Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
When the knock came at the door at six in the morning, Sergei and Maria Silaev feared the worst.
The couple first thought it was the Russian police, coming to arrest them for being Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But it was the upstairs neighbour, telling them there was a water leak above their apartment.
They were relieved, but after that had many anxious nights. "I couldn’t sleep," said Maria. From that moment on they knew they needed to leave Russia.
The Silaevs life changed in 2017 when the Russian Supreme Court labelled their church an extremist organization and banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations and gatherings in that country — a ruling that forced them, and other members, to go underground and meet in secret in their homes.
Although no official reasons have been given for the persecution, it could be because members of the church are pacifist, refuse to serve in the military, don’t vote, and won’t salute the flag or take part in other nationalistic displays of loyalty.
According to Human Rights Watch, Russian authorities have carried out at least 780 house raids since 2017 in more than 70 towns and cities across Russia.
Altogether, more than 300 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been charged, are on trial, or have been convicted of criminal "extremism" for practising their faith. At least 32 are in prison, with sentences ranging from two to six years for leading or participating in church meetings. There are allegations of torture.
"For Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, practising their faith means risking their freedom," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Central.
The Silaevs decided not to wait to see if they would be added to the list of the accused and arrested.
In January they came to Canada as tourists, seeking refugee status after arriving. Soon after, they moved to Winnipeg to await a verdict on their claim. Speaking through a translator over Zoom, they shared their story with me.
The Silaevs who have no children, lived in Tver, a city of about 400,000 people 200 kilometres north of Moscow. Sergei, 29, worked as a maintenance supervisor; Maria, 27, was a hairdresser and also helped her husband in his work.
The effects of the persecution were felt gradually, they said, starting with a ban on the New World Translation, the version of the Bible used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The couple got rid of their printed version, but kept a copy on their computer.
This made Maria sad. "I enjoyed turning the pages and reading it," she said of her physical copy of the Bible.
Then there was a ban on door-to-door and street witnessing — a hallmark of the church, in that country and around the world.
"That was very disappointing," said Sergei. "We couldn’t share the Good News about God."
After that, church meetings were banned. "We couldn’t freely meet, our meeting places were shut down," he said.
In response, members of the church began to meet in secret in groups of five or 10 in homes. This included the Silaevs. During the meetings they closed the curtains, kept their voices low, and there was no singing.
While glad to still meet, the couple felt anxious. "There was always the threat of being raided and arrested," Sergei said. "We were always fearful, constantly afraid of being arrested."
They also experienced harassment at work; co-workers would ask what they were doing wrong to make the government ban their church. They told them, "You must be criminals, the government says so."
Faced with persecution, and afraid of being arrested, they decided to leave.
"We wanted to live somewhere where we could freely express our faith," said Sergei.
They decided to come to Canada, because it "respects the rights of all religions, and people can freely express their faith," he said. They selected Winnipeg because they heard the people here were friendly, and because there is a small Russian-speaking group of Jehovah’s Witnesses they could worship with.
"We heard it a nice place and the people are good," Sergei said.
Since arriving in Winnipeg, which is home to about 3,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting in 16 congregations, the couple has received assistance from local members of the church. "We feel the warmth and love of brothers and sisters here in Winnipeg," said Maria.
Best of all, for a number of weeks early in the year the couple was able to meet physically with other Jehovah’s Witnesses before the pandemic struck and forced meetings online.
"I couldn’t hold back my tears," said Maria of those first in-person meetings. One thing she especially enjoyed was being able to "sing out loud."
As for Sergei, "I am glad to be able to freely express my faith, and not worry about being arrested," he said.
Joel Ramcharan is the spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses on the Prairies. While glad the couple has found safety, he worries about other Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
"We realize the pandemic is pushing this off the table, but we want the world to know about the persecution," he said, adding he hopes Canadians will "remember what’s happening in that country."
Added Sergei: "We want people to know we are peace-loving, law-abiding, hard-working people. It’s discouraging the Russian government doesn’t recognize and accept that."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
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