Russia has banned the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses after a decision by its Supreme Court branded them 'extremist'.
The decision was made after a six-day hearing and the organisation says it will appeal.
There are thought to be 395 active Jehovah's Witness groups in Russia, totaling around 170,000 people. They are now not allowed to meet for Bible study or other activities. A spokesman, Vasily Kalin, said: 'The Justice Ministry not only humiliates itself and its functions, but has humiliated the entire state in the eyes of the international community with an unreasonable and reckless accusation.'
The UN's Ahmed Shaheed condemned the lawsuit in strong terms. 'This lawsuit is a threat not only to Jehovah's Witnesses, but to individual freedom in general in the Russian Federation,' the special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief wrote. 'The use of counter-extremism legislation in this way to confine freedom of opinion, including religious belief, expression and association to that which is state-approved is unlawful and dangerous, and signals a dark future for all religious freedom in Russia.'
Religious freedom has been under increasing scrutiny in Russia in recent years. Missionary activity by evangelical Christians has been cracked down upon, with a recent law seeking to curtail evangelism. Again, the cover used to limit freedom of religion in this case was anti-terrorism.
The Forum 18 news service says that even if the Jehovah's Witnesses appeal is successful, there is great concern over the status of religious minorities. 'The Administrative Centre has 30 days to appeal to a three-person panel at the Supreme Court, but Jehovah's Witnesses say they anticipate serious problems, regardless of any pending appeal,' it says.