Hundreds of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses apply for asylum in Finland
Hundreds of Jehovahâs Witnesses fleeing Russia have applied for asylum in Finland, its immigration authorities have said.
The Scandinavian country has become a favoured destination for the religious group ever since Moscow outlawed its activities last year. The denomination was labelled âextremistâ in March, equating the pacifist movement with terrorist organisations such as Isis. A month later, Russiaâs Supreme Court upheld the decision and ordered the groupâs official representation to disband.
âIt doesnât matter where in Russia they try to worship â" in their meeting houses, which the state is beginning to confiscate, or in private homes,â said Geraldine Fagan, author of Believing in Russia â" Religious Policy after Communism. âIt represents the worst roll back of religious freedom since the fall of Communism.â
It is unclear exactly why the Kremlin chose to use its broad extremist laws against the movement. Initially the Russian Justice Ministryâs moves against the group appeared to be a response to an aggressive leafleting campaign.
Some have suggested the groupâs opposition to overt patriotism and violence played a role. The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which views Jehovahâs Witnesses as a dangerous sect, is also apparent.
In the 17 months since the ban was enacted, dozens of Russian Jehovahâs Witnesses have been arrested. Most of an estimated 175,000 members of the denomination in Russia no longer advertise their faith. Many, it seems, are looking for new lives elsewhere.
According to the Finnish Immigration Service, the number of applications from Russian Jehovahâs Witnesses grew from five in 2016 to more than 100 in 2017 and 2018. The number of asylum applications also grew, from 193 in 2016 to 309 in the year to date. The latter figure includes all kinds of groups â" from opposition activists to refugees from the northern Caucasus.
Finnish immigration officials told The Independent the vast majority of Jehovahâs Witnesses applications have yet to be processed. There had been only a âhandfulâ of accepted applications and a âhandfulâ of negative decisions, officials said; with nearly all of those rejected since appealing.
âEach of the cases is dealt with on an individual basis,â The Independent was told. âPersecution of these groups has not been systematic across Russia, and the approach of the ministry has taken this into account.â