International attention to plight of Jehovah's Witnesses


by Alexander Podrabinek

Radio Svoboda, 25 March 2017


The Russian Ministry of Justice sent to the Supreme Court a lawsuit for banning the religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses. It requests the liquidation of the Administrative Center of this church and 395 local divisions throughout Russia. In the spirit of the time, the Ministry of Justice calls Jehovah's Witnesses extremist although these believers on principle do not bear arms and do not engage in politics. The foundation of their religious life is the study of the Bible. But the ministry is not interested in such details.


"In the guise of the academic study of the Bible, the International Association of Bible Students and organizations connected with it conduct in oral and written form a clearly slanderous campaign against the state and church. . . . In their numerous publications . . . they mock the state and church, maliciously distorting biblical illustrations. . . .In order to combat the subversive activity and support public order and security it is necessary to liquidate the association in order to protect citizens and the state." This is not the text of the lawsuit in the Supreme Court, as you probably thought. It is an order "On protection of the German people and state," issued on 28 February 1933, one month after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. The reich chancellor had no less logical reasons not to love Jehovah's Witnesses: they refused to serve in the army and to greet with the words "Heil Hitler!"


On 13 September 1934 the reich minister of internal affairs of nazi Germany forbade the distribution of Jehovah's Witnesses' religious literature. On 7 October of the same year every congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany sent to the government a telegram with the words that the laws of the reich contradict the laws of God and that Jehovah's Witnesses intended to follow God's laws, since according to the Bible the laws of God are higher than the laws of man.


On 24 June 1936 a special counter-command for combating Jehovah's Witnesses was created within the Gestapo. Repressions were begun. Religious literature was confiscated from believers, police broke into meetings of congregations, children were taken from their parents, and believers were arrested and interned in prisons and concentration camps--Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Ravensbrück. There they were considered an especially dangerous contingent and wore a distinguishing sign, a purple triangle. In order to be released it was sufficient for them to write a statement of renunciation of their faith. But as far as is known, nobody wrote. With the start of World War II, Jehovah's Witnesses began to be executed for refusal to take an oath to Hitler and to join the army. More than 10,000 adherents of this church became victims of the nazi regime.


Of course, soviet socialism, in common spirit with German national socialism, could not grant Jehovah's Witnesses freedom of religious activity. The reasons were the same: they do not recognize the leading role of the party, they do not observe state holidays, and they do not serve in the army. And besides this they do not drink, do not smoke, do not curse, do not accept sex outside marriage, do not watch movies, and are not interested in football [soccer]. In a word, they are very suspect people who obviously do not conform to the standards of soviet man. How could they not be repressed?


On 19 February 1951 the Minister of State Security of the USSR, Viktor Abakumov, reported to Stalin: "I report that during 1947-1950 agencies of the MGB [Ministry of State Security] uncovered and liquidated several antisoviet organizations and groups of the illegal sect of Jehovists, who were conducting active hostile work in western provinces of Ukraine and Belorussia, Moldavia and the Baltic republics. In this time 1048 leaders and activists of the sect were arrested, 5 underground printing shops were seized, and over 35,000 copies of leaflets, brochures, magazines, and other Jehovist antisoviet literature were seized. However the illegal sectarians who were left at liberty continued to conduct active antisoviet work and they are again adopting measures for strengthening the sect." General Abakumov asked Stalin for permission to settle in Siberia 3,000 families of Jehovists. "In order to cut off further antisoviet activity," the secret note of comrade Abakumov to comrade Stalin indicated.


Of course, Stalin gave permission. The deportation of peoples was an ordinary affair. Why not similarly deport adherents of a single church? In April 1951 the MGB conducted operation "North": in two days 8.5 thousand persons were evacuated to Siberia, including women, elderly, and children.


Now some of these events of modern history, it would seem, should have been a warning to the Ministry of Justice and Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov in making any decision with respect to Jehovah's Witnesses. Do not repeat the mistakes! Do not place yourselves in the same company as the dregs of humanity! I am not talking about Stalin; now this "effective manager" is a figure respected by the authorities. But to repeat Hitler's crimes—isn't that scary?


Russian justice has already made the first steps in this direction. In the past several years, courts have issued decisions for the liquidation of Jehovah's Witnesses congregations in Stary Oskol, Taganrog, Samara, Abinsk, Elista, and Orel. "Recently after the liquidation of a registered congregation in Taganrog, 16 of our brothers and sisters in the faith were sentenced to large fines and several even to a five-year suspended prison sentence, just for joint reading of the Bible," says Vasily Kalin of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.


By its current lawsuit, the Ministry of Justice does not simply infringe upon the principle of religious liberty; it demands subjecting to discrimination 175 thousand adherents of the church of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. In the event of the granting of the lawsuit, each of them may be sentenced to incarceration for confessing their faith and joint reading of the Bible.


The hearing for the case has been scheduled by the Supreme Court for 5 April. And the Ministry of Justice is not likely to retract its lawsuit.


Alexander Podrabinek is a rights advocate, journalist, and announcer for the Radio Liberty program "Déjà vu." (tr. by PDS, posted 26 March 2017)

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