Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia Are Having Their Homes Raided, Even in Remote Towns

Law enforcement officials in Birobidzhan, Russia, a small town close to the border with China, raided 20 homes belonging to Jehovah's Witnesses, according to members of the religious organization.

The raids were conducted by around 150 police officers, who nicknamed their operation "Judgement Day," Jarrod Lopes, a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, told Newsweek. Police confiscated photographs, bank cards, money and electronic devices from the houses they searched, said Lopes.

A criminal case was opened against a man named Alam Aliev, who will be kept in pretrial detention until July, members of the religious group said.

The raids are part of an ongoing crackdown against the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. In April 2017, a Russian court officially labeled the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization. The group's administrative center in St. Petersburg has since been seized, and Jehovah's Witnesses have been forced to practice their religion in secret.

Despite staying out of the public eye, members of the Jehovah's Witnesses have had their houses raided on numerous occasions, and some have been charged with extremism. A similar raid took place a day earlier in the Orenburg region, in southwest Russia, where three people were allegedly brought into custody.

Jehovah's Witnesses are calling on the international community to help them protect their right to worship freely.

"These raids are further evidence that Russia is brazenly persecuting Jehovah's Witnesses, despite the fact that respected international human rights organizations have condemned their actions. These outright abuses of our religious freedom are not going unnoticed," David Semonian, international spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses at their world headquarters in New York, told Newsweek.

"We hope that the harassment of our fellow worshippers will end and that those taken into custody will be released and returned to their families as soon as possible," Semonian said.

At least 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses live in Russia, and an estimated 250 reside in Birobidzhan, which has three congregations. Birobidzhan is a historically Jewish town, but today, only a tiny fraction of the local population is Jewish.