Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia Are Fleeing to Finland to Escape Persecution

Jehovah's Witnesses religious literature is stacked on a table in Russia. The group has been outlawed in Russia and some of its members are fleeing the country. Alexandr Tyryshkin/Reuters

Jehovah's Witnesses who face persecution in Russia are fleeing to nearby Finland, where they are allowed to worship freely, according to the religious group's representatives.

There are nearly 300 Jehovah's Witnesses currently seeking asylum in the Nordic country, but it's unclear when their asylum claims will be processed. For now, many of the group's members are in limbo.

"Some people have been here for one year in the camp or refugee center. We received a few days ago the news that some will be moved to another camp. It's hard because they have a life and friends there already and they are being moved again, they'll have to build everything again. I think maybe they are being moved because more people are coming," Jukka Palonen, a Jehovah's Witness from Finland, told Newsweek.

"The Finish government is doing its best, they are offering housing and food. But it's still not so nice. We're pretty sad about what's happening in Russia at the moment. These families have small children and they are afraid the Russian government could take their children away. And what have they done? Nothing," Palonen added.

Some of the refugees are staying in an old Finnish prison near the small town of Joutseno in the country's South Karelia region. The witnesses attend services in one of the local churches. But around 20 people are expected to be relocated to northeastern Finland in the near future, the group said.

In Russia, the Orthodox Church has emerged as a powerful political force in a post-communist country, and the church's allies have launched vicious campaigns against what they call "sects." The Russian government labeled the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist sect in April 2017, and worshippers have been jailed and tormented ever since. Many of the roughly 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses living in Russia have either gone into hiding or started fleeing to Finland, members of the group said.

Nevertheless, arrests of practicing Jehovah's Witnesses have taken place in towns and cities across Russia. Most recently, on August 2, a young couple in the city of Kostroma had their house raided by armed policemen. A video of the arrest shows armed and masked policemen breaking down the door of the couple's home and pinning an unarmed and shirtless young man, 21-year-old Sergey Rayman, to the ground. Representatives of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Newsweek that the young man will be held in pre-trial detention for two months while his wife, 25-year-old Valeriya Rayman, is under house arrest.

In May, the Russian government also seized a $31.8 million real estate complex in St. Petersburg from the group's members.

Even though the Russian Orthodox Church has expressed enthusiasm for the country's clampdown of Jehovah's Witnesses, analysts consulted in a recent piece by Newsweek indicated that the ban is motivated by political and security concerns.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses were targeted because they do not support the wave of patriotism sweeping the country during the confrontation with the West," Roman Lunkin, a religion analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, told Newsweek in May. "There is a real fear of religion and religious activity among the authorities and the security services."

Jehovah's Witnesses literature is stacked on a table in Russia. The group is outlawed in Russia and some of its members are fleeing the country. Alexandr Tyryshkin/Reuters

Finland is a member of the European Union, and last month the European Court of Justice, the supreme court that governs all EU law, ruled that the Jehovah's Witnesses must comply with EU data privacy laws and seek consent before recording people's personal details during their door-to-door preaching. The ruling came after Finland's data protection supervisor filed a lawsuit to prohibit Jehovah's Witnesses from collecting personal data.

"In today's judgment, the Court of Justice considers, first of all, that door-to-door preaching by members of the Jehovah's Witnesses Community is not covered by the exceptions laid down by EU Law on the protection of personal data," the court's statement read. "The processing of personal data carried out in connection with door-to-door preaching must therefore comply with the rules of EU law on the protection of personal data."