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Russia's top court bans Jehovah's Witnesses

Russia's Supreme Court has branded the Jehovah's Witnesses as an "extremist group" and banned them from operating in the country. The court ordered the government to seize the Christian group's property.

Justices on Russia's Supreme Court issued a ruling on Thursday that bans Jehovah's Witnesses from operating anywhere in the country.

The court also ordered the closure of the Christian group's headquarters in Russia and its 395 local chapters. The ruling also said the organization must hand over all its property to the state, Russian news agencies reported.

"They pose a threat to the rights of citizens, public order and public security," Interfax news agency quoted justice ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova as saying.

The decision comes after the justice ministry said it found signs of "extremist activity" within the Jehovah's Witnesses and requested it be banned.

Sergei Cherepanov, a Jehovah's Witnesses representative, said the group plans to appeal the decision in the European Court of Human Rights.

"We will do everything possible," Interfax quoted Cherepanov as saying. He added that he was worried that members of the group could face jail time if they continued to gather.

'Blow to freedom of religion'

Jehovah's Witnesses has come under increasing pressure from Russian authorities over the past year. Several of the group's publications were placed on a list of banned extremist literature, while prosecutors have described it as an organization that destroys families and threatens lives.

The powerful Russian Orthodox Church has spoken out against the group with one official calling it a "destructive sect" last month.

The powerful Russian Orthodox Church has spoken out against the group, with one church official branding it a "destructive sect" last month.

Human Rights Watch criticized the court's decision as an impediment to religious freedom in Russia.

"The Supreme Court's ruling to shut down the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia," said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Jehovah's Wittnesses, a United States-based nontrinitarian Christian denomination, is known for its door-to-door preaching. They also reject military service, evolution and blood transfusions. The group claims to have more than 170,000 members in Russia.

Although the religious organization has faced court proceedings around the world, but Russian authorities have been most outspoken in portraying it as a cult.

rs/rc (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)