Orthodox react differently to ban of Jehovah's Witnesses


by Lina Panchenko

Moskovskii Komsomolets, 18 July 2017


On Monday 17 July, the Appellate Chamber of the Russian Supreme Court put an end to the question of recognizing Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist organization with the ban of its activity on the territory of Russia, after study of materials of the case. Experts of "MK" were divided in assessment of this decision.


The chamber confirmed the decision made on 20 April by the Supreme Court, according to which on the initiative of the Ministry of Justice the organization was liquidated on the territory of the whole country and all its income was turned in the government's favor. This decision has now taken legal effect.


At the session on Monday, representatives of the Jehovah's Witnesses maintained that they have not engaged in extremist activity. They said that they only "read and discussed the Bible." Also members of the organization, according to attorney Anton Omelchenko, did not use extremist literature, inasmuch as all books were destroyed by the believers themselves, and if any copies even remained, then it was only in the hands of individuals and they were used "not at all for distribution but for personal reading." The attorney said that materials from the extremist list were planted in premises of the organization by law enforcement agents themselves.


The lawyer for the Russian Ministry of Justice, Svetlana Borisova, told the court that despite all demands and preventive conversations, the leadership of the Jehovah's Witnesses' center not only did not cease their extremist activity but even continued to insist that it was not of that sort.


The decision made by the court was received positively by a Russian religious studies scholar, the vice-chairman of the Expert Council for Conducting State Religious Studies Expert Analyses under the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, Roman Silantiev:


"The decision is correct. This is the largest extremist organization operating on Russian territory. It numbers 170 thousand persons. It is present in practically all regions; Ingushetia is the only place where they are not. Extremism exists in two types: external, when strife is incited with respect to people of another skin color, other nationalities, religious confession; and internal, when within the organization its members are brutalized themselves. The Jehovah's Witnesses have both kinds of extremism. It is one of the largest sects in the world and it is also prohibited in a number of countries, so that Russia is not the first country to prohibit their activity.


--In which countries does this organization operate legally?


--In many countries, including the U.S.A. and countries of western Europe.


--Why are they not prohibited there? Do they behave differently?


--They have different specifics of legislation and they behave differently there. Nevertheless this is a sect of American origin and on the territory of the U.S.A. it is difficult for it to engage, particularly, in espionage. And in other countries they may operate completely under cover of espionage structures.


--Can you recall any outrageous cases connected with this organization?


--A whole bunch of deaths of children is connected with it because of the refusal by their parents of blood transfusion. There are many such cases. Adults also died, of course, but the deaths of children evoke special resonance. In addition, this organization controls the lives of its members very strictly. Now there is evidence available about how people were forbidden to choose their jobs independently, to receive education, and their circle of communication was restricted. And when people exit from the organization  a boycott is declared against them.  On Sakhalin there was such a case when the leader of the organization left it, after which other of its members crossed over to the opposite side of the street when they saw him.


--Where in Russia was the organization most numerous?


--The largest number of members were counted in Krasnodar territory. But its administrative center is outside St. Petersburg, in the village of Solnechnaya. In some regions the congregations have already been ruled extremist and there is a ban on the basic organization.


--What do you think accounts for the fact that it is in Krasnodar territory that Jehovah's Witnesses were most numerous?


--Good question. In principle, Krasnodar territory is itself the third most populous region in the Russian federation. There are many residential areas there and in Moscow and St. Petersburg there is more competition from other sects. The competition is less in Krasnodar territory. I am inclined to explain it by this, although I suppose there may also be other reasons, which I have not studied especially.


Meanwhile, the Russian religious figure Andrei Kuraev criticized the court's decision:


"You see, our State Duma has adopted a rather strict law about combating extremism, according to which any collective farm assembly could be considered to be extremists. And any district court summons recruited experts from God knows where with education from an agricultural institute, who pass themselves off as specialists in the history of religious studies, in history, literature, and languages, whose opinion then is not subject to doubt.


"Here is the latest scandal: a rather classic book was declared to be extremist, a book by the Jewish writer Marcus Lehmann, "The Compulsory Baptized." This is a work of fiction with an historical basis, against which Jewish organizations declared their protest, and we shall see who turns out the stronger on this matter. [see Ministry of Justice bans Jewish novel for extremism]


"As regards Jehovists, I have not been able to see specifically the texts of their publications that are extremist. This is a situation on the level of a crippled youth who stole a motorcycle from OMON special troops or a drunk kid. Because here are people whom Hitler and Stalin put in prison for pacifism  who are being accused of extremism, which is laughter through tears. Yes, of course, they have harsh views of other religions. But some of our people view them that way. Here we are more than equal. And I now think that, of course, this is a sect, dangerous for people, but it seems to me that there should be other methods of combating it. In particular, informing for example through the network of clinics of a region about how they are dealing with the health of their parishioners. But not banning and driving them into the basement. All this was tried in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, and nothing good came of it." (tr. by PDS, posted 18 July 2017)

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