The Kremlin says it will look into charges that Jehovah's Witnesses are being subjected to persecution in Russia.
Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, said in Moscow on December 18 that 'it is necessary to look into each individual case.'
'The issue cannot be settled theoretically because there are many factors arguing 'for' and 'against,'' he said. 'But at the very least, they will look into this matter more carefully.'
Peskov was amplifying comments made by Putin on December 11 during a Kremlin meeting with the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.
Council member and political analyst Yekaterina Shulman told Putin that 404 of the 489 entries on Russia's list of extremist organizations were Jehovah's Witnesses chapters, even though 'they certainly do not incite violence or carry it out.'
Putin responded by saying that 'probably we can, and even at some point should, be much more liberal toward representatives of various religious sects.'
'It is true that we should treat representatives of all religions the same, but it is also necessary to take into account the country and the society in which we live,' Putin said.
'Granted, this certainly does not mean that we should label representatives of religious communities as members of destructive, even terrorist, organizations. That is complete nonsense and this needs to be dealt with carefully.'
Returning to the topic later in the meeting, Putin added: 'Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians too. I don't quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into. This must be done.'
There are some 170,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.
In April 2017, Russia's Supreme Court ruled that the central organization of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and all its member organization be added to the government's official list of extremist organizations. Russian officials have argued that the Jehovah's Witnesses sow 'religious discord' by asserting theirs is the only 'true' faith.
Nearly 100 Jehovah's Witnesses are facing criminal charges across Russia.
In June, the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights issued a statement saying 'the situation evokes associations with the Soviet period when Jehovah's Witnesses suffered groundless repression because of their faith.'
The council called on the Prosecutor-General's Office to protect the group's religious freedom.
The United States and the European Union have criticized the Russian Supreme Court's decision to add the Jehovah's Witnesses to the list of extremist organizations.
With reporting by TASS and AP RFE/RL
RFE/RL journalists report the news in 23 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.
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