Religious faiths wonder what's next as Russian court bans Jehovah's Witnesses

Members of Jehovah's Witnesses wait in a court room in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, April 20, 2017. Russia's Supreme Court has banned the Jehovah's Witnesses from operating in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organisation be considered an extremist group, ordering closure of the group's Russia headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

(KUTV) Religious freedom in Russia took a blow on Thursday after one Christian religion was deemed by the Kremlin to be an extremist group.

A Utah professor of Russian says the decision could be a harbinger of how other religions that are based outside of Russia could be treated going forward.

Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah's Witnesses from operating anywhere in the country. As a result, the court further ordered the seizure of the denomination’s property including the closure of witness’ Russian headquarters and 395 local locations.

Justice Ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova told the court that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a threat to Russians.

"They pose a threat to the rights of citizens, public order and public security," Borisova said.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses say they plan to appeal the ruling. They have more than 170,000 followers in Russia.

Emma Top-Kauffman, who teaches Russian at Utah Valley University, says she has seen the change that has taken effect since the Russian government enacted an anti-extremism law back in July.

“As the Russian Orthodox has increased it's political influence in Russia, other religions have seen their rights decrease,” Top-Kauffman told 2News on Thursday in a phone interview.

From studying at Moscow State University to now teaching returned missionaries who have served in Russia, Top-Kauffman has experienced Russia clamping down on religious foreign influences.

"I’ve watched as their freedoms have lessened," Top-Kauffman said.

Since the fall of Communism in Russia, the LDS church has experienced growth since the late '80s. But with the rise of Nationalism, Top-Kauffman said the Russian Orthodox religion is progressively viewed as the only religion approved by political leaders.

"The Russian government is making it more and more difficult for other religions, especially those with western influence, to expand and even operate throughout the country," Top-Kauffman said.

While missionaries remain in Russia, the number of missionaries and how they share the gospel has changed in the past 10 months. Missionaries for the LDS faith began referring to themselves as “volunteers” and parents also asked to refer to their children in Russia by the same title. They were also asked by the church to be careful about what they post to social media.

Since the LDS church can no longer proselyte in Russia, it has evolved and decreased the number of missionaries serving in the country.

Deteriorating Russian relations have impacted Mormon missionary work in the country.

In August, six young men and women LDS volunteers were detained by Russian police and deported on a "visa technicality."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in September that 30 missionaries in the Provo Missionary Training Center who were initially called to Russia had been reassigned.

The LDS church has 23,180 members in Russia, seven missions and 103 church congregations.

The church did not respond to an immediate request for comment on this story.