9News in Australia reports that

A Russian court has sentenced a Jehovah’s Witness to six years in jail in one of the most severe crackdown on religious freedom in the country in recent years.

The court found Danish man Dennis Christensen guilty of extremism, making him the first Jehovah’s Witness in Russia to be sent to prison.

Mr Christensen was detained during a police raid on a local prayer meeting he was leading in May 2017.

Many Christians (Orthodox and others) would say the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult. Whether or not the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult or not I can’t say. What I can say is that the Orthodox Church affirms freedom of conscience and condemns attempts by the secular authorities to deny such freedoms.

For example, in their 2000 document The Basis of the Social Concept, the Moscow Patriarchate wrote the following (emphasis in orginal):

IV. 6. The idea of the inalienable rights of the individual has become one of the dominating principles in the contemporary sense of justice. The idea of these rights is based on the biblical teaching on man as the image and likeness of God, as an ontologically free creature. «Examine what is around you», writes St. Anthony of Egypt, «and see that princes and masters have power over your body alone, not over your soul, and always keep this in mind. Why when they order, say, to kill or to do something else, inappropriate, unrighteous and harmful for the soul, it is not proper to obey them, even though they torture your body. God has created the soul free and self-ruled, and it is free to do as it wills, good or bad».

The Christian socio-public ethics demanded that a certain autonomous sphere should be reserved for man, in which his conscience might remain the «autocratic» master, for it is the free will that determines ultimately the salvation or death, the way to Christ or the way away from Christ. The right to believe, to live, to have family is what protects the inherent
foundations of human freedom from the arbitrary rule of outer forces. These internal rights are complimented with and ensured by other, external ones, such as the right to free movement, information, property, to its possession and disposition.

God keeps man free, never forcing his will. Contrary to it, Satan seeks to possess the human will, to enslave it. If the law conforms to the divine truth revealed by the Lord Jesus Christ, then it also stands guard over human freedom: «Where the Spirit is, there is liberty» (2 Cor. 3:17). Therefore, it guards the inalienable rights of the personality. Those traditions, however, which do not know of the principle of the freedom of Christ, often seek to subject the human consciousness to the external will of a ruler or a collective.

Bad as the verdict is, and it is grossly unjust, the situation will be made worse if the verdict is not challenged and so allowed to stand.

This is also a moment for the Orthodox Church of Russia to reaffirm the Church’s commitment to religious freedom for all. The can only do this by condemning the decision and supporting the legal process to overturn the decision. They must also add their voice to the voices of those who work to change the laws that have allowed for this abuse of human rights.

To borrow from Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (Letter from the Birmingham Jail).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory