World News

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Fleeing Russia Crackdown, Seek Shelter in Finland

Posted July 16, 2018 7:43 a.m. EDT

TURKU, Finland — Sergey Avilkin, one of the hundreds of Russians now sheltering in Finland to avoid arrest as “extremists” in their home country, has no interest in politics or politicians and says that he has always followed the biblical injunction to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

But the 42-year-old father of three would still like President Donald Trump to ask President Vladimir Putin of Russia a simple question when the two leaders meet in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, on Monday: Why are Russians who pay their taxes, follow the law and embrace the Christian values promoted by the Kremlin being forced to flee their country?

“We don’t steal, we don’t smoke, we don’t drink and always try to obey the law,” said Avilkin, sitting in the kitchen of the apartment he recently rented for his family in Turku, a city west of Helsinki, while he waits for Finland’s immigration service to process an application for asylum. “But I am 100 percent sure that if I had not left I would now be in prison.”

Along with most of the other Russians who have sought shelter in Finland, Avilkin and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that the Russian Supreme Court declared an “extremist” organization and effectively outlawed in April last year.

With issues like arms control, the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, and Russian meddling in the 2016 election in the United States expected to be discussed, it is unlikely that the two presidents will have the time — or the inclination — to address the fate of Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses when they meet.

But Avilkin, his wife, Lena, their three school-age children and around 300 other Russians scattered in refugee camps and low-rent housing around Finland are a stark reminder of the obstacles, rarely mentioned by Trump but still very real, that impede his desire to “get along with Russia.”

The Russian court ruling, which put Bible-reading Christians who reject all violence in the same category of extremism as supporters of the Islamic State group, set off a harsh crackdown across Russia. The Jehovah’s Witness headquarters near St. Petersburg was seized by the state, prayer halls around the country were raided by police and scores of believers were arrested.

“What we have seen in Russia since the Jehovah’s Witness organization was banned outright last year is without doubt the most severe crackdown on religious freedom since the Soviet era,” said Geraldine Fagan, author of “Believing in Russia — Religious Policy after Communism.”

“In key respects, it is uncannily reminiscent of late Soviet-era practice,” Fagan added.

The State Department has said it is “extremely concerned by the Russian government’s action targeting and repressing members of religious minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, under the pretense of combating extremism.”

But Trump, who won the 2016 election with strong support from evangelical Christians, has so far remained silent on the matter.

Finland, like the rest of Europe, has years of experience dealing with asylum-seekers, but until Russia branded Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists, those seeking refuge in the country were largely from the Middle East and Africa.

Anu Karppi, an official in the asylum division of Finland’s immigration service, said that only 10 Russians had applied for asylum in 2016, but after the crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses that number rose to 251 last year, with an additional 208 applications by Russians in the first six months of this year.

Karppi said applicants needed to establish that they faced a real risk, not just a fear, of persecution in order to gain asylum in Finland. The few applications processed so far have been rejected, and Karppi said that while Russia was certainly “enforcing measures” against Jehovah’s Witnesses, the severity of the campaign varied from region to region.

“We look at every application case by case,” she said. “At the moment, the situation does not seem to be that every Jehovah’s Witness is under the threat of persecution, but we follow the situation closely. If everyone was being persecuted, then everyone would be granted asylum.”

After initially targeting only male Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian law-enforcement agencies this month arrested a woman, Anatastasiya Polyakova, a follower of the denomination in the Siberian city of Omsk. Her husband, Sergey, was also arrested, after being severely beaten during a police raid on their home.

Forum 18, a Norwegian group that promotes religious freedom, reported that more than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses are now under investigation in Russia on criminal charges of “extremism.”

Unlike many religious groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who number more than 170,000 in Russia and more than 8 million worldwide, have a policy of staying politically neutral and have not assembled a powerful lobbying machine in either Washington or Moscow.

The group’s distaste for politics and sometimes idiosyncratic theology, which puts it at odds with many other Christian denominations, has made the denomination an easy target in Russia, where the Orthodox Church, a close ally of the Kremlin, views Jehovah’s Witness as a heretical sect.

Because followers generally do not vote and have a long record of resisting military service and all collaboration with the security services, they have no allies in Russia’s political and security establishments, which have united against them. Avilkin’s wife, Lena, recalled how doctors at a state hospital in Moscow where the couple took the daughter, Katya, for cancer treatment as a baby had, after consultation with Russian prosecutors, told them to “take your child away and let her die” after they refused to allow blood transfusions, which are banned by their faith. The couple later found a private doctor in St. Petersburg willing to operate without transfusions and their daughter, now a healthy 12-year-old, survived.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2013 that the hospital had violated human rights by divulging the medical record of the Avilkins’ daughter to Russian prosecutors, who had demanded that public hospitals report all cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused transfusions.

The issue of transfusions has been at the center of a long campaign of criticism by Russian foes of the denomination, who include some medical professionals and disenchanted former followers, but are mostly people close to and sometimes funded by the Orthodox Church.

While the decision by Jehovah’s Witnesses not to get involved in politics and their determination to live out the teachings of the Bible may be points in their favor in Russia, their lack of patriotic fervor and the fact that the group’s worldwide headquarters is in the United States have made them deeply suspect in the eyes of the Orthodox Church and the Russian state.

“In Putin’s eyes, they have no political value; what ‘traditional values’ they may have are of no use to him if they cannot be co-opted,” Fagan said. Valeri Kikot, another Jehovah’s Witness who fled to Finland, said he had made a good living in Russia running a small construction company and had benefited from the stability brought by Putin’s 18-years in power.

“We had a good life,” he said. “I was never against Putin and, if the authorities had not turned against us, I would definitely have stayed in Russia.”

Kikot, 55, now lives with his wife and two young children in a single room in a hulking building for refugees in Turku. They share a kitchen with asylum-seekers from Syria.

A committed atheist until he became a Jehovah’s Witness as an adult, Kikot said he had never imagined ending up as a refugee and had fled Russia only because he worried that authorities might prosecute him and his wife, a former follower of the Russian Orthodox Church, and seize their children.

“We understood that they could enter our house any day and take away our kids,” he said. “We had to leave.”