SACRED EXTREMISM. IN THEOLOGICAL DISPUTE ABOUT BIBLE, COURT SUPPORTS DISHONEST EXPERTS
by Roman Lunkin
Religiia i pravo, 21 December 2017
Within the framework of judicial proceedings against Jehovah's Witnesses, Russian judges are making ever more decisions that make the religious legislation meaningless. The prosecutor's office and experts recruited by law enforcement agencies are doing work that is, in principle, unnecessary. From the very course of investigation and hearings one can get only one impression—this should not happen in a court at all.
Jehovah's Witnesses, as a new religious movement that holds itself apart from all other religions and confessions, have become easy prey for representatives of authority. Made to order proceedings began in 1999, when in the Golovin court a case was heard regarding liquidation of Jehovists in the capital, since they proclaim the truth of their belief (inflicting harm to health as a consequence of blood transfusion nobody has proven, either then or now). In 2001 Jehovah's Witnesses won this case. However, by 2017 a number of decisions regarding liquidation of organizations in the regions had accumulated now on the basis of the law combating extremist activity. On 20 April 2017 the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses was liquidated, its activity was banned, and its property was subject to confiscation.
On 20 December 2017 the Leningrad provincial court brought to an end the process of banning the religious movement of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. The court left in force a decision of the Vyborg city court finding the Russian translation of the Bible distributed by Jehovah's Witnesses to be "extremist material." Representatives of the copyright holder intend to appeal this decision.
The majority of accusations against Jehovah's Witnesses are pretty much the same: it is the proclamation of their exclusivity and truth and also criticism of other confessions from the point of view of their own theological positions. However, in banning the Bible, the court circumvented the legislative prohibition of 2015 against finding sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism to be extremist materials, including the Bible. The law also forbids finding excerpts from sacred books, and not just their totality, to be extremist.
How was it possible to do this? Amazingly, this was done openly and publicly, and therefore it will always serve as a reproach and lesson for Russian jurisprudence of modern times.
First of all, in order to make such a decision, the prosecutor's office and court needed experts for whom reputation is not important and who are as far away from this area as possible, and that means they know nothing about translations of the Bible. As the hearings in this case on 20 December showed, the key to the success of the trial for the prosecutor's office consisted in the fact that the experts did not wish to know anything. Acting as scholars were representatives of the Center for Socio-Cultural Expert Analysis Natalia Kriukova, who is famous as a mathematician, and cinema expert Kirill Razlogov, a former assistant manager of the Institute of Culture. Kriukova often has explained her expert analyses by the claim that one or another film or book must be banned in "currect historical circumstances" and not as a result of their contents. Such an approach proved to be convenient for law enforcement agencies.
The court was persuaded by the simple logic of the experts: if this is not an Orthodox Bible, produced without an imprimatur, then it is not a Bible. And the court agreed with this.
Someone might claim that this is not based on the constitution of the Russian federation and the law on freedom of conscience, but this is not quite true. Amendments to legislation regulating missionary activity within the Yarovaya package of 2016 have already forced the police and prosecutor's office to deal with purely religious questions—to clarify what is a worship service, a sermon, or a meeting of believers and what isn't. The amendment of 2015 in the antiextremist legislation about sacred texts logically led to the consideration of the question of just what is a sacred text.
Kriukova gave an exhaustive interpretation of the understanding of sacred scriptures: "the legislature in adopting the amendment in the law had in view the Bible that is revered in various religions—Orthodoxy, Catholicism, protestantism." The experts and apparently the court could not cite a single quotation in order to prove that quotations from the Bible are recognized as extremist (which even in the Jehovah's Witnesses' new translation sound like quotations from the Bible, although this may surprise many). Kriukova alleged that the conclusions about extremism were made on the basis of the "general tendency of the texts." It was stated during the hearings (see the transcript of what occurred during the hearings at www.jw-russia.org) that the expert analysis quoted a thesis by an Orthodox seminarian and Wikipedia.
The experts of the prosecutor's office did not want to compare texts of the synodal translation and Jehovah's Witnesses' translation, since they devised their own simple explanation of the status of the text of the Bible in the "New World Translation": "A book cannot be considered a Bible if it does not contain the note 'in accordance with the patriarch's blessing' or if this book does not coincide word-for-word with such a translation."
The court rejected the lawyers' petition to turn to the Constitutional Court of the Russian federation with a request to explain what is the sacred text of the Bible. Moreover both the judge and the prosecutor complained that the defense drew them into theological disputes about what God and the Bible are or whether the concept of the Trinity is in the Bible (Jehovists deny the Trinity and recognize only the god Jehovah and in places in the Hebrew and Greek texts that speak about Yahweh [Lord] it is rendered as Jehovah) or whether one can use the word Jehovah.
One can say that it was the prosecutor's office that drew itself into a theological process which is itself a complete offense to the religious feelings of believers. Even in an ecclesiastical trial in the Russian Orthodox Church at least two translations of the Bible would be considered before a decision is made.
It should be said that before 2007 the Jehovah's Witnesses also used the synodal translation of the Bible in their religious practice. Their own project of translating the Bible into modern Russian was begun only in 1994 (it was released in 2007). Since then, almost five million Bibles in the New World Translation have been published and distributed, and a similar new translation of the Bible has been published in 158 languages, and 223 million copies of such Bibles have been printed.
In Russia, for the first time the state has forced believers to reject their own text of sacred scripture in favor of another text of the same scripture (now formally the Jehovists must confine themselves to synodal Bibles or else be subject to criminal prosecution). Informally, the court's decision is the basis for interrupting any meeting where the forbidden Bible is being read, without considering the right to free "confession of one's faith individually or jointly." For a portion of society this right has already long been under great doubt. Officials often do not know what really is a religious person (an Orthodox or Jehovist) and they are forced to believe the "theory of conspiracies" against Russia, and the courts and mass media formulate the notion that faith is a source of danger. (tr. by PDS, posted 22 December 2017)
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