After a period of freedom following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jehovah’s Witnesses again face intense government-sponsored persecution in Russia.
Since a 2017 Supreme Court classifying the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization, the group has been stripped of its legal status. Many of its places of worship, known as Kingdom Halls, have been confiscated.
Individual witnesses are treated as enemies of the state.
At the end of the year, 77 Jehovah’s Witnesses were in Russian prisons for practicing their faith and 31 others were under house arrest, according to Jarrod Lopes, a spokesperson for the world organization based in New York.
Many more have been targeted. In the past five years, a total of 1,660 homes have been searched, Lopes said.
A decision of the Russian Supreme Court has indicated that the individual or collective worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not, in itself, a crime.
It’s unclear how this ruling will affect those currently awaiting trial, Lopes said.
In November, a court in Vladivostok – about 8,500 km east of Moscow – acquitted Dmitry Barmakin of organizing activities by extremist groups, claiming that Jehovah’s Witnesses had simply “exercised the right to liberty of religion enshrined in the Constitution of Russia ”.
Other defendants have had less success, Lopes said.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to be condemned, and they are condemned as extremists, which puts them on the same level as terrorists like Al Qaeda,” he said.
The persecution, Lopes said, is unwarranted.
There is nothing criminal, argues Lopes, about reading the Bible, singing songs and offering prayers.
“Often in a criminal case you try to examine who was hurt by this [defendant]”, he said.” In this case, they don’t have casualties because no one is hurt by these people. “
In 2016, there were approximately 171,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses “publishers” in Russia, people in good standing who actively share their faith.
A total of 321 church-related properties, valued at $ 53 million, were foreclosed, church officials said.
In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the US State Department to designate Russia as a country of particular concern, arguing that it engages or tolerates “particularly serious violations of religious freedom.”
Under international religious freedom law, countries can be included in the list if they have “systematically, continuously, [and] gross violations … including violations such as – (A) torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; (B) prolonged detention without charge; (C) cause the disappearance of persons through the abduction or clandestine detention of such persons; or (D) any other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty or security of person. “
In November, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken added Russia to the list, placing it alongside Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
James Carr, a man from Searcy who is on the commission, expressed bemusement at Moscow’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, noting that they make up only a fraction of 1% of the country’s residents.
The former superpower now has an estimated population of 146 million.
“Here’s a mighty power: Russia.… And for some reason they’re afraid of these people,” Carr said.
“I don’t know many members of the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I know enough to know that they are rather peaceful people. And they are put in jail just for practicing their faith,” he said. he declares.
Those convicted could be locked up “not for six months but for many, many years, in some cases,” he added.
With 8.6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world, they are a global force. While referring to Jesus as the founder of their organization, they say the modern movement grew out of a small group, who referred to themselves as Bible Students living near Pittsburgh in the late 19th century.
Since 1931, they have called themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They are taught to treat political authorities with respect.
In the New World Translation of the Bible, which the Witnesses use and distribute, they are asked “to be obedient to governments and authorities, to be ready for any good work, … to be reasonable.” (Titus 3: 1-2.)
They are also invited to pray “concerning kings and all who hold high office” so that they “may continue to lead a calm and quiet life with full devotion and earnestness”. (1 Timothy 2: 1-2.)
Nonetheless, they will refuse to abide by a law if they believe that it defies Jehovah’s precepts as they are described in the Bible.
Politically neutral, they also refuse to participate in many civic activities.
Witnesses do not vote or show up, they do not recite the pledge of allegiance or sing patriotic hymns. They will not serve in the military either, although they have the option of performing civilian service, if their conscience permits.
For Witnesses, the persecution is not a new phenomenon. The Soviets banished many of them to Siberia. The Nazis placed others in concentration camps.
In the United States, the Witnesses encountered hostility, especially when they refused to salute the flag or serve in the armed forces.
The Witnesses have had a disproportionate influence on American constitutional law, according to Jane G. Rainey, professor emeritus of political science at Eastern Kentucky University.
“Perhaps no religious sect has had a greater impact for its size on the expansion of the free exercise of First Amendment religion than Jehovah’s Witnesses,” says Rainey in the First Amendment’s Encyclopedia. Amendment.