Belorussian Jehovah's Witnesses attacked and defended


by Maksim Gatsak, 22 March 2016


Last week a number of Belorussian activists put out an open appeal with the demand that the authorities abrogate the registration of Jehovah's Witnesses in Belarus. What may the loss of registration of their congregations and liquidation of the association itself in our country result in?


The main thing that this can lead to is that a criminal case might be opened against the leadership and members of the religious association of Jehovah's Witnesses in the republic of Belarus based on the "political" article 193.1 of the Criminal Code, "Illegal organization of activity of a public association, religious organization, or foundation, or participation in their activity," which provides for up to two years incarceration. But only in the event that they represent themselves as members of some congregation or association, and not simply as believers. In addition, worship gatherings and other meetings of Jehovists will be forbidden, such as an annual congress in Minsk, and it will be possible to open administrative cases based on article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law, "violation of the procedure of planning or conducting mass events," against their participants if their conduct becomes known.


At the same time, it is not likely that citizens, who are visited at home or approached on the street with a conversation about God (and it is precisely for this that they are disliked or ridiculed by many ordinary people), will be able to summon them to the police department legally. The point is that both canvassing apartments and meeting on the street are done by Jehovah's Witnesses as individual persons and it is as individual persons that they are subjected to persecution even now. In addition, loss of registration by congregations and associations will not mean that believers will not gather together, conduct worship assemblies and religious meetings (even in private apartments), or urge others to join them.


For an example it is not necessary to go far. In Belarus there are approximately 75 congregations of the International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (MSTsEKhB) operating actively. In contrast with two other Baptist associations—the Union of Evangelical Christians Baptists and the Association of Conservative EKhB Churches—they are not registered in Belarus. And they do not wish to be registered themselves. They regularly conduct meetings, assemblies, and worship services which are regularly broken up by police and for which their pastors again are regularly fined. But congregations of MSTsEKhB continue their vigorous activity even without registration.


On the whole, it should be noted that the very necessity of state registration of congregations in Belarus is discriminatory, as is accountability for activity in the name of unregistered organizations, about which Belorussian and foreign rights advocates and Belorussian opposition parties and organizations have frequently declared. Thus, in Germany a religious congregation is not required to undergo registration. Registration is a right of a congregation, which gives to it a number of privileges. In Belarus, registration of a religious congregation is a requirement. At the same time, it must have at least 20 members. In the event of non-registration of a congregation, Belorussian believers will be threatened with criminal liability, as stated above.


Also loss of registration does not lead to automatic prohibition of the religious literature of Jehovah's Witnesses. For this, separate judicial decisions are necessary, recognizing publications as extremist and prohibited on the territory of the republic of Belarus, and which entails the destruction of confiscated copies.


But even in the event that distribution of literature and visiting apartments does not stop, it is more than ridiculous to speak about banning literature in the age of the Internet, proxy servers, and anonymous distribution. The one who seeks will always find. And it is not always necessary even to know the address of a website; it is sufficient to punch in the search term "Jehovah's Witnesses" or "Watchtower." As long as Jehovists are not prohibited in neighboring countries, then finding necessary literature is no job.


The only thing that can really put a serious barrier on the path of the Jehovists' activity is an official declaration that they, their teaching, and their organizations are a destructive religious cult, and law enforcement is drawn to combat them with raids, searches, arrests, trials, and real prison time. But are Jehovah's Witnesses, who are not close to being like Aum Sinrikyo and Wahhabis, really so dangerous that law enforcement personnel should spend so much effort on them?


Indeed, it is unlikely the authorities will go to that, especially in light of the perceived warming of relations with the West. Official Minsk does not want to stand on this question in the same rank as China, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and countries like them. In addition, the experience of hitlerian Germany, where 270 Jehovah's Witnesses were shot and 1,220 died in concentration camps because of refusal to perform military obligations, shows that even a martyr's death will not by any means force them to renounce their convictions.


Meanwhile, the government, along with depriving Jehovah's Witnesses of registration, may lose certain possibilities for control that apply just with regard to registered congregations and associations. Moreover, the Jehovists' loss of registration for those reasons that the authors of the appeal cite may potentially create problems for other confessions also, including the Belorussian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Belarus, whose members are some of the signatories of the open letter.


Let us consider these accusations:


Refusal to perform military service, which in the opinion of the authors of the appeal is a threat to the national security of Belarus. It should be recalled that on 1 July 2016—three months from now—amendments take effect that permit alternative service for those who for religious reasons cannot bear arms. Thus, it has already been decided at the legislative level that Jehovah's Witnesses are not a threat to national security. In the event of armed conflict, they will be used in other areas where they will be able to provide help to society. Jehovists do not refuse to perform alternative service.


The appeal says that the Jehovah's Witnesses' teaching demonizes any form of public and political organizations and the concept of "patriotism" has an exclusively negative character in Jehovah's Witnesses' teaching. This case is similar to the refusal of a number of Orthodox believers in Belarus to use the officially adopted biometric passports and the compulsory finger-printing of the male population. Is there really a demonization of the policy of Belorussian authorities here? And what about the fact that liturgies in many Catholic and a majority of Orthodox churches are conducted not in the state languages (Belorussian and Russian) but in Polish and Church Slavonic? Isn't that unpatriotic?


Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to participate in elections, while it is illegal to boycott in Belarus. To begin, let's recall that calls for a boycott in Belarus were prohibited only in 2013 after the attempt by the opposition to boycott parliamentary elections in 2012, which provoked criticism on the part of opponents of the government and rights advocacy organizations. At the same time nonparticipation in elections is not forbidden, but public calls for "disruption, cancellation, or postponement of elections." So far, such has not been observed among Jehovah's Witnesses.


Because of the prohibition on the transfusion of blood and its components, at least 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses die every year throughout the world, the appeal says. However it does not say how many persons died because of this in Belarus, even in all of the time of the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in our country. Whatever it may have been, in each case the decision was made by the believers themselves or their loved ones and not by the leadership of the congregation or association. Rejection of medical intervention, despite the threat to life, is characteristic of other confessions also (see the story of Gianna Beretta Molla). As regards the fact that in regard to persons who decide in favor of transfusion, internal liturgical sanctions all the way up to excommunication have been pronounced, and nobody in Catholicism and Orthodoxy has annulled excommunication from the church, communion, or anathema.


The authors of the appeal note that relatives, friends, and loved ones of Jehovah's Witnesses complain about the development of hostile attitudes toward them because of a lack of desire to join the organization and disagreement with its doctrines. But the last known case of this kind in Belarus involved Orthodox persons. Thus in Svetlogorsk a 25-year-old Orthodox believer left her husband with a three-year-old child, and he sued her, insisting that her religious worldview was dangerous for the daughter. One can recall other cases of this sort.


In addition, the appeal says, official literature of the Jehovah's Witnesses is replete with criticism of orthodox churches, frequently involving hanging defamatory labels, and a number of publications and websites have been prohibited for distribution in Russia and Belarus. One might be able to agree with this if the official literature of the other confessions were cleansed of criticism of other churches, both orthodox and non-orthodox. Often there are defamatory labels (heretics, sect, schismatics, idolators). As regards forbidden literature, if one looks at the republic's list of extremist materials of Belarus, then one can easily notice three books of the Minsk publisher "Orthodox Initiative," one of the founders of which before December 2005 was the Minsk diocese of the Belorussian Orthodox Church, and one book of the Muscovite Hegumen Simeon.


So that many of the charges advanced by the civic activists against Jehovah's Witnesses are not exclusively characteristic of them. And in the future they may become the basis for appeals demanding removal of the registration of other religious congregations and associations also. As they say, do not do unto others. Dogmatic disputes should be resolved by theological polemic and discussion and not by drawing governmental authority into this. (tr. by PDS, posted 24 March 2016)




The chairman of the religious association of Jehovah's Witnesses in the republic of Belarus, Pavel Yadlovsky, commenting on the accusation by the authorities of distribution of religious literature without permission, noted that literature is distributed by believers and not by the congregations. "The law does not restrict them from distributing literature and it does not specify where such distribution may occur," he declared in a commentary for Forum 18.


He said that Jehovah's Witnesses have scheduled a meeting in March with the commissioner for affairs of religions and nationalities at which they plan to discuss this question.


"The main thing for us is to discuss the situation and begin a dialogue. A decision may not be made unilaterally," Pavel Yadlovsky added, noting that it is difficult to fulfill each point of Belorussian legislation, which representatives of other confessions also speak about.


As has reported, Belorussian civil activists issued an open letter in which they called for cancelling the registration of Jehovah's Witnesses in Belarus. (tr. by PDS, posted 25 March 2016)





Belorussian civil activists issued an open letter in which they called for the abrogation of the registration of Jehovah's Witnesses in Belarus. The appeal, which received, was signed by Oleg Nagorny, Mikhail Rakovich, Alexander Belsky, Irina Yaskevich, Maksim Astreiko, and Anastasia Blusenkova from Minsk, Mikhail Arsentiev from Bobruisk, and Roman Borodich from Baranovichi. The signatories have no connection with state agencies and not all of them are members of the Orthodox or Catholic church. Some are victims of Jehovah's Witnesses and one engages in sect studies independently of the state and churches, an explanation of the letter says.


They declare that the accusations on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses against the government and the largest churches "of organizing persecution of religious minorities and violating freedom of religious confession and other democratic rights and principles" do not objectively reflect the situation. "The democratic process consists of the joint action of three subsystems: rights, duties, and oversight. And the legislation of a country is a regulator that ensures the operation of this process.  When Jehovah's Witnesses or another organization neglect their duties and violate the law of the country, they disrupt the functioning of the democratic process. In that case the actions of oversight bodies is a means for protection of democracy, and not its opposite," the open letter says.


At the same time it is emphasized that rights advocacy organizations that talk about pressure on Jehovah's Witnesses do not pay attention "to instances of violation of laws on the part of 'persecuted' organizations." "The Jehovah's Witnesses also have the habit of referring to declarative articles of legislation (for example, the constitution), which guarantee to citizens freedom of conscience and religious confession. However they forget that the freedom of some in a democratic state ends at the point where the freedom of others begins. To establish a demarcation line that protects the freedoms and rights of all parties, a regulation part is provided in the legislation which establishes certain mechanisms of implementation of the declarative rules. It is just these rules of regulative legislation that the Jehovah's Witnesses regularly violate," the authors of the appeal declare.


They also consider it necessary not simply to cancel the registration of individual congregations but to abrogate the registration of the republican association of Jehovah's Witnesses as such, since "its doctrine and practice violate the constitution and legislation of Belarus," in particular article 16.


The appeal says that the doctrine of the Jehovah's Witnesses warns its friends against participation in any forms of public and political life of the country (including elections) and it demonizes any form of public or political organization. "The only authority recognized by the Jehovah's Witnesses in fact is the 'theocratic' authority of the leadership council of the Watchtower Society. The very concept of 'patriotism' has an exclusively negative character in Jehovah's Witnesses' teaching, and defense of the motherland with weapons is presented as something immoral and opposed to God's will," the authors of the letter say, noting that "the antipatriotic position of the Jehovah's Witnesses forms an irresponsible and indifferent attitude toward the fatherland."


They also recall that the "Concept of national security of the republic of Belarus" points to a weakening of the spirit of patriotism and of the readiness to defend the country amidst threats to national security, and the election legislation of Belarus forbids calls to boycott elections.


The appeal emphasizes that in the world at least 2,000 persons die each year as the consequence of a religious ban on transfusion of blood and its components, and the total number of victims since the introduction of the ban in 1961is about 200 to 300 thousand persons, according to researchers' calculations. For persons who decide in favor of transfusion for themselves or a child, internal liturgical sanctions all the way up to excommunication have been pronounced. "In this way, the organization directly encourages behavior that threatens life and health, and it applies forms of pressure on those who do not obey," the authors of the appeal declare.


They draw attention to the fact that relatives, friends and loved ones of Jehovah's Witnesses complain about the development of hostile attitudes toward them because of a lack of desire to join the organization and disagreement with its doctrines, and "official literature of the organization is replete with criticism of orthodox churches, frequently involving the hanging of defamatory labels." Also a number of publications and websites of Jehovah's Witnesses have been prohibited from distribution in Russia and Belarus (for example, the magazine "Watchtower announces the Kingdom of Jehovah" for May of 2012).


"In view of the foregoing, once again we call the authorities to consider the question of the complete abrogation of the registration of the republican association of Jehovah's Witnesses in Belarus in order to eliminate the teachings and practices that are destructive and in violation of the constitution and legislation," the open letter says.


As has reported, on 2 February the commissioner for affairs of religions and nationalities threatened loss of registration of several congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses for distribution of literature of religious contents without any appropriate agreement with local government agencies. It is noteworthy that the apparatus of the commissioner for affairs of religions and nationalities and local executive committees do not have the authority to cancel registration. Only a court can issue a decision about the liquidation of a congregation while the registering agency may only make a written warning. At the same time, the chairman of the religious association of Jehovah's Witnesses in the republic of Belarus, Pavel Yadlovsky, states that Leonid Guliako has not met with representatives of the religious association for more than two years and a warning has been issued to only one of the 27 congregations. (tr. by PDS, posted 25 March 2016)

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