State policy blamed for negative attitudes toward Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia


by Vladimir Dergachev, Anna Kovalenko

RBK, 13 July 2017


Of Russians who have heard about the Ministry of Justice's ban of the Jehovah's Witnesses, 79% support this decision, a survey by the Levada Center shows. Experts consider that the negative attitude toward the Witnesses is connected with state policy in the area of religion.


They do not like and do not know

Of those who had heard about the ban of the activity of the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, 51% "definitely" support this decision and another 28% "likely" support it. At the same time, 9% "likely" do not support it and 3% "definitely" do not support the ban of the Witnesses, sociologists of the Levada Center discovered in a survey conducted from 23 to 26 June.


In all, almost half of respondents had heard about the ban while 13% "know about it in detail," and 34% had "heard something."


Sociologists of the Levada Center asked the respondents to answer who the Jehovah's Witnesses are. Two percent chose "variant of ordinary Christians," while 5% chose "offshoot of protestantism," 15 % chose "a separate religious confession." The most popular answer (49% of respondents think so) was "a Christian sect."


The survey was conducted from 23 to 26 June 2017 on a representative Russia-wide sample of urban and rural populations among 1,600 persons aged 18 and above in 137 population centers of 48 regions of the country. The investigation was conducted at respondents' homes by means of a personal interview. The distribution of answers is given as percentages of the total number of those questioned.


State policy


The harshly negative attitude toward the sect of Witnesses is 80% attributable to news media and state propaganda and 20% to stereotypical thinking of citizens, Boris Malyshev, senior scientific associate of the Academic Scientific Center for the Study of Religion of the Russian State Humanities University, maintained in an interview with RBK. He said that a broad audience has a vague perception of religions since state propaganda recognizes only Orthodoxy and Islam, and all "the rest are considered an annoying misunderstanding." Malyshev himself classifies Witnesses as a para-Christian movement similar to Mormons and he calls the movement "a purely American phenomenon." In his opinion, movements of this kind have elements of authoritarianism and sectarian isolation, but this depends to a substantial degree on the personality of the leader.


In the 1990s there was a surge of interest in Russia toward various kinds of sects, and about ten years later there began a planned struggle with them, noted Aleksei Levinson, the director of the department of socio-cultural analysis of the Levada Center. He said that the state broadcasts the idea that there should be no religious minorities and the negative attitude toward Witnesses is intensified by reports about their links with "subversive foreign forces."


Traditional confessions form the worldview of a person but they do not cut him off from the social and biological life, and they translate values that are accepted in the greater part of society, according to the executive director of the Moscow Lomonosov Center for Education of Schoolchildren, Konstantin Gusov. But sects, in contrast with traditional denominations, cut a person off from society, he believes.


The telephones of the press service and members of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia were not answered and the St. Petersburg division of the organization was not available for comment.


Ban the Witnesses


The Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court on 17 March to ban the Witnesses. The ministry explained this by a February inspection which revealed that the parent organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia was violating "charter goals and purposes" and also Russian anti-extremism legislation. On 23 March, the Ministry of Justice entered the organization into the list of associations whose work was suspended for "extremist activity." On 20 April, the Supreme Court ruled the work of the centralized religious organization "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" to be extremist and prohibited it. Representatives of the Witnesses declared that 20 April 2017 "has a chance of entering into history as the black day for fundamental human freedoms in Russia."


The court ordered the liquidation of 395 local divisions of the Witnesses and confiscation of their property for the benefit of the state. The Investigations Management Center "Open Russia" reported, with reference to data of EGRN, that Russian and foreign organizations of Witnesses and persons affiliated with them own 211 pieces of real estate in 58 regions of the country. The total assessed value of this real estate is 1.9 billion rubles. [See Anti-Putin group defends Jehovah's Witnesses]


On 17 July a hearing on the appellate complaint of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" against the Supreme Court's decision will be held.


Jehovah's Witnesses


Religious studies scholars, sociologists, and other analysts disagree about the definition that may be given to the international religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, with its administrative center in the U.S.A. Some investigators maintain that the Jehovists adhere to a nonorthodox movement within protestantism, others call it a pseudo-Christian structure (devotees deny the immortality of the soul, the Trinity, and the deity of Christ), while a third group defines it as an independent confession, and a fourth, as a sect.


In total, in the world there are more than eight million adherents of Jehovah's Witnesses, who are required to engage in witnessing activity and to submit accounts about it, including about 160 to 170 thousand in Russia. The organization officially was registered in Russia in 1991 and since then its activity has frequently become the occasion for judicial proceedings.


The Witnesses are criticized for the fact that they do not participate in elections, parties, and any other political activity, refuse service in the army in favor of alternative civilian service, and do not celebrate state and Christian holidays and birthdays. One of the main charges against the Witnesses is that their adherents speak out categorically against any medical procedures and drugs connected with blood, including opposition to transfusion of donor's blood during operations to save life.


The activity of the organization is forbidden in China, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and other countries. (tr. by PDS, posted 14 July 2017)

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