Moscow police announced the arrest of an unidentified number of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Wednesday Feb. 10, accused by the government of carrying out “illegal activities” or merely exercising their faith.

According to the  Moscow Times, under orders from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, the country’s highest prosecutorial authority, Federal Security Service and national guard agents raided 16 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in and around the city of Moscow.

“This morning, at least 15 families of believers were awakened by a loud knock on their doors. On television, they show how innocent, law-abiding people are being led away in handcuffs. At the same time, no one is able to explain why they are dangerous for the state,” said a spokesman for the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation

The investigative body alleged that the faithful continue to hold “secret meetings and study religious literature,” defying a 2017 court order banning Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization.

According to Breitbart, in 2017, the Russian government designated Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists” and banned the Christian group. Under such a designation, the state can arrest and prosecute those who continue to profess their faith.

However, the “extremist” designation has no legal basis since Russian law recognizes Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as its four “traditional” religions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered a Christian religion because their main book is the Bible. However, like many Christian religious sects, it varies in certain aspects from original Christian dogma.

Why the Russian government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses

There are two theories as to why the Russian government decided to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. One theory, which somewhat responds to the Russian government’s authoritarian profile, is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are relatively loosely organized, do not answer to government authority, and perhaps the authorities fear that they may one day seek political power.

The second hypothesis is that the group has more than 170,000 members in Russia, which has a population of 144 million. This significant figure caught the Russian Orthodox Church’s attention, the country’s “official religion,” which sees it as competition.

A senior bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion Alfeyev, said on public TV on April 14, 2018, that Jehovah’s Witnesses “destroy people’s minds and destroy families,” a clear indication of intolerance and hatred toward this group of Christians.

In his annual report on religious freedom, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed Russia on a special watch list “for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.” He mentions that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been arrested, mistreated, and even tortured in custody.

Since the Russian Supreme Court banned the group in April 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities have raided the homes of more than 1,000 families of worshippers and estimate that more than 400 of their followers have been charged or convicted in Russia between 2017 and the end of October 2020.