Over the past five years, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been raided, arrested and prosecuted in Russia. Many more have fled, including a couple, Dmitrii and Nellia Antsybor, who flew to Mexico last year, crossed the US border to seek asylum and now hope to build a new life in the state. from Washington.
After entering the United States, the couple were separated and sent to different immigration detention centers. Nellia in Arizona, Dmitrii in California. Almost three months passed before they met at the end of February.
However, despite this ordeal and the disappearance of her twin sister and her mother who remained in Russia, Nellia welcomes her newfound freedom to Federal Way, a suburb of Seattle.
“It’s good not to be afraid to get together with our brothers and sisters even if it’s via Zoom,” she said through a translator. “I have a sense of ease now.”
A new source of concern: the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
“I am very worried about what is happening with my brothers and sisters in this country,” Dmitrii said. “We pray for them.”
About 5,000 Witnesses from Ukraine have left to seek protection in other countries, said Jarrod Lopes, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses based in the United States.
For the Witnesses in Russia – Lopes estimates there are around 170,000 – there has been anxiety since the country’s Supreme Court declared the Christian denomination an extremist group in 2017.
Hundreds have been arrested and imprisoned. Their homes and places of worship, known as Kingdom Halls, were raided and the national headquarters seized. The modern translation of the Bible into Russian by the Witnesses was banned along with its world-circulated magazines, Awake and Watchtower.
Nellia said she and Dmitrii have long been on the radar of authorities in the cities where they live. They decided to flee, she said, after her mother called in October and said police had a warrant for their arrest.
“To be a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia is to be in constant legal danger, constantly in fear of invasion of your privacy, confiscation of your property or, in many cases, being locked up”, said Jason Morton, political analyst at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal agency that tracks religious freedom violations around the world.Last year, there were 105 guilty verdicts against Witnesses in Russia, according to the commission. The maximum sentences imposed on them have been increased from six to eight years
The Russian government never gave a detailed justification for the crackdown.
“I don’t think there’s a reasonable person who can prove that the Witnesses are fundamentally extremists,” said Emily Baran, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University. She has studied Soviet and post-Soviet witness communities.
It’s a label that even Russian President Vladimir Putin called “complete nonsense” when asked about it in 2018.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians too, so I don’t quite understand why [they] persecute them,” he said.
Although the Witnesses are Christians, they are guided by particular beliefs and practices, including refusal of blood transfusions, abstinence from voting, conscientious objection to military service, and avoidance of participating in ceremonies and holidays. nationals. Before the pandemic, the Witnesses conducted door-to-door proselytizing, a key part of their faith.
Besides Russia, Witnesses are persecuted in several former Soviet republics, including Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. A notable case is the imprisonment of a 70-year-old Tajik citizen, Shamil Khakimov, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2019.In Eritrea, where military conscription is compulsory, many Witnesses are imprisoned. In South Korea, where most young men must perform military service, Witnesses were routinely imprisoned for refusing until a 2018 court ruling upheld their right to conscientious objection.
The Witnesses “really seem to ruffle the feathers of your more authoritarian-minded governments that demand a base of state ownership,” Morton said. “The fact that they want to stay separate from some of the typical celebratory state duties or participate in certain state rituals puts them on the radar.”
The recent crackdown is not the first experienced by the Witnesses in Russia. During the Soviet era, they were deported to remote parts of Siberia. They have often been victims of discrimination in employment and have lost custody of their children.
“They didn’t do the kind of performative aspects of being part of Soviet life,” Baran said.
The denomination’s American origins placed the Witnesses under scrutiny during the Cold War, Baran said. “Because they were part of an international religious group, the Soviet Union believed this was evidence of a larger capitalist conspiracy.”
Nellia and Dmitrii have decided to flee Russia after weeks of playing hide and seek with police officers and disguising their appearances to evade security cameras.
“We thought they would find us eventually,” Dmitrii said.
They left on a one-way flight from Moscow to the resort town of Cancun, Mexico. After a brief stay, they flew to the border town of Mexicali in December, then contacted US border agents to seek asylum.
While in detention in the United States, the couple celebrated their 12th anniversary and Nellia continued her tradition of writing love poems to mark the occasion.
“I pray to God that this time passes quickly and that better times are ahead,” she wrote. “My beloved, wait for me, wait for me and don’t be too sad for me.”
Dmitrii said he studied tax law in Russia but now hopes to get a truck driver’s license – if he can avoid the long journeys that would take him away from his wife. Nellia doesn’t know what job she could do.
The Antsybor are among many Witnesses — likely several thousand, according to Lopes — who have fled Russia since the crackdown began in 2017. Many have found refuge in other European countries.
Evgeniy Kandaurov fled Russia with his wife in August 2021 and resettled in Germany. He said their home was raided by police in February 2021 with an officer from the internal intelligence agency giving orders from a distance.
Officers took custody of the bags containing their personal effects, including all but one of the wedding photos.
Kandaurov, whose father was a communist, became interested in Jehovah’s Witnesses after two years of military service. He was baptized in 1994 and became a “special pioneer”, expected to devote at least 130 hours a month to ministry work.
He traveled throughout Russia advocating for the rights of Witnesses to evangelize and worship peacefully, often helping those in trouble with the police.
“That was actually my favorite form of service: defending our rights in court,” he said in an interview from his new home in Wiesbaden, a town west of Frankfurt.
Kandaurov said he was interrogated for several hours on several occasions.
“We couldn’t sleep: every knock on the door, every heavy footstep in the corridor, it deprived us of sleep, it was unnerving,” he said.
Last summer, he and his wife left Russia, traveling through Moldova and Ukraine, then flying to Germany. Their modest possessions included their only surviving wedding photo.
He now spends much of his time writing to those left behind and worshiping Zoom with his new friends, grateful to practice his faith freely.
“I don’t need to whisper,” he said.