In 1989, Joe and I, along with another Bethel couple, Dorothy and Dennis, traveled to Turkey on vacation and stayed at the Watch Tower Branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Istanbul. At that time, the Watch Tower and Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned by the Turkish government and could not legally operate in Turkey. To overcome the ban, the branch was directed by a German Witness who disguised it as a German business and incoming mail was frequently searched because the activities at that residence seemed suspicious to the authorities.
So as a favor, we took with us a large brown envelope to give to the director of the branch containing US branch letters and outlines of talks given to us by Don Adams, the president of the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania. When mailed, material such as we were carrying, if opened by the authorities, would be linked to the Watch Tower and the residents of that small building could be arrested. We didn’t believe we were engaged in anything like smuggling, but just sneaking in private mail, and it was done for “the Kingdom” although we were aware of the illegality of what we were doing.
At the airport when we were going through Turkish Customs and our luggage was searched, custom officials didn’t bother to look in that brown envelope we carried. And Joe and I were under the impression Dorothy and Dennis were carrying correspondence from the Executive Office at Brooklyn Bethel to the branch director too.
What we didn’t know was that our fellow Bethelites were carrying with them a laptop computer which they stated to custom’s officials was theirs. They were asked why they needed a computer. In that they were writing a book about the Turkish culture and needed it to take notes, they declared. We listened to that story with amazement because we knew neither of them was writing a book.
Back then, laptops were scarce and very expensive. Their having one raised suspicions so the custom official called two military officers over to further question Dorothy and Dennis. We watched nervously as the two officers, with machine guns in hand, seriously interrogated them. The officers were accusing them of smuggling the computer into the country to sell it, which they fervently denied. Turkey was known to arrest foreigners for doing this type of thing. We had heard that it could take months of negotiations by a representative from a foreigner’s government to be freed from jail.
We were asked by one of the officers if we knew about the computer. We said no and Dennis quickly agreed. After about thirty minutes of questioning, we were all released and on trembling legs we hailed a taxi to take us to Istanbul to the branch.
Later Dennis admitted to us that he and Dorothy were bringing the computer into Turkey to give it to the Turkish branch. Computers weren’t banned in Turkey, so why would they smuggle one into the Turkish branch, we asked. The answer was stunning – it was so the Watch Tower wouldn’t have to pay the import tax (duty). Our fellow travelers put their safety on the line and ours too to assist Watch Tower headquarters to get a computer to the branch without paying duty. To us that reason was not acceptable and we said so. (Joe tried hard not to react too harshly, but was extremely irate over the issue.)
Dorothy told me that when she and Dennis traveled they often took things into countries for the Watch Tower’s Executive Office declaring the material as their own and didn’t give it a moment’s thought. Usually, she said they took correspondence, etc., to the branch. But to bring in something like a computer and not pay the tax just to save the Watch Tower some money, how foolish was that? Was their attitude unusual? No! I can remember as far back as in the 1960s when Jehovah’s Witnesses thought nothing of misleading custom people by smuggling into countries various goods to take to Witness missionaries without paying any import duty.
For example, one Witness and his wife came up with a plan back then to smuggle into Colombia, SA, a used car, a Volkswagen Beetle, by taking with them into the country a part of the Beetle each time they crossed the border. To take a used car into the country was prohibitively expensive, but not to take in used car parts. In time, the car was reassembled and the local missionaries had a car to use for the ministry.
At the time, we all laughed at the craftiness of the Witnesses to mislead government officials. In days gone by, such experiences were often mentioned in Watchtower literature, especially taking into countries Watch Tower books and magazines that were banned. It’s not something to brag about now that we are no longer Jehovah’s Witnesses, and wouldn’t think of doing such things because it’s dishonest! Cult mind-manipulation is an awesome thing.