Russian newspaper surveys last week's highlights


by Andrei Melnikov

Nezavisimaia Gazeta, 10 February 2019


Last week began with the bold procession of Roman Pope Francis on Arab soil, continued with the dramatic sentence for the Danish Jehovist preacher in Russia, and culminated in the biblically epic announcement about the collapsed Mamre Oak in Hebron.


On Wednesday, the decision of a district court in Orel became the reason for an international outburst that raged the whole weekend and is not likely to end in the near future. The severe sentence was announced for Danish citizen Dennis Ole Christensen: six years behind bars for creating an extremist community. The court considered it proven that Christensen created in the city a cell of the movement of Jehovah's Witnesses that is forbidden in Russia. Against Russian authorities there ensued accusations of an unprecedented harsh sentence, and with new force a discussion broke out about the legality of the Supreme Court's finding Jehovists to be an extremist organization.


In addition to rights defenders who were outraged by Christensen's sentence, even many priests of the Russian Orthodox Church spoke out in defense of the Jehovah's Witnesses, principally those who showed themselves in the field of evangelism. They perceived in the district court's decision a potential threat for Orthodox preaching. However the most impressive was the reaction of international organizations. On Thursday the European Foreign Policy Service distributed a communiqué that demanded the immediate release of Christensen. On Friday, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, declared that the "sentence issued against Christensen creates a dangerous precedent and actually criminalizes the right to profess a religion or to maintain some belief.


The reaction by Russian authorities seemed to be ambivalent. On Thursday the Russian president's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, recalled that the question of the Jehovah's Witnesses has been included in the list of orders prepared on the basis of results of the meeting of Vladimir Putin with members of the Council on Human Rights in December 2018. Interfax reported that to the question of journalists whether Jehovah's Witnesses are an extremist organization from the point of view of common sense, Peskov answered: "We cannot operate for state purposes on concepts of common sense. . . . In the first place we operate on concepts of legality and illegality. In this case, the activity of this religious organization is illegal." Meanwhile later on Thursday there arrived news about new actions of law enforcement with respect to underground cells of Jehovah's Witnesses in Mordova and KhMAO.


The "Christensen affair" placed Russian authorities in an awkward situation. On one hand, in the course of the recent past, Russia has declared itself to be the stronghold of Christian conservative values vis-à-vis the "godless West," but on the other hand, it allowed itself to become the target for accusations of persecution of Christians.


This feeling may be intensified against the backdrop of the demonstration of religious tolerance and peacemaking that was displayed by the United Arab Emirates, who received Roman Pope Francis. The Jewish community in the country also was recognized. For the first time in history, a pontiff set foot on Arab soil and performed there a mass for 135,000 people, among whom were not only Christians. The Vatican also declared its readiness to facilitate a resolution of the Venezuelan crisis.


The week culminated with an event that zealots of faith declared to foreshadow the "end times." In Hebron, on the site of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission, the Oak of Mamre, under which the forefather Abraham, according to biblical tradition, feasted with three heavenly messengers, possibly collapsed. However, the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission maintains that the planned removal of dead parts of the tree is occurring. (tr. by PDS, posted 12 February 2019)

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