Sep 14, 2023

Years in prison shed no light on why Russia is persecuting Jehovah's Witnesses

Darryl Coote
September 14, 2923

Sept. 14 (UPI) -- The worst mistake of Dennis Christensen's life was to place his trust in the Russian Constitution, for when he needed it most, he was jailed for five years because of his faith.

Christensen, a Danish citizen, is the first member of the Jehovah's Witnesses to have been arrested and imprisoned in the Kremlin's mysterious crackdown on the pacifist, apolitical religion.

Back in his native Denmark after spending five years in Russia's penal system alongside others convicted on terrorism and extremism charges, he still has no idea why he or more than 400 other Jehovah's Witnesses have been detained, charged, tried, convicted and jailed under sentences that have only grown in severity since his arrest in 2017.

Neither Russia's ministry of foreign affairs nor its embassy in Washington have responded to UPI's request for an explanation.

"Russia should be a country that follows their own laws," Christensen told UPI in a recent interview over Skype, referring to Russia's Constitution, enacted in late 1993, that declares it a secular nation that grants its residents religious freedom.

"And now, I see no laws."

2002 anti-extremism law

Jehovah's Witnesses are being persecuted under a 2002 anti-extremism law that has been used to target other religious groups in Russia, as well as dissidents, including Russian President Vladimir Putin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

But the law has not been weaponized against other groups to the same degree as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based think tank SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, told UPI.

The law, Verkhovsky said, has been used to ban specific Muslim movements for complex reasons, while the Jehovah's Witnesses is the only Christian denomination to be outlawed and for unspecified reasons.

It is also one thing to ban books or even an entire religion and entirely another to launch a mass campaign involving hundreds of law enforcement agents to investigate, follow and organize prosecutions against believers of an apolitical religion, he said.

"Usually, our government does that when it sees some potential threat to the state's security, like it happened with Alexei Navalny and protesters who supported" him, Verkhovsky said. While those protests were peaceful and not as large as many may think, one can see how the state would view it as a threat.

Why they view Jehovah's Witnesses as a threat "is not so easy to understand," he said.

Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told UPI that one can only speculate why.

"There are other confessions that the Russian authorities and the Russian Orthodox church view with deep suspicion whose community members have been subjected to harassment and the like," she said. "But it's only the Jehovah's Witnesses among Christian confessions that have been banned as extremist and their activities criminalized."

Possible reasons include that it's a U.S.-based church that is large, well funded and objects to military service.

"That probably taps into some of the deepest recessives of paranoia in the security services, paranoia that they are perhaps a little more than a front for other Western, or American, political goals," she said. "That's possibly one explanation, but it's sheer speculation."


The Jehovah's Witnesses faith has been present in Russia since the late 1880s, nearly since its founding. During most of that time, its members have come under persecution, notably in 1951 when nearly 10,000 from six Soviet republics were rounded up and exiled to Siberia.

When Christensen moved from Denmark to Russia at age 27 in late 2000 at the request of his church to aid a local congregation, it was during a short-lived period of relative religious freedom in Russia that began in the 1990s. With the fall of the Soviet Union, minority religions grew.

Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman, told UPI the church's membership surged in Russia during that period, from a few thousand people to tens of thousands. The church estimates that at its height there were 400 congregations totaling 175,000 members there.

That's a drop in a bucket compared to the more than 140 million people who live across the country of 11 time zones, Lopes said. "Some scholars will say the spike in the growth was shocking and that raised eyebrows."

Though a handful of Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested and some local religious organizations were liquidated during the early years of Putin's reign, the arguable end to this detente of religious freedom for the group came in 2009, when Russia started to ban its texts, including individual issues of The Watchtower magazine, labeling them as extremist.

Christensen first noticed the Kremlin's persecution campaign in 2014, when police and members of the Federal Security Service known as the FSB began attending meetings at his Kingdom Hall in Oryol, located about 230 miles south of Moscow in Western Russia.

"You could see they were filming, they were filming secretly all of us. It was easy to see because they went to an assembly, they were going two men together and they had these cigarette packets and everybody knows Jehovah's Witnesses are not smoking," he said.

"They were filming everybody. And we couldn't really understand why they were doing all this."

On April 20, 2017, the authorities were given permission to target the entire religion by Russia's Supreme Court, which criminalized all activity by the Jehovah's Witnesses as extremist -- a ruling that has been widely condemned by democratic nations, including the United States, and human rights organizations.

Christensen told UPI that following this decision, people in his congregation were nervous but most stayed calm and were waiting to see what would happen next.

"Maybe I was a little stupid, naive, blue-eyed, but I was still hoping on the justice of the Russian system," he said. "I was hoping that it would work."

Christensen arrested

On May 25, 2017, Christensen was sitting near a window in his church as he listened to a sermon when he heard running outside. He thought nothing of it until he was told by a friend that the authorities were asking for him.

Outside, Christensen was met by some 30 FSB officers, half in plainclothes with the other half armed, masked and dressed in the black uniforms of the special purpose OMON police unit.

As officers pushed past him to search the building, Christensen was handed a piece of paper that said he was to be detained for two days.

"I thought, 'Okay, many people in Jehovah's Witnesses had been in prison before me; now it's my turn.' I was ready to do it. And I was convinced that this was a mistake, that they were breaking the rules, that I had the right on my side," Christensen said.

Christensen was charged with organizing the activities of a banned religious group and realized after six months in pretrial detention that he was not leaving any time soon.

"What was the most sad feeling [was] that you are losing your faith to the judicial system. There's no justice. No justice. When you can see that the charges and all of the prosecutor and the investigator, no one was listening to me. It was like a show. That was actually the most sad things," he said.

In 2018, the investigations tied to the banning of the religion began, and police raided homes in the southwestern city of Saratov, arresting six people. This is when Christensen knew "something terrible [was] going on."

"I hoped that the persecution would stop, and that Russia would not continue to do the mistakes of the past," he said. "I didn't want my brothers and sisters to be in the same situation as I was."

The two years Christensen served in pretrial detention was "a challenge," he said. He spent 23 hours a day, some alone, in his cell and in an equally small yard for the remaining one. But it was the limited access to his wife, Irina, whom he married in 2002, that was the most difficult to bear.

"They are trying to break a person down emotionally," he said, but he worked to keep his mind "in good shape," careful about what thoughts he allowed himself, having seen muscled and tattooed prisoners bawling in despair.

"I was seeing this as a new assignment from God. I thought, also, it's not the very best assignment, but it's my assignment. I was convinced also that God would not let me down, take care of me and my family," he said. "The whole thing is about breaking you down ... You have to be very, very strong."

His lawyer had hoped for a sentence of probation, or a suspended sentence, which other Jehovah's Witnesses had received, but Christensen knew that following a lengthy trial during which he learned that his phone had been tapped and that he had been followed by police since 2016 that he would be going away for a long, long time.

Christensen sentenced

On Feb. 6, 2019, a Russian court sentenced Christensen to six years imprisonment.

The outcome should have been expected: The acquittal rate for all cases brought before the court that year was 0.36%, according to an U.N. Human Rights Committee.

Russia's justice system is "used to steamroll people," Denber said. "You don't stand a chance."

Verkhovsky, whose organization was forced to close and was liquidated by the courts in late April, said the sentencing of the Dane was "a very negative surprise."

"At that moment, I was really frightened that if a Danish citizen could be sentenced for six years, what does it mean for Russian citizens," he said.

Christensen was placed in a prison camp, where life was greatly improved compared to pretrial detention, as he was afforded more freedom in the barracks. He was allowed to speak with other prisoners, to work if he wished, visit the library and cafeteria and every day call his wife, who was able to visit and stay with him for three days every third month.

No justice

Though conditions there were better for Christensen, there was still no justice.

Not long after his arrival, he applied for probation as his pretrial detention was weighed as time and a half served. He said he was a quiet inmate who kept to himself and was without reprimands.

As his parole application was to be considered, the prison staff searched his room, which he shared with five others, mostly Muslim men convicted of charges such as terrorism, and found a knife in his closet. Christensen said it was planted. A fellow prisoner living in the room opposite his later told Christensen that while the Dane was eating in the cafeteria, he watched prison staff enter the room.

His chance at being let out early on parole was revoked.

In June 2020, Christensen asked for his sentence to be commuted, which the court granted later that month, reducing his remaining time to a fine of 400,000 rubles, or about $6,700.

The ruling was applauded by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Two days later, he was eating a late lunch in the barracks in a T-shirt among other inmates in T-shirts to ward off the early summer heat, when he -- and he alone, he said -- was issued a reprimand for being out of uniform and given 10 days solitary confinement, which would later be extended to 15.

He didn't think much of the punitive measure as he'd be home in days, but that first night as he was sitting in the cell, he received a letter from the prosecutor, saying the decision commuting Christensen's sentence was appealed on the grounds that it was illegal and there was to be a new trial.

Christensen then understood that he would not be going home before the end of his sentence, that he was purposely placed in solitary under an "evil plan" so he could be labeled a "very bad example" in order to tank any further possibilities of getting out early, he said.

"Then I knew, I knew that this was planned against me to make me a bad example and I knew that everything was lost and I was not going home on a parole," he said.

"That is why I can understand the whole thing was a fake."

Christensen believes that the decision to imprison him and keep him imprisoned was not that of the prosecutor or the judge, but someone higher up in government.

Verkhovsky said Russia's system of governance is centralized, meaning decisions are generally made at much higher levels of government than they would be in other countries. The crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses wasn't at the direction of, for example, a single general prosecutor, he said.

"Such a big repressive campaign could not be possible without proper executive decision of the security council," he said.

The security council is a consultative body that deals with national security issues. Putin serves as chairman, former President Dmitry Medvedev as deputy chairman, Sergei Shoigu in his position as minister of defense and former FSB director Nikolai Patrushev as secretary.

"We have no protocols of such meetings, of course, so we cannot prove it. But nobody can doubt ... it could not be a decision of any single person," he said.

Final insult

The final insult of the justice system came on May 24, 2022 -- the day of Christensen's release.

The Danish Embassy and his counsel had arranged for Christensen to meet his wife and get some new clothes and food before the hours-long drive to the airport. More than a hundred people whom he expected to greet were waiting outside the prison with balloons and signs.

But the arrangements were broken, and despite his sentence being served, he was handcuffed and put into the back of a white van without meeting his wife, nor receiving the clothes he expected or given food or water.

Through the window of the vehicle, he glimpsed those who had gathered outside the facility and he heard them shout his name as he drove toward the airport in Moscow.

At the airport, he was able to greet his wife and friends and eat a bit of food, but the moment of freedom hit him when he had boarded the plane and it took off without a single member of Russian law enforcement near him.

Christensen, now 50 and back in Denmark with his wife, resumed work as a carpenter in October after taking time to recuperate from his experience, which included attending therapy to help with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and to re-acclimatize himself to a normal life.

"They didn't break me. They couldn't make me someone else. And it is also a little proof that my faith was strong enough and was alive enough to keep me going," he said.

"For me, it is a great honor to be the first Jehovah's Witnesses who was convicted and now I'm free. Now, I'm back."

Though Christensen has regained his freedom, Russia's bewildering campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses continues.

According to the SOVA Center, the campaign's height was in 2021 when Russia opened 142 new cases against Jehovah's Witnesses. Last year, because of the war against Ukraine, the number of new cases dropped to 77.

But Russia has again been ramping up its persecution of members, opening 45 new cases in the first six months of the year.

In total, 411 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia have either been in prison or are currently serving sentences. More than 2,000 of their homes have been searched in 74 regions. Some 506 members, including Christensen, have been added to Russia's list of extremists and terrorists.

And counting.

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