March 16 (UPI) — The Russian Justice Ministry filed a request with the nation’s supreme court to classify the national headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization, potentially endangering 175,000 practitioners of the religion in the country.
Jehovah’s Witnesses first filed to be a recognized religion, a requirement in Russia, in 1991. They were granted renewal in 1999, according to the group’s international website. Despite the official recognition, Jehovah’s Witness groups have faced periodic harassment by local law enforcement.
Russian officials raided the group’s national headquarters in February and confiscated a reported 70,000 documents that were turned over to the Russian General Prosecutor’s office.
Local prosecutors have likened the religion to a cult and have called it a danger to Russian families.
It is not the first time Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced legal hurdles. In 2009, a court ruled a Russian-language version of the group’s publication The Watchtower was an extremist publication and barred it. In 2015, a Russian court ruled the group’s website was also an extremist publication.
The international head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated there are about 175,000 practicing members in Russia in some 2,200 congregations.
The press office for the Russian branch of the religion released a statement Thursday in response to the filing, saying it would represent “dire consequences” for religious freedom in Russia if approved.
“Extremism is deeply alien to the Bible-based beliefs and morality of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the statement said. “Persecution of the faithful for peaceful anti-extremism legislation is built on frank fraud, incompetent individual ‘experts’ and, as a result, a miscarriage of justice.”