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Russia carries out mass raids on Jehovah's Witnesses, makes arrests

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Masked law enforcement officers carried out mass raids on the Jehovah’s Witnesses across Russia on Tuesday and made a number of arrests as part of a new criminal case against the group, the Investigative Committee said.

The law enforcement agency said it had opened an investigation as it suspected the Christian denomination was organising the activity in Moscow of its national centre and affiliates.

Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, denied the centre had resumed its activity and said the group was being targeted in a campaign of persecution.

Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to disband in 2017 after labelling it extremist, and some of its adherents have since been jailed or hit with criminal charges in a crackdown.

On Tuesday, black-clad officers used a crowbar and an axe to break down a door to gain access to one property, footage released by the Investigative Committee showed.

The agency said it had identified a number of group organisers and followers and had taken them into custody as part of its investigation. It said in a statement that searches had been carried out in more than 20 regions.

Some adherents have met privately in a flat in northwest Moscow from June 2019 to discuss and study religious literature relating to their faith, and have converted some Moscow residents, it said .

Six Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in the Russian capital during the searches, Sivulskiy said.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia where the Orthodox Church championed by President Vladimir Putin is dominant.

Putin said in 2018 that he did not understand why authorities were pursuing the group and called for the matter to be analysed.

The Kremlin declined to comment on Tuesday.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

Reporting by Alexander Marrow and Maxim Rodionov; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Angus MacSwan