Baroness Anelay said a ruling by the Russian Supreme Court “effectively criminalises the peaceful worship of 175,000 Russian citizens” and contravenes rights enshrined in the country’s own constitution.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses plan to appeal Thursday’s ruling, which came after six days of hearings attended by hundreds of supporters.
“We are greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity,” said spokesman Yaroslav Sivulskiy. “We hope that our legal rights and protections as a peaceful religious group will be fully restored as soon as possible.”
“I am alarmed by the decision of Russia’s Supreme Court to recognise the Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremists’,” the Foreign Office minister added. “The UK calls on the Russian government to uphold its international commitment to freedom of religion.”
The case could be taken to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled a previous attempted ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia unlawful in 2010.
The Supreme Court was deciding on a claim lodged by the Russian ministry of justice to liquidate the group’s administrative centre near St Petersburg and 395 local organisations. Its decision will come into effect within 30 days unless an appeal is lodged, when it will be delayed until the resolution of the case.
“The Supreme Court has ruled to sustain the claim of Russia’s ministry of justice and deem the ‘Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia’ organisation extremist, eliminate it and ban its activity in Russia,” said judge Yuri Ivanenko. “The property of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation is to be confiscated to the state revenue.”
A lawyer for the justice ministry, Svetlana Borisova, told the court adherents “pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are known for door-to-door preaching and handing out literature, reject some of mainstream Christianity’s core beliefs and have more than 8.3 million members around the world.