In 1989, Joe and I were accompanied by another couple from Bethel, Dorothy and Dennis, during our trip to Turkey. When we visited the Turkish Branch Office we carried with us a large brown manila envelope that had been personally handed to the other couple by Don Adams. (Adams is currently the president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.)
At that time Jehovah’s Witnesses were not registered with the Turkish government as a “Christian religion.” Instead, the German branch overseer was registered as being the head of an “educational society.”
(After getting this far into this story, a few readers might argue that it’s because Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned or persecuted in some countries that the preaching work must be accomplished by “hook or by crook” – using any means necessary.)
The manila envelope contained US headquarter’s letters and outlines of talks to be delivered to the underground branch overseer in Turkey. This method was used because all incoming postal mail to that address was searched. At the time Joe and I were under the impression that’s all we carried to the branch. When we were going through Turkish Customs and our luggage was being searched, no one cared to look in that large brown envelope we carried.
What we didn’t know was that our fellow Bethelites were carrying a laptop computer which they declared as their own to use “to take notes” as we toured the country. It was actually from the Watch Tower’s world headquarters in New York and intended for use by the Turkish Watchtower underground branch office.
Two military officers with guns in their hands put Dennis and Dorothy through an intense interrogation that was as frightening for us as it was for them. The customs officers were trying to get us to admit we were smuggling the computer into the country. Dennis told the military officers that Joe and I did not know they had a computer with them – which we didn’t. After about thirty minutes of intense questioning, they finally let us go.
Later Dennis admitted to us that he and Dorothy purposely did not mention the computer for fear we would object to their having it with them. How right they were! At that time Turkey had a terrible reputation for arresting Americans for the slightest provocation. We personally would have never approved of taking such a chance, although we knew that many other JWs would do so willingly – believing they “were engaged in God’s work.”
If the Turkish officers had decided to hold us and charge us for “smuggling” at that time we would have been held in a horrible jail. The American Embassy would have found it extremely difficult to get us out. American tourists were warned that when they went to Turkey that they should not disobey any Turkish laws because of the potential for severe consequences. They were also warned that it would be very difficult to get any help from the Embassy.
I can remember as far back as in the 1970s when Jehovah’s Witnesses thought nothing of misleading customs officers by smuggling into countries various goods for Witness missionaries. In fact, many of those missionaries were in those countries while being registered for other reasons than being Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Sometime in the 1960s one Witness and his wife came up with a plan to smuggle a Volkswagen Beetle into Colombia, South America: They would carry with them a single part of the car each time they crossed the border. Taking an automobile into the country was very expensive, but not for car parts. Eventually when they had enough parts they reassembled the car. The local missionaries then had a car “to use for the ministry.”
At the time we all laughed at the stealthy ways our brothers would use to mislead governments. Our attitude was that if we were able “to get the preaching work done” then it was “okay to break the law.” You can go back and find old Watchtower literature from those years to read about actual experiences of this sort.
Now when I look back on those days I regret that I ever approved of that kind of thinking.
The following National Geographic -TV documentary describes exactly what an American faced while imprisoned in Turkey at that time. Joe and I could have faced a very terrifying similar situation if we had been arrested and held by the Turkish authorities.