European EA slams 6-year jail sentence for Russian Jehovah's Witness

The European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) has expressed alarm after the jailing of a Jehovah's Witness in Russia, warning of a 'deterioration' in religious freedom in the country.

Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen, was found guilty early last month of 'the organisation of extremist activity' and sentenced to six years in prison.

Jehovah's Witness Dennis Christensen has been jailed for six years.Reuters

A court in the region outlawed the local Jehovah's Witnesses a year earlier.

Russia's Supreme Court later ruled the group was 'extremist' and ordered it to disband nationwide. Christiansen's detention, Russia's first extremism-related arrest of a Jehovah's Witness, foreshadowed dozens more.

A builder, Christensen first went to Russia as a volunteer and married a Russian Jehovah's Witness. They later moved to Oryol, the city where an American missionary, Don Ossewaarde, was found guilty of illegal missionary activity in 2017.

The EEA said in its statement: 'To the best of our knowledge, Mr Christensen has been convicted for the peaceful manifestation of his faith as a Jehovah Witness. Therefore, we cannot but conclude that the verdict of the Oryol court is a violation of Mr Christensen's right to Freedom of Religion or Belief.'

It called on the Russian authorities to 'respect and fully implement its Constitution and international human rights obligations' and said it 'expresses its deep concern about the deterioration of Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Russian Federation and expresses its full support for all religious leaders, politicians, and human rights activists defending and promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief for all'.

The EEAs statement is one of several from international organisations alarmed at Russia's treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said: 'The harsh sentence imposed on Christensen creates a dangerous precedent, and effectively criminalizes the right to freedom of religion or belief for Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.'

The ruling against Jehovah's Witnesses is the product of the so-called 'Yarovaya law', named after one of its creators, which among other things bans evangelism and 'missionary activities'. It has been criticised for privileging the Russian Orthodox Church, falling short of international human rights standards and being open to widely varying interpretations leading to local abuses.