Moscow press conference regarding Christensen case


Victims of religious repressions in the U.S.S.R., who were rehabilitated in 1991, may again wind up in penal colonies, rights advocates affirm

by Leonid Smirnov

Rosbalt, 8 February 2019


The judicial sentence of an adherent of the religious teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses, Dennis Christensen, has outraged many in Russia who are not indifferent. As participants in a press conference in the Moscow office of Rosbalt emphasized, a man, who was sentenced to six years on the basis of the rather harsh and extremely unpopular article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the RF for "arranging the activity of an extremist organization, has suffered, essentially, for his faith. They say that evidence of his "extremism" was not presented.


On the broad "palette" of Christian confessions, the movement of Jehovah's Witnesses occupies a special place in that in society (at least, in our country) the least is known about them and there is the least interest in them. This movement does not offer slogans that are attractive to the broad masses and it lives in a rather closed manner. Jehovah's Witnesses do not participate in elections or political parties and movements, they do not serve in the army, they do not celebrate New Year's and birthdays, they do not acknowledge the cross as a symbol, and, among other things, they reject blood transfusion.


However, according to information of the Jehovists themselves, this movement numbers in Russia around 175 thousand admirers. At the present time, its activity is forbidden in Russia. On 20 April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court found the activity of the "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" to be extremist and banned it and all 395 divisions on the territory of the RF. What their extremism consists of, Russian society has not been told, and it is not particularly interested in this.


So here is one of these believers, named Dennis Christensen, a modest carpenter from Denmark. He arrived in St. Petersburg in 1995 in order to build churches of his confession, just when there was unprecedented religious advance. Then Dennis lived in Murmansk, married a local resident, became russified, and finally settled in Orel.


And as recently as Wednesday, 6 February, the Zheleznodorozhny district court of Orel slapped him with six years on the basis of article 282.2. For what? As participants in the press conference explained, Christensen got into hot water because in circumstances when his organization was banned but believers remained and continued to profess their faith, he took upon himself some leadership roles.


Christensen's attorney Anton Bogdanov quoted from the sentence: "He opened and closed the worship premises, he organized its upkeep along with adjacent territory, he appointed persons for guard duty at the doors of the meeting, he personally conducted meetings and gave advice, and he explained the contents of religious literature." Six years! The attorney did not fail to recall that this is the minimum term for murder. Also based on article 282.2.


"The court could not identify specific extremist actions. They encouraged one another toward tolerance, peace, and love," Bogdanov explained. "All that Christensen did was the ordinary practice of the profession of religions. But the position of the court was that if the religious organization had been liquidated, that is, the former legal entity of 14 believers in Orel, then the remaining 300 Orel Jehovah's Witnesses may not meet together and worship."


As the vice-chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Valery Borshchev, a respected rights advocate with great experience in the defense of believers in the U.S.S.R., who now has observed the Orel trial, explained, there is a difference between a religious organization (which must have certain attributes) and a religious group or congregation of believers. From a formal, legal point of view, Christensen was not even a member of the organization. He can be called a member of a religious group.


It is true, as Borshchev recalled, a group still must inform authorities about its existence and activity. This was not done. But this is still an administrative violation of law, punishable by a fine. An entirely different picture.


"I was at the trial in Orel three times," Borshchev explained. "A stunning spectacle. I had the feeling that the judge was experiencing discomfort reading the verdict. 'They gather, they read prayers, they sing songs, and the discuss the Bible.' And next: 'And they are plotting the overthrow of the constitutional structure.' How do you connect this? The president was correct when he called it complete nonsense that Jehovah's Witnesses were characterized as extremists."


Of course, the participants were citing the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin of 11 December regarding the criminal prosecution of Jehovists: "Of course, this is complete nonsense. It must be dealt with attentively." But it turns out the words of the head of state are not always so attentively heeded.


"Apparently the president's words were not perceived and not so definite as to serve as calls to action," Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the SOVA Center for News and Analysis, noted. "Since then, no fewer than six cases have been opened and two persons have been placed in a SIZO."


As a representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses, Yaroslav Sivulsky, reported, at the present time about 50 cases have been opened against his fellow believers in Russia on the basis of article 282.2 in 23 regions. There have already been 115 persons who are victims of criminal prosecution in various forms (defendants, suspects, etc.), 90 men and 25 women aged 23 to 84 years. Sixty-six persons were placed in a SIZO, and now 24 are in cells, including two women. Two "were placed in solitary confinement because they talked with people in prison about God." In 2018, about 270 searches were conducted among Jehovists.


"For me it is especially painful to see that our country again is plunged into the abyss of inexplicable repressions," Silvulsky said. "My father was imprisoned in the U.S.S.R. for seven years, at least for some act: he printed religious literature underground. But Dennis Christensen was imprisoned for six years merely for considering his faith to be true."


Yaroslav Sivulsky also said that he would like to address the president. "A monstrous situation has developed in Russia," he stressed. "Every person can be thrown in prison. They have hung the label of extremist on 175,000 respectable citizens. About 5,000 have been forced to leave Russia. We do not want to leave, but we do not want to go to prison for the fact that we believe in God and consider our religion true."


As a member of the Council on Human Rights under the president of the RF, attorney Vladimir Riakhovsky, recalled, in 1991 a law was adopted regarding the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions. Jehovah's Witnesses also were recognized as such, who were mercilessly imprisoned not only under Stalin but also later.


"What has changed in this time?" Riakhovsky asked. "Have Jehovah's Witnesses changed? No, this is one of the most conservative organizations, which does not change its principles. In April 2017 they were liquidated by the Russian Supreme Court for only one reason: the propaganda of religious superiority and exclusivity."


Actually Jehovists often are accused of religious "snobbery." But, as noted at the press conference, in general all believers consider that it is their faith that is true, and that of others is not so true (and Orthodoxy is by no means an exception here).


Still, as Valery Borshchev noted, Jehovah's Witnesses certainly displease Russian authorities because they do not like to have any contact with the state and they prefer to keep their distance from it. And besides, they have an administrative center located in the U.S.A. Here the rights advocate recalled that Russian Baptists and Adventists also have leadership in America. And Catholics, for example, have it in Rome.


"The remaining confessions should be alarmed, those Adventists and Baptists," Borshchev emphasized. Others present said the same thing: a very dangerous precedent has been created for prosecution for religious reasons. It is necessary to extricate Dennis Christensen and it is necessary to resist the creation of conditions for new repressions.


As the executive director of the movement For Human Rights, Lev Ponomarev, joked darkly, several of the Jehovists repressed in the U.S.S.R. are alive and receive benefits provided by law. Since new cases have been opened, including against elderly Jehovists aged 80, it cannot be ruled out that one of them has already suffered for faith in soviet times, and now they will again wind up in a penal colony and, by the logic of things, will receive their benefits there.


So this all would be funny if it were not so sad. (tr. by PDS, posted 8 February 2019)

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