The future for Jehovah's Witnesses


"Telegraf" found out what adherents of the Jehovah's Witnesses and experts think with regard to the ban of their activity in Russia

by Dmitry Matveev

Telegraf, 28 April 2017


On 20 April, the Russian Supreme Court found the activity of the "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" to be extremist and banned its work. Not long before that, the Russian Ministry of Justice put a stop to the work of the central office of the Jehovah's Witnesses organization because of rulings that 95 of the books the organization distributes are extremist. Telegraf talked with adherents of the organization in Russia and abroad and found out how their life will change after the ban.


Nobody compels people to become Jehovah's Witnesses by force; they come to the faith by themselves. Anton Chivchalov, an adherent of the Jehovah's Witnesses, described for Telegraf how he became acquainted with this teaching quite by accident back when he was a teenager and found their literature in the home of his grandmother. "It was in Ukraine, Lvov province, the city of Chervonograd. I was immediately attracted by the logic and reasonableness of the presentation. All this contrasted sharply with the perception of religion that I had before that: something gloomy, confused, mixed with strange rituals, 'for old ladies,' and so forth," Anton explained.


He wrote a letter to the Jehovah's Witnesses' affiliate in Germany and requested literature, which he quickly received. Anton said that for some time he corresponded with believers from another city and then he began to study the Bible more seriously and to attend meetings, first in Ukraine and later in Russia. In 1996 he himself received baptism as a follower of the Jehovah's Witnesses.


Originally he was attracted by the reasonableness, clarity, logic, and integrity in its teaching. "Before this, my religion was associated with stupidities like holy water which my grandmother fed me (incidentally, later she also became a Jehovah's Witness). But I unexpectedly discovered for myself that the Bible gives absolutely reasonable answers to important questions and formulates an integral and logical picture of the world. For example, before that I did not find anywhere a more logical explanation for the nature of evil than in the Bible," Anton Chivchalov explained.


He added that if one speaks about Jehovah's Witnesses as people, then he sees among them genuine Christian qualities. "These are brotherly love, mutual help, a serious attitude to the study of the Bible, treating it as a handbook and guide for all areas of life, and zeal in the work of evangelism. All of this is today in great deficit among other Christian churches," Anton explained.


The follower of Jehovah's Witnesses said that in his family people are sufficiently educated to be able to respect the religious convictions of other people. "My grandmother and my younger brother also became Jehovah's Witnesses and my mother is now actively interested in the faith," he explained.


"Jehovah's Witnesses will submit an appeal of the decision of the Supreme Court, including in the European Court for Human Rights, and therefore not everything is so unambiguous. "If there is an unfavorable outcome for us, we will not be able to conduct large worship services and we will not be able to use the houses of worship that we built, nor to import literature. Of course, in a law-based state in the 21st century, freedom of religious confession should not look like that," Anton considers.


At the same time, he thinks that the matter will not come to mass imprisonments, but it may come to mass fines, warnings from prosecutors, acts of vandalism, dismissals from work, confiscations, humiliations in law enforcement agencies and insults. "Unfortunately all this has already begun, even before the decision of the Supreme Court. Here much will depend on the position of specific officials in places," Anton Chivchalov explained. He said that our government thinks that law enforcement agencies should hunt for defenseless women with Bibles and not catch criminals.


Anton explained that he has no fear. "We try to remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: 'They persecuted me and they will persecute you also.' Each person, coming to Christian faith, should be psychologically prepared for persecution. And Jehovah's Witnesses do not entertain historical experience; after all we went through much more severe soviet and hitlerian repressions," Anton explained.


"What do I feel? I feel great responsibility to do all that I can in order to help my brothers and sisters in Russia, to sanctify God's name and establish his kingdom. This is the main thing that we do in whatever country we live in and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. This is what always unites us as a world brotherhood," the follower of Jehovah's Witnesses summed up.


The ban of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia shocked the world community. Sergei Afanasiev, an adherent of Jehovah's Witnesses living in Ukraine, said that the ban of the organization in Russia was a shocking experience for the whole world. Jehovah's Witnesses are known as peaceful citizens, who do not participate in political activity and categorically oppose violence. This means that the Jehovah's Witnesses do not have a political lobby and they are neutral and submit to any government. And it is for this reason that our situation in a country is a marker of religious liberty. Usually persecutions in authoritarian countries begin with Jehovah's Witnesses, but they never end with them," Sergei said.


As regards citizens of Ukraine, the ban of Jehovah's Witnesses evoked diverse reactions. "Even those people who categorically disagree with the views of Jehovah's Witnesses condemned this ban and sympathize with Jehovah's Witnesses. Such people are the majority," Sergei explained.


He said that it is still unknown when and which actions the government will take against Jehovah's Witnesses. "What is already now is they are sealing up buildings and believers who gather in their own homes for reading and discussing the Bible are issued prosecutorial warnings. That is, my fellow believers can expect very difficult times," he explained.


Sergei does not think that the authorities will immediately start criminal prosecution of believers with real criminal sentences. For now public opinion or the reaction of the world community will not permit doing this. "However it is not necessary to imprison; Jehovah's Witnesses who wind up in the list of extremists will be deprived of work, the right to business activity, and the right to have bank accounts and to get credit. This is quite enough in order to turn peaceful and honest citizens into outcasts," he says.


Jehovah's Witnesses are law-abiding and they respect authority, whatever it is and however they are treated. Sergei Afanasiev says that followers of the teaching will not organize pickets or protest demonstrations. They will not be saboteurs, spies, terrorists, or pests. They will continue to be peaceful and honest people, and the only opposition will consist in their continuing to believe, gather together, fellowship, and speak about their faith with others.


He said that if Jehovah's Witnesses are imprisoned, they will be model prisoners. "This is known from historical experience. In nazi camps, Jehovah's Witnesses accepted the rules of camp order as the law of the state and they obeyed them very precisely, but without violating their own principles. The Jehovah's Witness Elza Abt, a prisoner of Auschwitz, wrote in her memoirs that during the evacuation of the camp in January 1945, she and other women Jehovah's Witnesses were put on an ordinary passenger train. The convoy allowed them to occupy seats in various cars and practically did not guard them. They did not know the locality and they accidentally missed the station where they were supposed to transfer to another train. If they had escaped, nobody would look for them. But Elza and several of her fellow believers turned themselves in to the first SS they met and were put into the right camp. If they had acted differently, it would have placed the lives of hundreds of their fellow believers at risk," Sergei Afanasiev said.


He added that all Jehovah's Witnesses' property is supposed to be confiscated. But the Kingdom Halls that the Jehovah's Witnesses use have various forms of ownership and some of them belong to foreign legal entities. That is, confiscating immovable property will not be as simple as the Ministry of Justice suggests. Practically all the buildings that the Jehovah's Witnesses use were built by the adherents themselves and wth their donations. "In light of this, confiscation of the property of religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses will possibly seem even more savage and blasphemous than the confiscation of property from the Orthodox Church after 1917," Sergei Afanasiev summed up.


The ban of the Jehovah's Witnesses was a purely political decision, and the Russian Orthodox Church had nothing to do with it. "As regards possible pressure on the political authorities on the part of the RPTs, the dominant religious tradition in the country, which has a ramified structure, with the aim of eliminating competitors and changing the general cultural and world view field, and the public space and information field is saturated with these speculations. I think that they all are far from the truth, and on the "political" level everything is not so far," Viliam Shmidt, a professor of the Russian Academy of State Service and a religious studies scholar, explained for Telegraf.


The expert said that adherents of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are not as many as adherents of religiosity that is untraditional for Russia on the whole. "For the RPTs it would be more desirable if such small, untraditional religions did not have the status of 'religious,' but this is impossible, the religious studies scholar explained.


In the event of a ban, Jehovah's Witnesses will go underground. "What is expected from the Jehovah's Witnesses after the ban? A rather strange question. What can one expect from 'fundamentalist' pacifists? They will live as before, to be sure now without the right of public associations. A large portion of them will find themselves in a compulsory shadow, in 'the religious underground,' as it was in the soviet period, when religious traditions were fought as public worldview vestiges. In the 21st century, fighting with ideas, not of a social and political order but of a metaphysical one, at the state level, is unfortunately extremely vulgar political views and practices," Viliam Shmidt concluded.  (tr. by PDS, posted 1 May 2017)

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