Russia has officially banned Jehovah's Witnesses from freely practicing their faith, as the country's Supreme Court has declared the religious organization an "extremist group".
According to Christianity Today, the judge ordered nearly 400 local chapters and its Russian headquarters to close and authorized the government to seize all property. Under the ruling, distributing copies of the Watchtower, discussing their beliefs in public, or even worshipping at a meeting hall is now illegal.
A lawyer for Russia's justice ministry, Svetlana Borisova, told the court that Jehovah's Witnesses "pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security," according to media reports.
Jehovah's Witnesses, who number 175,000 adherents in Russia, reportedly plan to appeal Thursday's ruling, which came after six days of hearings attended by hundreds of supporters, says The Telegraph.
"We are greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity," said spokesman Yaroslav Sivulskiy. "We hope that our legal rights and protections as a peaceful religious group will be fully restored as soon as possible."
The religious group may take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled a previous attempted ban on Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia unlawful in 2010.
Nevertheless, some have warned that the ruling sets a disturbing precedent, as this case represents the first time the country has banned a registered religious group.
"If Jehovah's Witnesses are persecuted, then that means later 'on the block' will come other religious movements-for example, Protestant churches," law professor Anatoly Pchelintcev told Portal-Credo, an Orthodox news site. "For the Jehovah's Witnesses, Armageddon has arrived, and the faithful of other religions await the apocalypse."
The Telegraph notes that Russia changed its legal definition of extremism in 2006, removing requirements for violence or hatred but stating the "incitement of ... religious discord" as criteria. Now, the outlet notes, Jehovah's Witnesses are left with the same legal status as ISIS or Nazis.
The group's international website was blocked in Russia two years ago over alleged extremism, with its Bibles banned the following year, while a local chairman was jailed for two years on charges of possessing "extremist literature" in 2010.
In the days following the ruling, the Russian government's financial monitoring system added the Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters to its list of "organizations, against which there is evidence of involvement in extremist activity or terrorism," and its financial transactions are already blocked, says CT.