a military junta out of control, bolstered and justified by nationalist and extremist attitudes expressed by hardline Buddhist monks, such as Ashin Wirathu.6 Aung San Suu Kyi has been extensively criticized for her inaction, but has expressed that there is nothing she can do in the face of military opposition.7


In China, on the other hand, the very nation that invaded and subjugated Tibet in 1950 on the grounds of reclaiming former territory, we now see widespread concentration camps that intern not only religious and ideological factions such as the Falun Gong, but also ethnic minorities like the predominantly Muslim Uighurs. Since 2017, over 1 million Uighurs have been interned in 85 different rapidly built “reeducation camps”. Initially the Chinese government denied the existence of these camps but since their discovery by international sources, the government has acknowledged their existence, but downplayed their purpose. The 11 million Muslim-majority Uighurs that live in the Province of Xinjiang, formerly known as East Turkistan, have been the victims of governmental repression, ostensibly because of the actions of a few Uighur militants in 2013 and 2014. While China claims that its attempts to control and reeducate the Uighurs are to ensure their compliance and docility and to counteract potential terrorism, some suspect that the region’s wealth of natural gas provides ample motive for China to repress and silence the region’s inhabitants. Since 2017, the Xinjiang government has destroyed mosques and prohibited Uighurs from maintaining traditional forms of dress and facial hair. Many Uighurs report brutal and violent treatment inside of these camps, including systematic rape.


While it is tempting to enumerate these two instances as examples of larger patterns of persecution against Muslims, thus canceling out the spurious and tendentious claims by conservative Christians, even this would be to miss the bigger picture, which is that of oppressive regimes punishing and committing genocide against minority communities, and the international community either helpless to mitigate, or deliberately turning a blind eye to their suffering. But we are not in fact helpless in our desire to see justice be carried out. In a recent episode of “1A” on National Public Radio, which featured Salih Hudayar, founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement and Louisa Greve, director of global advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, both guests encouraged people to contact their representatives and the White House alike to urge sanctions against China and the recognition of these actions as genocide. Similar attempts to gain the attention of government have at least helped bring awareness to the Rohingya crisis. We may often feel helpless in such situations, but the power of the purse is a power worth noting. Oppressive regimes will often respond when funding is on the line. Each person must do their part to ensure that their voices are heard, so that the voiceless across the world can be given a voice.



1. These augmented earlier headlines reporting previous years’ versions of the report, including “Data: Christians Are the Most Persecuted Religious Group in the World” from Townhall (, “Christians are MOST persecuted religion in the world – reveals new report” from Express (, and “Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, says Pew report” from Church Times (, among others.


2. Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016, page 54.


3. For the decline in numbers of Christians in the U.S. and abroad, see and which point to the fact that while numbers of Christians are still by far the majority religion globally.

4. Interestingly, the parallel report released by Pew indicated that the 2017 numbers were similar, but showed a slight downtick, with Christians and Muslims experiencing harassment in 143 and 140 countries, respectively, but with religiously unaffiliated people experiencing a dramatic increase in such harassment, in 23 countries in 2017, up from 14 in 2015 and 2016, in keeping with the larger trend of increased harassment of religions globally.




6. See,33009,2146000,00.html,, and


7. At the time of this article’s writing, a party official under her administration has been killed by rebels in what can only be called a confusing turn of events in the grand scheme of Myanmar’s politics.

Offence of blasphemy officially scrapped from Irish law

The offence of blasphemy has been officially removed from the Irish constitution.

By Jack Beresford

The Irish Post (18.01.2020) – – Ireland voted to repeal the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution by a huge majority in a referendum held back in October 2018.

65 percent of the population, and every constituency, voted to pass the referendum, with 35% against.

It was first time each constituency has voted in favour of a referendum question since the vote to establish the Court of Appeal in 2013.

The legislation was commenced from today.

Commenting on the change, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said the “very notion of criminalising blasphemy, with the risk of a chilling effect on free expression and public debate, has no place in the Constitution or the laws of a modern Republic.”

“Ireland is a country of increasing diversity,” he added.

“The right to express differing viewpoints in a forthright and critical manner is a right to be cherished and upheld.”

Mr Flanagan confirmed that the legislation removes “all identified references to blasphemy” in Irish law – defined as “the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter, defamatory of any religion” – and also relates to the censorship of films released in Ireland.

Mr Flanagan was keen to “emphasise that these changes are not an attack on religious beliefs” and are not “intended to privilege one set of values over another.”

Though the law was largely overlooked, Mr Flanagan explained the new legislation is an “acknowledgement that the meaning of the concept of blasphemy is unclear in a modern State and that the concept is rooted in a distant past where fealty to the State was conflated with fealty to a particular religion.”

He also noted that while it “may seem abstract” to devote time to removing an offence not “prosecuted in practice” he said certain countries hand down severe penalties for it and use the law as justification for the persecution of dissidents.

In these instances, Mr Flanagan argued these countries have used the example of Ireland’s blasphemy laws as justification for their actions, describing it as a “very disturbing reality”.

Executive Director Liam Herrick hailed the change as an important day for freedom of expression.

“It is very positive news that we see from the Government today that they are implementing the result of the Referendum on Blasphemy,” he said.

“We are now seeing a landmark on the road towards free speech and against censorship in Ireland.”

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties also welcomed the new legislation as a “wonderful leap forward” for human rights in Ireland.

Churches-EU Dialogue: COMECE and CEC meet with the Croatian EU Presidency

COMECE Press release (21.01.2020) – An ecumenical delegation composed of representatives from Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC) met in Zagreb on Monday, 20 January 2020 with Mr. Andrej Plenković, Prime Minister of Croatia, to exchange on the priorities of the Croatian Presidency of the EU Council, which started on 1 January 2020.


The delegation led by H. Em. Card. Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, President of COMECE, and Rev. Christian Krieger, President of CEC, shared a contribution of Churches in Europe on key issues that the Croatian Presidency will address in the following six months. The meeting included the participation of representatives of the Croatian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and CEC Member Churches from Croatia.


In the COMECE and CEC Contribution to Croatia’s EU Council Presidency Programme “A strong Europe in a world of challenges”, a section was devoted to religious freedom:


Religious freedom in third countries


The exercise of the fundamental and inalienable right to freedom of religion may be «subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others » (Art 18(3) ICCPR). As it is grounded in the inherent dignity of the human person, all dimensions of this right – individual and collective; private and public; as well as institutional – should be properly and fully protected. Churches in Europe note that the issue of freedom of religion has become an increasing concern in a number of EU Member States. This is related to the current sensitivity to presence of religion in the public space, as well as to a growing number of attacks on faith communities in recent years, many of them targeting Christian communities. (6) The EU holds a unique role in ensuring the implementation of its legal framework in this area. In January 2019, the European Parliament adopted the resolution supporting the strategic relevance of the function and calls on the Council and the European Commission to adequately support the “mandate, capacity and duties of the Special Envoy.” (7)




  • Adopt targeted measures to protect highly vulnerable religious minorities in countries and regions where they are at risk of disappearing (e.g. Christians in the Middle East), collect evidence in case of international crimes committed against them, and promote and endorse national or international mechanisms to prosecute the perpetrators.
  • Grant full political, social and financial support to make effective the right of Christians and other persecuted minorities, in particular in the Middle East, to remain in their home countries, and to return to them in dignity and safety as soon as possible; establish an international targeted fund to implement both basic rights.
  • Ensure that the portfolio of the EU Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU is continued and strengthened in its resources.
  • Monitor the implementation of the EU action plan on public spaces, include religious communities in the dialogue with the Member States and provide the EU funding for the training of religious communities on the matter of public safety.


Brussels, January 2020


(6) E.g. murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel in Normandy in July 2016, the bombing of churches on Easter Sunday March 2016 in Lahore, the narrowly-averted church massacre in October 2018 in Louisville Kentucky, terrorist attacks against churches in Sri Lanka during the April 2019 Easter Sunday Mass, periodic attacks on Koptic churches in Egypt etc.



SOUTH KOREA: Sun Hwa KIM killed by her ex-husband

Sun Hwa KIM

HRWF (20.01.2020) – In December 2018, Hwa Baek SEO was released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence for the murder of his wife, Sun Hwa KIM, in 2007. HRWF met Sun Gyeong KIM, the victim’s younger sister, in Seoul.


On 7 October 2007, Sun Hwa KIM was beaten with a blunt object by her former husband Hwa Baek SEO at her home. This brutal attack caused a stroke that necessitated her hospitalization in Dong Gang hospital at Tae Hwadong. Two days later, she needed brain surgery. Unfortunately, Sun Hwa KIM did not survive the operation and passed away on 12 October 2007. She was 48 years old.


Her abduction and confinement in 2006


Sun Geong KIM, who joined the Shincheonji Church after her sister, testified to Human Rights Without Frontiers that:


“My sister’s husband was a short-tempered person. Before their divorce, he had already been convicted on charges of assault and sentenced to a prison term of one year.


My sister had always been a devout Christian, even before her marriage. Originally, she was Catholic, but became Presbyterian later on. After leaving the Catholic Church, she would attend early morning prayers almost every day and evangelize her family as well.


She told her husband about her religious commitment and her activities with the Shincheonji Church. One day, he followed her to the church located in Shin Jeon-dong and attacked her. After this incident, her husband contacted a Presbyterian pastor from a ‘cult counselling center’ who advised him to enroll Sun Hwa KIM in a de-conversion program. The pastor outlined the required steps for his program: abduction of Sun Hwa KIM, confinement and then obtaining her signature on a ‘voluntary request’ to follow a de-conversion program.


The abduction took place on 9 June 2006. Sun Hwa KIM’s youngest sister called her for help, saying that she was kidnapped by her boyfriend. However, that was a lie to lure Sun Hwa KIM to a secluded place. Instead, they took her to a motel in Bulgyo, South Jeolla Province, where she was confined and submitted to a de-conversion program.


Three Presbyterian pastors took turns “re-educating” Sun Hwa KIM every day for 10 hours, showing her videos slandering the Shincheonji Church. These pastors are:


  • Jong Han KIM, former pastor of the Presbyterian Beol Kyo Dae Gwang Church, now a pastor in “A church with a dream,” a Presbyterian church in Sun Cheon city, in South Jeolla Province;


  • Yong-Sik JIN, pastor of the Presbyterian Sang Rok Church in An San City;


  • And Ui Jong HWANG, pastor in the Presbyterian Sae Jang Hak Church in Busan city.


After three days of detention, Sun Hwa KIM managed to shout for help through a window and was subsequently rescued by the police. After this incident, she filed for a divorce and custody of her two sons. However, she was always afraid of being abducted again.”


Her murder in 2007


On 19 February 2008, the Ulsan District Court, 3rd Criminal Panel, sentenced Hwa Baek SEO to 10 years of imprisonment. Included in that decision were the 135 days he spent in pretrial detention. The facts were described as follows by the court:


“The defendant was married to the victim (KK female, 48) in 1984. While living a married life with two sons, they divorced by mutual agreement in September 2006. The defendant wished to be reunited with the victim and harassed her, but the victim avoided the defendant’s phone calls and refused to meet him. Meanwhile, the defendant believed that their marriage ended in divorce because the victim joined the Shincheonji Church and neglected her family. The defendant decided to try to change the victim’s mind by any means, including violent ones. Around 04:30am of 7 October 2007, the defendant wrapped a gourd-shaped metal bar, approximately 29cm in length and 6cm in diameter, with green tape while he was inside his Atoz car. He was parked at the entrance of Wawa Park in Samho-Dong, Nam-gu, Ulsan. Then, he took a taxi with an unknown license plate number to the victim’s rented house in Okgyo-Dong, Jung-gu, Ulsan.


Around 05:25am on 7 October 2007, the defendant arrived at the victim’s house and entered through the back door. He went into the victim’s room by going through the attic window,  and he found the victim praying. When the victim saw the defendant, she spoke in a defensive manner and took the metal bar from the defendant. Enraged, the defendant took the metal bar back by force, causing the victim to fall. While she tried to get up, the defendant struck the victim on her head with the metal bar several times. She died from traumatic subdural hemorrhage resulting from blunt force trauma on 12 October 2007 at Dongkang Medical Center in Taehwa-dong, Jung-gu, Ulsan. In conclusion, the defendent is responsible for the death of the victim.”


The connections between the murderer and Pastor Ui Jong HWANG


Two weeks after Sun Hwa KIM’s death in 2007, Pastor Hwang visited the murderer at a detention center in Ulsan. Pastor Hwang then transferred 500,000 won to Hwa Baek SEO to pay for his legal fees and promised to send 1 million won to him in early November of the same year.


The lawyer’s fees cost a total of 4 million won. This was provided by: raising funds in Pastor Hwang’s church, which were then given to Hwa Baek SEO’s second son (1 million won); personal funds given to Hwa Baek SEO’s younger brother (1 million won); and funds raised by downsizing the house where Hwa Baek SEO’s children lived (2 million won).


This clearly demonstrates that the pastor was closely involved in Sun Hwa KIM’s case and invested in the outcome, including Hwa Baek SEO’s criminal proceedings.

UNITED KINGDOM: Government to increase protections for persecuted Christians abroad, following Bishop’s review

Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his Christmas message to express sympathy for Christians “who are facing persecution” around the world


The Telegraph (11.01.2020) – – Persecuted Christians abroad will have their protection bolstered by the British government, following a landmark pledge to adopt a new definition of anti-Christian discrimination and persecution.


Last year the former foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, commissioned  Philip Mounstephen, the bishop of Truro, to spend six months examining the extent and nature of Christian persecution as well as assessing the UK government’s response.


Among the recommendations proposed by the Bishop included: establishing a UN security council resolution urging Middle East and northern African countries to do more to protect Christians, send UN observers to monitor the effectiveness of security measures, impose sanctions on regimes found to have committed “serious human rights abuses” against religious minorities, and create a Magna Carta Fund dedicated to their protection.


Other recommendations included rolling out mandatory training to help staff at home and abroad better identify persecution in all its forms as well as adopting a definition of anti-Christian discrimination and persecution, similar to those applied to Islamophobia and antisemitism.


Now it has emerged that the government plans to implement all the recommendations “in full”.


Speaking last week during a foreign affairs debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Goldie, Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, was referring to “the important matter of the Truro review and its recommendations”.


She added: “The Government intend to implement the recommendations in full.”


In his report the Bishop of Truro said that the UK government should “name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution and undertake work to identify its particular character alongside similar definitions for other religions”.


Baroness Goldie also revealed that the government will also “show global leadership” by imposing Magnitsky-style sanctions on nations which violate human rights.


“Secondary legislation will be laid under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 once we leave the EU,” she said. “This will allow the UK to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions in response to serious human rights violations or abuses.”


The Magnitsky Act was enacted by the Obama Administration, authorizing the U.S. Government to sanction human rights offenders.


In his report the Bishop of Truro said that the UK government should “name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution and undertake work to identify its particular character alongside similar definitions for other religions”.


This would be with the aim of developing tailored policies within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to address such issues.


The announcement comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his Christmas message to express sympathy for Christians “who are facing persecution” around the world.


He used his message to vow to “defend” their right to religious expression, saying he will aim to “change” the dire predicament of those punished for their faith.


Ayo Adedoyin, Executive Director of PSJ UK (The international Organisation for Peace Building and Social Justice) welcomed the announcement.


He said: “It is great news that the new Boris Johnson Government is taking seriously at long last the appalling suffering of Nigerian Christians, who are being brutally targeted by Islamist Fulani militants and Islamic State terrorists.


The Bishop of Truro has produced 22 detailed recommendations all designed to give greater prominence to the carnage against Christians worldwide and in Nigeria in particular. Crucially, they include the imposition of sanctions against governments such as the Buhari regime, who turn a blind eye or worse to the suffering of innocent villagers singled out solely because of their faith.


“The death toll is running at 1,000 a year and in addition many more are being maimed and terrorised and driven from their homes. Britain gives Nigeria £300 million a year in aid and it is time to link that to a genuine attempt by Abuja to protect Christians. It is time to stop the silent slaughter of the innocents.”



Recommended reading

Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO support for persecuted Christians: Final report and recommendations


The West owes Iraq’s persecuted minorities a lot more than just talk


Jeremy Hunt: We must not allow a misguided political correctness to stop us from helping persecuted Christians


Boris Johnson will highlight plight of persecuted Christians across the world in his Christmas message


Russia: Escalating Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Arrests, Prison, Harassment for Peaceful Religious Practice

Human Rights Watch (09.01.2020) – – Law enforcement authorities across Russia have dramatically escalated the nationwide persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past 12 months, Human Rights Watch said today. One year after President Vladimir Putin said that the crackdown against them should be “looked into,” the numbers of house raids and people under criminal investigation have more than doubled, and 32 Jehovah’s Witnesses worshipers are behind bars for peacefully practicing their faith.


At least 313 people are facing charges, are on trial, or have been convicted of criminal “extremism” for engaging in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities, or are suspects in such cases. About two-thirds of them found out about their status as suspect or accused in 2019. Authorities have carried out at least 780 house raids since 2017 in more than 70 towns and cities across Russia, more than half of them in 2019. Courts convicted 18 people in 2019, nine of whom received prison sentences ranging from two to six years, for such activities as leading or participating in prayer meetings. Verdicts are expected in several cases later in January.


“For Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, practicing their faith means risking their freedom,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There is nothing remotely justifiable about this. It’s time for President Putin to ensure that law enforcement stop this harmful persecution.”


Russian authorities should release detained Jehovah’s Witnesses immediately, drop any outstanding charges, expunge all related criminal records, and halt their persecution, Human Rights Watch said.


Human Rights Watch interviewed two lawyers defending Jehovah’s Witnesses in numerous regions, and the spouses of seven men convicted or facing charges of engaging in Jehovah’s Witnesses activity. Human Rights Watch also reviewed court verdicts and other documents, media reports, and Russian government statements.


The raids and arrests stem from an April 2017 Russian Supreme Court ruling that banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations in Russia. It declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center, the head office for 395 Jehovah’s Witnesses branches throughout Russia, an extremist organization and ruled that all branches should be shut down. The ruling blatantly violates Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom and freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.


Russian authorities should reverse the ban on the organization’s activities and remove the “extremist” designation, Human Rights Watch said. They should allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to freely practice their faith.

In his December 2018 meeting with the Presidential Human Rights Council, Putin said that people of all faiths should be treated equally, and that it was “nonsense” to treat people who practice faiths that are not “traditional” for Russia like members of “destructive” organizations. He said he was not aware of the Jehovah’s Witnesses prosecutions and that he would speak with the chair of Russia’s Supreme Court to analyze the matter.


Most of those targeted are men, though at least 39 women have faced charges. Most targeted are middle-aged, although ages have ranged from an 89-year-old woman named as a suspect in a December 2019 criminal investigation in Stavropol region and an 85-year-old woman on trial in Vladivostok to a 19-year-old woman in Sverdlovsk region charged in May 2019. Most are charged under art. 282.2 of the criminal code, for either organizing or participating in the activities of an organization banned by a court as “extremist.”


Local police carried out the house raids, often with armed and masked Rosgvardia (National Guard) personnel, special rapid reaction police, and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. They confiscated Bibles and other religious materials, computers, phones, and other personal items and rounded up residents for questioning.


In many cases, including those Human Rights Watch documented, the authorities had been conducting surveillance on people for months, including recording or photographing them at prayer meetings, praying, singing, or reading.


In late December, 12 people were released from pretrial detention pending trial, including two people who had been detained for 521 days. At least 23 of those under criminal investigation remain in pretrial detention. Since the crackdown began in 2017, almost 150 people have spent time in pretrial custody, 41 for six months or more, according to data provided by the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. Andrzej Oniszczuk, a Polish citizen, spent 344 days in pretrial detention in Kirov, until his release in September 2019, pending trial. During this time, he was unable to see his wife or family. At least 28 are being held under house arrest.


Polls show a rising concern in Russia about freedom of speech, information, and religion. An October Levada Center poll found that 40 percent of people surveyed viewed freedom of religion as the most important right, a double digit increase since a similar 2017 poll.

In April and August, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued opinions on two cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses arrested for their religious activity. In both, the working group found the detentions were arbitrary, lacked legal basis, and violated the rights to freedom of religion, to liberty and security, and to equality before the law.


The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has a case pending against the Russian government, filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses over the Supreme Court ruling. In 2010, the ECtHR held Russia in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, for closing the Moscow branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and refusing to allow the group to re-register. The court found violations of arts. 9 and 11 of the convention, which protect freedom of religion and association, respectively.


“This persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses for their faith is wrong and unlawful,” Denber said. “They should be allowed to worship on an equal basis with everyone else, without fear of being arrested or harassed.”


For details about the criminal cases and house searches, please see below.


Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced to prison in 2019 include: In Oryol, Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen, six years; In Saratov, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German, Aleksey Miretsky, Konstantin Bazhenov, Alexey Budenchuk, and Felix Makhammadiyev, two to three-and-a-half years; In Tomsk, Sergei Klimov, six years; and in Penza, Vladimir Alushkin, six years.


Also in 2019, five other people received suspended prison sentences and are subject to travel restrictions, several were fined, and one person was sentenced to 2.2 years’ community service.


“Evidence” and Surveillance


Most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses under prosecution are charged with engaging in the activities of an “extremist” organization (art. 282.2, part 2 of the Russian criminal code). Some have also been charged with organizing activities of an “extremist” organization (art. 282.2, part 1). Evidence of “criminal” conduct in these cases includes regular aspects of communal religious life, including reading the Bible at a Bible study session, participating in a worship gathering, or hosting people in a home for Bible readings or worship.


Human Rights Watch reviewed four verdicts against people convicted under art. 282.2 part 2. Key evidence used in the September 2019 guilty verdict against Valery Moskalenko was that he had participated in a three-hour worship and Bible study session in a hotel conference room in Khabarvosk. A court in Khabarovsk sentenced Moskalenko to two years and two months of community service, barred him from leaving his municipality for the duration of his community service, and imposed other restrictions.


Among the actions grounding the July 2019 guilty verdict against Aleksandr Solovev was that he tried to persuade people to continue to worship with Jehovah’s Witnesses, after they had criticized the faith and expressed an intent to cease their involvement; that he participated in a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting, where he stood near the door and “maintained order”; and that he recruited members. The court fined him 300,000 rubles (approximately US$4,830).


Sergei Skrynnikov’s April 1, 2019 verdict, handed down by a court in Oryol, stemmed mainly from preaching at a gathering, during which he urged worshipers to “be courageous.” Skrynnikov was fined 350,000 rubles (US$5,600).


In its August 2019 opinion on Alushkin’s arrest and pretrial detention, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention noted that Russian authorities had incriminated Alushkin for “holding conversations in public places and residential premises with the inhabitants of the city of Penza … recruiting new members from among their relatives, friends, and residents of the city of Penza,” and holding religious services “to study their ideology.’” The opinion said that in doing so, “Mr. Alushkin did nothing more than exercise his right to freedom of religion under art. 18 of the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and for this he was detained by the authorities and ultimately spent six months in pretrial detention.” The working group concluded that “Mr. Alushkin should not have been arrested and held in pretrial detention and no trial of Mr. Alushkin should take place … All the activities that Mr. Alushkin engaged in were entirely peaceful religious discussions.”


On December 13, 2019, he was sentenced to six years for organizing the activities of an “extremist” organization.


Evidence of engaging in upkeep of Jehovah’s Witnesses places of worship has also been grounds for charges of involvement in an extremist organization. The spouse of a Jehovah’s Witnesses worshiper facing criminal charges said that her husband’s payment of utility bills for the former Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting house in their town was used as evidence of his participation in an extremist organization.

Based on media reports, information published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, and lawyers who have represented numerous Jehovah’s Witnesses facing criminal charges, the authorities conducted surveillance on suspects’ activities, conversations, and homes. The authorities secretly took photos and recorded videos during religious meetings or other gatherings, when members would discuss the Bible, sing, and the like.

Artur Leontiev and Irina Krasnikova, lawyers who represent Jehovah’s Witnesses, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities planted people in Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings or who otherwise feigned interest in the Jehovah’s Witnesses to take photos and videos that were later used as evidence against their clients.


Leontiev said that Klimov, his client, was under surveillance for 10 months before he was detained. Klimov’s wife said that in the months leading to her husband’s arrest, they could hear their phone conversations being recorded and see strangers standing in front of their home. “It gives me chills up my spine,” Yulia Klimova said.


Leontiev recalled an incident in which two men claiming they were repair technicians arrived unannounced to his client’s home in October 2017 to fix a faulty internet connection. They apparently meddled with the man’s personal computer, downloading files and changing several passwords. Nearly a year later, his client was arrested. Leontiev and his client believe the repair technicians were from the security services, although it is not known whether any of the downloaded information is being used against Leontiev’s client.


Raids and Searches


The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization has recorded 780 search-and-seizure raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes and apartments in Russia since 2018. Of these, 491 took place in 2019, and in October 2019 alone, there were 83 house raids across Russia, the highest monthly count since 2017.


In some cases reported by the media, law enforcement forces carried out multiple raids across a city in a single day. For instance, over 30 home raids took place on July 17, 2019 in Nizhniy Novgorod and about 20 on October 10 in Sochi.

Many raids took place very early in the morning. Irina Bazhenova, whose husband, Konstantin, a Jehovah’s Witness, was sentenced in September 2019 to three-and-a-half years, said that in June 2018, police arrived at the apartment next to the one where she and her husband were staying. The police banged loudly on the neighbor’s door at around 6 a.m., until Konstantin came out to see what the commotion was about.


Jehovah’s Witnesses and their families said they felt shocked, confused, and psychologically pressured when armed men showed up at their door. In most cases HRW documented, the raids were conducted by two vanloads of law enforcement personnel, each with 6 to 10 people. Tatiana Budenchuk, however, said that at least 25 officers were present during the raid on her home in June 2018.


Budenchuk said, “It was early in the morning, around 6:30 a.m. Two mini-buses of men came filled with SOBR [rapid reaction police] in addition to two other smaller cars. In total there were about 25 to 30 people that came to our house.”


Some people said they had no time to dress fully and had to sit for hours while their homes were searched and ransacked. Irina Bazhenova said that during the raid, which lasted more than six hours, her husband was kept in handcuffs, and neither of them was allowed to use the bathroom. Klimova said she and her husband were forced to stand against the wall guarded by armed men while officers searched her home, and Tatiana Alushkina said she and her husband had to stand with their hands behind their backs while their homes were searched.


Budenchuk said that the noise and commotion upset her children, an infant and an elementary school pupil. She also said that police refused to close the front door even though she asked to keep the early morning chill away from her baby.


Some of the people said they live in quiet residential areas, where the presence of the police vans drew attention to their home.


In most cases, law enforcement showed a search warrant, but in the chaos of the raids, residents had little time to read the document. Alushkina recalled that when 10 men, three masked and armed, showed up at her home on July 15, 2019 they showed a document to her husband, but she did not see it.


In most cases reported by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the places raided were homes, including those where Jehovah’s Witnesses had held Bible study or worship. A few of the raids were during informal prayer gatherings.


Alushkina said that on July 15, 2018, she was hosting a few friends in her home in Penza for Bible study when the men burst into the room where her husband, Vladimir, was reading the Bible. They showed him a warrant, put his hands behind his back, and searched the house for four hours, after which they took the couple and their guests to the Investigative Committee in Penza for questioning. “It was difficult to understand at the time what was happening and who they were, but we were taken to the … ‘Tsenter E’ [Anti-Extremism Department], where we were all interrogated,” Alushkina said.


Criminal charges were eventually filed against Alushkin and several other men present that day, as well as against Alushkina. She was among the four co-defendants in the case who received a suspended two-year sentence on December 13, 2019.


In October 2019 police raided a campsite in Norilsk, where more than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses followers had gathered to pray. Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community close to those at the campsite said that 15 armed and masked special operations police stormed loudly into the camp, photographed worshipers, and forced them to hand over all electronic devices and to write down their passcodes.


During raids, officers typically confiscated personal belongings, many of which have not been returned. These include smartphones, tablets, computers, flash and hard drives, and any religious materials, including Bibles, song books, and religious texts.


Elvira Gridasova, from Saratov, said, “They took old phones, my daughter’s old phone that we had at our house, postcards, letters, photos…”


Two Jehovah’s Witnesses from different regions said that police also took their bank cards, and one said they took money. One person said the officers took their passport but returned it later.


They took my Sberbank card,” said Nadezhda German. “That was my only way to pay for our vacation. We were preparing to go to Georgia, but of course we were unable to go after this.” German ended up going on vacation later, without her husband. Reporting by Novaya Gazeta and Kommersant about the February 2019 raid in Surgut also included accounts of police confiscating Jehovah’s Witnesses’ bank cards.


The authorities have demanded people’s phone passcodes and personal information. According to Yaroslav Sivulskiy, press secretary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, during the raid on the worship camp in Norilsk, police also demanded passcodes from children.




Immediately following the searches, law enforcement detained residents and took them to the FSB or Investigative Committee headquarters for questioning.


In some cases, the authorities detained Jehovah’s Witnesses in other settings. For example, Novaya Gazeta reported that on June 12, police in Saratov arrested Makhammadiyev and his wife, Zhenya, in a parking lot near a shopping center. Alexey Stupnikov and his wife, Olga, were arrested at the airport at 4 a.m. just before boarding a flight in Krasnoyarsk on July 3, 2018. Throughout that day, 12 raids took place in the city.


Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a US government-funded outlet, reported that law enforcement agents in Surgut beat and attempted to suffocate Evgeny Karyak to coerce him to state he was a Jehovah’s Witness. Karyak was one of about 40 people rounded up for interrogation in Surgut on February 15, 2019. The Jehovah’s Witnesses alleged that several others had been beaten and given electric shocks during interrogation at the local Investigative Committee.


The Investigative Committee spokesman in Surgut, speaking to the RFE/RL reporter, refuted those reports. In August, then-head of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, met with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut and spoke with them about their ordeal. He declined to comment specifically on the torture accounts, but noted that torture is “an absolutely unacceptable practice.”


In some of the cases documented, interrogations lasted for hours and were extremely stressful. Bazhenova said her interrogation lasted four or five hours. She said that two men in front of her asked questions, while two more men stood behind her, which she recalls as both intimidating and stressful.


Klimova, from Tomsk, recalled a particularly stressful interrogation. Immediately following the raid on her home on June 3, 2018, she was held in FSB custody, along with many others whose homes had been raided that day. They were held six to a room without food and water for nearly 12 hours. By the time she was released at 2:30 a.m., she needed medical attention due to the emotional and physical strain.


“I could not understand why [they were questioning us],” she said. “It is not against the law to read the Bible – reading, singing, and talking are not crimes.”


Most of the seven women interviewed whose husbands who were later charged said they did not have a lawyer present during their own initial interrogations. Alushkina was charged after her interrogation with participating in an extremist organization, for which a court in Penza issued a two-year suspended sentence on December 13, 2019.


In most cases, people who faced criminal charges had access to lawyers following their detention. However, Stupnikova said that her husband, Andrei, did not have a lawyer until 12 hours after his arrest.


Gridasova said that she and her husband were detained together for questioning, but that her interrogation lasted only about 90 minutes, after which she was released. She then spent 12 hours seeking information before she was finally told her husband’s whereabouts.

Law enforcement personnel asked questions about the detainees’ religion, the names of participants and leaders, and what they do during meetings. Most people interviewed said they cited art. 51 of the Russian constitution, which guarantees the right not to give self-incriminating evidence or evidence incriminating a close relative, often to the frustration of interrogators.


Several people said that their interrogators handed them statements to sign pledging not to participate in an “extremist” religious organization.


During the Budenchuks’ interrogation, a senior investigator twice threatened to have their children taken away from them. At the start of the questioning, “when we were husband and wife being interrogated together, he threatened to take our children from us,” Tatiana Budenchuk said. She said the investigator directed the threat at her husband, “to scare him.” He repeated it again at the end of her interrogation. No further action was taken on these threats.


Pretrial Custody, House Arrest, Travel Restrictions


Dozens of people have been held for months in pretrial detention centers, where family visits are severely limited. Klimova was barred from seeing her husband for eight months, Stupnikova was unable to see hers for the duration of his four months in pretrial custody, after which he was released to house arrest, and Bazhenova was allowed to see her spouse only after six months.


The spouses of detained Jehovah’s Witnesses consistently said that not being able to see their husbands for months at a time was the worst part of their ordeal. Having a loved one in a detention center can place an exceptional burden on family members at home. Stupnikova said that Rosfinmonitoring, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, froze the family bank accounts, causing additional difficulties.


“We have to do it all on our own: work, buy groceries, meet with the lawyers, go to the detention center,” Gridasova said. “And besides, you don’t want to go home. There is no one there.”


Of those facing criminal charges, 28 are under house arrest and many others have been released on their own recognizance and ordered not to travel outside their city.


One man who was under house arrest from March 1 to July 2, 2019 was, after his house arrest was lifted, prohibited from using the phone or internet, or interacting with other Jehovah’s Witnesses before his trial.


Alushkina said that due to her husband’s house arrest, he was unable to do his job as a carpenter and said that emotional and financial support from family and friends had been important. Gridasova said that during the first days of her husband’s house arrest she felt “like we weren’t able to even live; we felt like we were being watched.”


According to Forum 18, an independent religious freedom monitoring group, 166 people charged for involvement with Jehovah’s Witnesses are on a list of “terrorists and extremists” maintained by Rosfinmonitoring, including several people whose cases Human Rights Watch documented.


Rosfinmonitoring freezes the asset of individuals on the lists, allowing them to access only small amounts for their living expenses. Leontiev, the lawyer, said that many people are not aware they are on the list, even when they are unable to access their bank accounts.



HRWF Note: As of December 31, 2019, 313 Jehovah’s Witnesses became defendants in criminal cases in 52 regions of Russia. During the last year, 18 people received sentences of various types and duration – up to six years in prison. In total, 149 believers have been sent to jail, 84 of them during the year. For the past 12 months, 489 house searches were carried out.