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Hundreds of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses seek asylum in Finland

Citing religious persecution, some 200 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses are seeking refuge in Finland after Russia classified them as extremists last year.

Jehova todistaja
Some Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses are attempting to make a new home in Finland following what they call religious persecution in Russia. Image: Kare Lehtonen/Yle

Some 200 Russian Jehovah’s witnesses are now residents at Finnish reception centres waiting to find out whether or not they will be granted asylum after the movement that preaches the Bible as the word of God was banned in Russia in 2017.

Last year, around 100 Russian members of the Christian group crossed the border to seek asylum in Finland from what they characterised as religious persecution. Finnish officials said they expect their numbers to grow this year.

”We understood that if we don’t leave Russia soon, it would soon be impossible,” asylum seeker Juri Sytshev told Yle.

Meanwhile Oleg Pisarenko, another asylum seeker, said he felt targeted by the state because he was heavily involved in the group’s field work. Members of the movement are known worldwide for their door-to-door evangelical work.

”I fear returning to Russia would lead to the imprisonment of my husband and our daughter being removed from our custody,” said Jelena Pisarenko, bringing up a sentiment echoed by other parents who spoke to Yle.

Asylum not automatic

But according to Juha Similä, who heads refugee matters at the Finnish Immigration Service, being a Jehovah's Witness adherent doesn’t automatically qualify as grounds for asylum.

”We consider an individual's position within the organisation, how visible their work has been, and whether they have been the target of arrests or violence,” he said.

In the spring of 2017, Russia cracked down on Jehovah's Witnesses — which number some 175,000 in Russia — effectively banning them in the country. The state also shut down the group’s main Assembly Hall in St. Petersburg on the heels of implementation of the country’s new anti-terrorism laws banning foreign missionary work.

Arson and intimidation

Oleg Pisarenko says harassment escalated in Russia in 2016 when police shut down his sidewalk stand.

Veikko Leinonen, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Finland, says Russia is abusing terrorism laws to persecute religious groups.

”Some homes have been burned and Assembly Halls have been the target of arson attacks. Practicing this religion is completely forbidden and people can’t congregate. People’s lives are really difficult,” he explained.

Now in Finland, the Russian asylum seekers say they have set up their own Russian-speaking congregation while they await news from Finnish immigration authorities.

The Sytshev and Pisarenko families say they’ve settled in at the Joutseno refugee reception centre in Lappeenranta, where many families are housed in the old wooden buildings that used to serve as living quarters for the correctional officers working at nearby Konnunsuo prison.

In Finland, Witnesses have drawn attention for their opposition to blood transfusions and military conscription. Last month, the European Court of Justice ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses in Finland illegally gather personal data through their door-to-door ministry.

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