It's a quiet Tuesday evening at Moscow's largest Kingdom Hall, a gathering point for Jehovah's Witnesses, and it's a hive of activity. In one room a few dozen people are engaged in Bible-reading; in another they are singing hymns.
There is no outward sign of awareness that Russia's Supreme Court has just banned the Jehovah's Witnesses as an "extremist" group on a par with terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda – nor that carrying out these very activities may soon be grounds for criminal charges and prison.
It's a legal decision that looks portentous on many levels. It is the first major post-Soviet instance in which Russia has moved to outlaw an entire religion, deploying "extremism" laws against a group that poses no threat whatsoever of violence, racism, or hate speech.
Some see the hand of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church behind the decision. Others suggest it's part of a more general wave of "majoritarian" social conservatism that's enforcing a gradual homogenization on the entire society. Civil rights experts worry the move could presage a wider crackdown on "non-traditional" religious faiths, generally viewed as alien to Russia, that took root around the country in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse a generation ago.
But even among Russian Orthodox themselves, there is concern that the absolute ban of an entire sect goes too far. The faith has existed in Russia for more than a century, and is practically the only such group to have survived the long Soviet winter by developing underground networks that successfully defied the secret police of Stalin and Brezhnev eras.
"Banning [the Jehovah's Witnesses] from the legal space, excluding it from social life completely is an idea that didn't work even in Stalin's times," says Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a former spokesman for the Orthodox Church. "We should be wiser in this case."
The 'Yarovaya Law'
The Supreme Court ban, which is one short appeal away from being handed to police to enforce, will mandate seizure of all the group's property and open its 175,000 Russian members to criminal charges if they persist in publicly expressing their beliefs and carrying out their active missionary work.
The court verdict has been several years in the making, highlighting the way Russian authorities in the age of Vladimir Putin move slowly and methodically through the courts, rather than employing Soviet-style repression, to obtain the results they want.
In the more than two decades since Russia passed a law limiting the legal rights of faiths that are not one of the country's four "traditional" religions – Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – the Jehovah's Witnesses have faced dozens of local bans, seen their literature prohibited as "extremist," and several of their activists jailed.
But the new ruling comes under a new law signed by Mr. Putin last July. Known as the "Yarovaya Law" after its main author Irina Yarovaya of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, the law authorized sweeping new powers for security services to crack down on all kinds of extremist activity.
One little-noticed section of the law mandates much tougher restrictions on the activities of small religious denominations, particularly their ability to proselytize. The Jehovah's Witnesses, who see missionary work as a basic command from God, were on a collision course with the Russian state even before the latest court decision.
"I am instructed to go out and tell people what I have read in the Bible, and I will do that regardless of what decisions the government takes," says Yury Terteryan, a sports journalist and Jehovah's Witness. "How can you stop people from sharing good news?"
Some analysts see this verdict as part of a full-blown comeback for Soviet-style forced conformity. "The totalitarian features of the present regime are becoming more evident," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with the public Movement for Human Rights in Moscow. "It is a feature of such regimes that they try to impose a single ideology. The Jehovah's Witnesses have been persecuted by totalitarian regimes from Hitler's to Stalin's, and it looks like they'll have to go underground again."
Others suggest that, as with laws limiting public LGBT expression, the crackdown is not likely to affect most Russians and, indeed, few are likely to even notice it. The vast majority of Russians self-identify as Orthodox Christians, even if only a small percentage actively practice the faith.
Ultimately, it's not clear exactly why the Russian state has targeted the Jehovah's Witnesses for punishment which, if fully carried out, could increase Russia's burgeoning prison population by 175,000.
"The supreme court case dealt mainly with technical issues, like their promulgation of 'extremist' literature and violation of previously-mandated restrictions," says Maria Kravchenko, an expert with the Sova Center in Moscow, which tracks extremist movements in Russia. Ms. Kravchenko's specialty is "abuse of the extremism laws," and she says her work load has been piling up lately.
"Perhaps it's because of their pacifism, that they reject military service, and encourage believers to leave their families. There are a lot of institutions in Russia that have reasons to be angered by them. I think the interests of the Orthodox Church is only one aspect of this, it's part of something much larger," she says.
Thrown to the lions?
Most "non-traditional" faiths have experienced difficulties trying to establish themselves in post-Soviet Russia. Even the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which has about 800,000 members in Russia, has found itself under pressure, often from zealous local Orthodox communities. But recent rapprochement between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church has probably eliminated any threat that Catholics might be targeted under the Yarovaya law.
The Church of Scientology – which is controversial everywhere – was shut down by the Supreme Court last year, for "non-compliance" with laws regulating religious organizations. The Orthodox Church hailed that decision, publicly denouncing Scientology as an "affront to human freedom."
Many other groups have experienced chronic problems, including Hindus, whose holy book the Bhagavad Gita was nearly banned as "extremist" by a local court five years ago. Baptists and other smaller evangelical Christian groups, who often do not register with authorities, report constant harassment from police and local Orthodox communities.
Most of those who, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, make proselytizing a core activity, worry that they will be targeted more systematically, and treated as criminals, under the new Yarovaya law.
For the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves, persecution is all too familiar. Indeed, they fondly liken themselves to early Christians being hunted down by the Romans. Which is not to say that they welcome it.
"I don't wish to be thrown to the lions," says Yevgeny Kandaurov, an elder of the congregation in Moscow. "That's not what I choose. But I will stick to my faith whatever happens."
'We should be more careful about this'
Even among Orthodox officials it's not easy to find supporters of the draconian verdict against the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"I agree that aggressive missionary activity should be prohibited [as per the Yarovaya law] for all religious groups," says Father Chaplin, the former Orthodox Church spokesman. "The state has the right to say that their ideology is anti-patriotic and doesn't reflect the feelings of most Russians... In the bodies of power, and for common people as well, there are questions about whether this organization serves the country's interests, or those of international forces looking to weaken Russia."
Article 29 of Russia's Constitution prohibits any declaration of the superiority of religion. That's been cited against the Jehovah's Witnesses for proclaiming that theirs is the only true faith.
"I think we should be more careful about this," says Chaplin. "Every religion thinks it's the only true one. I am Orthodox, and I certainly believe that about my faith. If the state forbids us from saying that, it will put itself at odds with the majority of its citizens."
Andrei Kuraev, a professor at the Orthodox Church's Spiritual Academy in Moscow, warns that all freedom of conscience is under attack.
"Sure, the Jehovah's Witnesses are far from blameless. They are a totalitarian sect who control their adherents and spread bad information about other faiths," he says. "But sometimes our Orthodox preachers do the very same things. I have personally taken part in debates with the Jehovah's Witnesses, and I believe that's how things should be handled. We should have equal conditions. The state should stay out of it and not under any circumstances try to play the role of arbiter."