Several European news agencies have reported that Russia’s Supreme Court has ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be listed as an “extremist organization” and will effectively be banned in Russia. It is unclear at this time whether the ban will extend to other Soviet Republics.
It is also unknown what the exact penalties might be and how they might apply to individual Jehovah’s Witnesses and those identified as their leaders.
Correspondents and agencies for The Guardian newspaper (UK) based inside Russia are reporting that Russia’s Supreme Court ruled on a request by the Justice Ministry. That agency labeled Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist group.” The organization claims over 170,000 members in Russia, but there may be several thousand others spread throughout the Soviet Union.
There are also an unknown number of “missionaries,” Jehovah’s Witnesses from other countries who have been specially trained to aid and assist local members. What effect this new ban will have on foreign “special overseers” sent to Russia to participate in public preaching and supervise the management of congregations. There have been no indications about how these Jehovah’s Witnesses will be treated. For some non-Russians, the penalties could be very harsh. For others, spending some time in prison and then being deported is a likely outcome.
[Read The Guardian’s news report HERE.]
Jehovah’s Witnesses have in the past suffered persecution by government agencies and external political groups. This new ban and expanded persecution is nothing new to either the group’s followers or leaders.
The Guardian report that “the court ordered the closure of the group’s Russia headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property.”
The Justice Ministry’s attorney, Svetlana Borisova, declared in court that “Jehovah’s Witnesses pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order, and public security.” She also claimed that their rejection of blood transfusions violates Russian healthcare laws.
Leaders of the religious group indicated that they would be appealing the court’s decision. One Jehovah’s Witness representative stated that members are “greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity.”
Russian authorities have banned most of Watchtower’s publications. The organization has been accused of supporting the breakup of families, generating hatred of other religions, and having doctrines that threaten lives. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that all those charges are lies. While Communist Russia is technically an “atheist” government, the Russian Orthodox (Eastern Catholic tradition) is the unofficial national religion. With few exceptions, non-traditional religious groups find it difficult to grow or prosper there – and Jehovah’s Witnesses are clearly outside of the “traditional” category.
Spokesmen for the Jehovah’s Witnesses described the court’s decision as a step toward destroying religious freedom in Russia.
The Guardian’s reported that Rachel Denber, a spokesperson for the organization Human Rights Watch, made the following statement in support of the religious group:
“The supreme court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.” That group also warned that this may only be the beginning of more difficult times for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Besides facing heavy fines and physical punishment, many (especially elders and full-time missionaries) could also serve time in prison and lose ownership of property and other assets.
While we disagree with many of the Watchtower Society’s teachings and policies, we take no pleasure in seeing individual Jehovah’s Witnesses and their families facing persecution, economic loss, possible imprisonment, deportation – or even the loss of their lives. At the same time, we wonder if some of the Watchtower’s unreasonable policies (their failure to protect children from molesters, shunning individuals who wish to leave or no longer believe, and their rejection of necessary blood transfusions) may have played a major role in the Russian Courts’ harsh rulings against them.
We can only hope that the Russian courts and civil authorities reconsider their decisions and make sure that their rulings deal only with Jehovah’s Witnesses organizational teachings, policies, and procedures – while also protecting the physical and financial well-being of individuals and families. Russian leaders should not make Jehovah’s Witnesses martyrs. That approach will gain them nothing and will only harden the resolve of Watchtower leaders to resist change.