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Jehovah’s Witnesses Labeled ‘Extremist,’ Banned By Russia’s High Court

MOSCOW — The Russian Supreme Court on Thursday declared the country's branch of Jehovah's Witnesses "extremist," equating it to the Islamic State.

The religious group is to be disbanded and its assets seized by the government, according to the court's website.

"This decision can lead to most deplorable consequences for believers of various confessions, as well as for Russia's public image," Jehovah's Witnesses Russia said on its website.

Image: Stacks of Jehovah's Witnesses booklets in a courtroom in Gorno-Altaysk, Russia
Stacks of religious booklets sit in a courtroom after a local Jehovah's Witnesses leader was charged with inciting religious hatred for distributing literature about his beliefs in the Siberian town of Gorno-Altaysk, Russia, on Dec. 16, 2010. Alexandr Tyryshkin / Reuters file

The court has not announced the legal reasoning behind its verdict Thursday.

Jehovah's Witnesses, which has 170,000 followers in Russia, will appeal the decision, the group said on their website. The group has a month to do so.

Under Russian law, the ban would not prohibit individual believers from following their creed, but congregating and proselytizing would become offenses punishable with up to five years in prison.

The plaintiff, the Russian Justice Ministry, cited the group's aversion to blood transfusion on religious grounds as reason for the ban.

Related: Supreme Court Scheduled to Hear Important Freedom of Religion Dispute

A number of books and pamphlets by Jehovah's Witnesses have also been banned in Russia in the past years. Prosecutors claimed the publications foster intolerance.

Eight regional chapters of Jehovah's Witnesses have been banned in Russia as "extremist" since 2009.

The Russian list of banned extremist organizations currently contains 59 entries, most of them white supremacist organizations. The Islamic State and Al Qaida are also banned in Russia.

The Russian case against Jehovah's Witnesses was denounced by the European Union and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), among others.

Related: With Obama's Signature, U.S. Religious Freedom Law Protects Atheists

"The Russian government is exploiting genuine threats of violent extremism to undermine what little religious freedom remains in that country," Wicker said last month ahead of the hearing, according to the Senate website.

Jehovah's Witnesses has a history of persecution, including in Nazi Germany. The group is banned in China, Iran, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia.

The group asked the Russian Supreme Court to recognize them as victims of political repression, but the request was denied.