Why are Jehovah's Witnesses persecuted in Russia?


On 15 March, a court is supposed to decide what to do with Jehovah's Witnesses' books impounded by Russian customs

by Irina Lagunina

Radio Liberty, 6 March 2016


Persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia proceeds with such consistency and geographic scope that the campaign already seriously violates the right to freedom of religious confession, that is, the constitution of the Russian federation.


In March of last year Russian customs impounded 4000 copies of the Bible, including an 1881 copy of the Bible in Ossetian—the only complete religious book in the language, which UNESCO placed in the endangered category. In November, Vyborg customs impounded yet another batch of literature. This time into the category of books, impounded "on suspicion that they may contain extremism," fell a batch of Bibles in the official translation of the Russian Orthodox Church (Synodal edition) and a batch of the "Cognitive Bible." On 15 March, a court is supposed to evaluate the suspicion of the prosecutor's office of the extremist character of this literature. And on 24 March the Supreme Court of the Russian federation is scheduled to review an appeal of a decision of the Tiumen provincial court liquidating the local organization of Jehovah's Witnesses and finding it "extremist."


Further for review of the Supreme Court of the RF is an appeal against the closing of local organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses in the city of Stary Oskol in Belgorod province (10 February) and in Belgorod (11 February). A court of the Jewish autonomous province is supposed to respond to a complaint against a police disruption of worship services in Birobidzhan. The services were disrupted in January of this year, but the court of Birobidzhan refused to consider this case.


"In principle, liquidation and prohibition of a registered organization does not mean, according to Russian legislation, a prohibition on confessing the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses. This is a constitutional right, which applies to everybody, and anyone may individually or jointly with others confess any religion, spread it, and have religious convictions. But nevertheless, liquidation and prohibiting of a legal entity is a serious restriction of the rights of believers," says Ivan Belenko, a representative of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.


Russian television calls Jehovah's Witnesses a "sect"—with a negative connotation of the word taken from soviet times—indignant at the fact that the world religious society of many millions includes in its ranks children and it warns that "everything begins with an innocent question": "Do you read the Bible?"


A campaign of preaching against this religious doctrine has been launched on the Russian Internet. Agencies of the state use for restricting or closing local organizations the federal list of extremist literature and the law "On combating extremist activity." The United Nations Committee for Human Rights in comments in the seventh periodic report on the Russian federation on 25 April of this year issued the following conclusion: "The committee is concerned as before . . . by the fact that in accordance with vague and flexible definitions of the term 'extremist activity,' provided in the federal law 'On combating extremist activity,' there is not required the presence of some kind of manifestation of force or hatred and that this law does not contain clear or specific criteria on the basis of which some or another materials may be categorized as extremist. The committee expresses its concern about numerous reports that this law is more and more often being used for restricting freedom of expression of opinion, including political protest, and freedom of religion, being directed particularly against Jehovah's Witnesses."


In practice, persecution of adherents of Jehovah's Witnesses, who number in Russia 170,000 persons and are united in 409 local organizations, is happening thus. Concerning the Birobidzhan case, Ivan Belenko describes:


"Believers conduct a worship service in a rented facility, with approximately 200 persons present. Knowing that periodically they encounter some malevolent actions on the part of officials, the believers installed a video camera on the stage, on a tripod, facing the hall and thereby they recorded all that happened. A large group of law enforcement personnel entered the hall, including OMON troops with weapons. Without clearly explaining why, they began to do a search. They went through the rows looking for 'extremist' literature and they found nothing, and then, after some time went by in one place, which had already been searched, a small commotion was raised and—oh miracle—some package in plastic wrap was found in which there were publications which Jehovah's Witnesses had not been using for a long time, but these publications are on the list of extremist materials. The believers, of course, were outraged: this was a plant, these are malevolent actions. But nevertheless this was officially recorded. And similar things are happening in very many regions. We have counted about 20 instances of recorded plants, to say nothing of some evidence of false witnesses; this is what Jehovah's Witnesses now are facing," Belenko describes.


Testimony of false witnesses is the problem of the closed Belgorod organizations. There, as attorneys of local adherents of Jehovah's Witnesses maintain, the court used testimonies about the distribution of extremist publications signed by some citizens of states of Central Asia who lived at non-existent addresses. At least these were the addresses they indicated in their testimonies. Moreover, as the attorneys explained, they were not on the territory of Russia at the time indicated in their testimonies. They are not there even now. But the court did not consider it necessary and useful to summon them in order to hear them. "There are papers signed by them, and this seemed sufficient to the court," Ivan Belenko says.


"At the root of all problems that Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia now face, at the root of labeling them extremist, lies the notorious federal list of extremist materials of the Russian Ministry of Justice in which there now are about 3,000 entries and of these 3,000, 80 are books and brochures published by Jehovah's Witnesses," Ivan Belenko explains. Why have these materials appeared on the list of extremist materials? The Jehovah's Witnesses suppose that when the creation of the list of extremist literature began it was considered that if some religion says that it possesses truth and divine election, that this is propaganda of exclusivity and that means it is also extremism. Experts who have been engaged by courts in the area of religion found these signs of propaganda of exclusivity or conviction of the correctness of their religion in publications of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the courts issued decisions: it means these publications or these editions are extremist. To challenge or to remove an edition or publication from the "extremist list" is an exceptionally difficult matter, practically impossible in Russia. "From this come all the other accusations against either the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses or individual believers—administrative cases against organizations and against individual people, criminal cases against individual people or liquidation of organizations, their inclusion in the list of extremist organizations, and the recognition of the official website as extremist. These are all things that Jehovah's Witnesses face every day. And the mother of all these problems is the fact that publications are on the list of extremist materials," Ivan Belenko says.


The priest and journalist Yakov Krotov suggests that the causes of persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses lie much deeper than simply the list of forbidden literature. "The main victims are two and they are determined by the political police tradition of the current regime," Yakov Krotov notes. "Beginning in the 1920s, the Cheka defined enemy number one as Catholics, because Stalin had a terrible and vindictive hatred for Poles. And a Russian Roman Catholic bishop was shot back in 1922. Enemy number two was somewhat later defined by Stalin and this was Jehovah's Witnesses, because they proved to be the most consistent pacifists. Now even the Molokans have given in and since the 1990s they have begun serving in the army. Even the Moravian Brethren gave in. Jehovah's Witnesses are, as before, against service in the army, and for this the current regime presses and pummels them just as it pummeled them in 1935 and in 1945 and 1965." Therefore, Yakov Krotov notes, it was the first act of Vladimir Putin when he came to power that he deported from Russia a Catholic bishops and six Roman Catholic priests. And then it was again the Jehovah's Witnesses' turn.


Around 8 million people in the world are adherents of the Jehovah's Witnesses and read the very same publications that were impounded by Russian customs in Vyborg, only in other languages. The literature of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses is printed in Germany. Now the impounded batches of literature, including the Bible in the Synodal translation, have been sent for investigation for extremism. "Of course, this sounds like a bad joke that sooner or later the prosecutor's office will issue a lawsuit to include the Bible in the extremist list, but now this has become a reality. We have learned that a lawsuit was filed in Vyborg city court in the name of the prosecutor to find the Bible that the Jehovah's Witnesses imported extremist," Ivan Belenko says. "When people who have something to do with religious studies, with rights advocacy activity, with culture, art, and so forth hear about this it sounds to them like complete nonsense. For the Jewish religion or for the Christian, for Orthodox and for protestants, for Jehovah's Witnesses, for whomever, this situation would be completely unpleasant and offensive. Therefore we await the 15th of March in order to learn the particulars, whether the prosecutor's office will withdraw its lawsuit, having come to realize that the Bible is not a book that one should try to rule to be extremist." (tr. by PDS, posted 7 March 2016)

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