Apr 26, 2017

Branded Extremists, Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses Preach The Constitution

Tom Balmforth
April 26, 2017

MOSCOW -- Quaintly decked out in their finest, some in bow ties and the older among them grasping canes, the Jehovah's Witnesses slowly trickle in to a modest temple in northwest Moscow for their first service as "extremists."

Just two days earlier, on April 20, the Supreme Court had declared the Christian denomination an extremist organization and ordered its property in Russia seized, effectively banning Jehovah's Witnesses from the country once the ruling enters force.

Nevertheless, on this day services continue as normal at Moscow's Kingdom Hall -- albeit with ramped-up security measures. Referring to legal provisions that enshrine the right to "freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious and other views," the minister tells the congregation to loud applause that "Article 28 of Russia's constitution still allows us to continue worshipping Jehovah and sharing our personal convictions with others."

Seated in rows, the flock sings and reads from smartphones and tablets instead of hymnals or service bulletins; shipments of Bibles used by Jehovah's Witnesses have been intercepted at the Russian border by customs since 2015. In any case, organizers do not hand out literature so as not to violate tightening laws against missionizing.

Worshippers such as Yevgeny Kondautov, 45, say these closed-door meetings remain legal because the ruling has not yet entered into full force and the appeals process is under way. But he said the community is on edge and that the ruling has sent a message to society and police that members of his community are extremists.

He says that a day earlier assailants threw stones at their headquarters in St. Petersburg, smashing windows.

"We called the police, but they didn't come," Kondautov says. "They think, 'They're extremists, so that's what they have coming to them.'"

He also believes that police could burst through the door at any moment. Several Kingdom Halls across the country have reportedly been raided in recent months. On April 14, for example, state TV showed armed National Guardsmen in combat gear storming a Kingdom Hall in Chelyabinsk:

"The congregation expects difficulties of some kind. Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience in this," says Kondautov, whose grandfather-in-law, a Jehovah's Witness, was sent to the labor camps under Josef Stalin for proselytizing.

The Jehovah's Witnesses had a small -- and persecuted -- following in the Soviet Union. After their activities were legalized after the Soviet breakup, its number of active members rose to more than 170,000.

The Kingdom Hall attended by Kondautov is the biggest in Moscow and has been rented by Jehovah's Witnesses for about 20 years. It has five different halls shared by worshippers divided into congregations by Moscow region. There are also services conducted in foreign languages and one in sign language for a small deaf congregation.

After the incident in St. Petersburg, Kondautov says, they have stopped using their main hall because it is on the ground floor and they fear stones could be thrown at the windows.

Other security precautions have long since become routine. Every time they open up the hall, worshippers conduct a sweep of the premises to make sure no extremist literature has been planted. They allege that law enforcement officers plant banned books in order to "find" them during raids, establishing a pretext for the group to be banned.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have long been viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general. They are often portrayed on state TV as a pernicious sect linked to the United States that destroys families and threatens lives through their stance on blood transfusions.

The extremism lawsuit sought to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses' head administrative center on the grounds that its local branches had been caught with extremist literature. The Jehovah's Witnesses contended in court that these items had been planted and that they had also taken measures to stop extremist literature from being brought onto their premises.

Mikhail Vanichev, 43, a salesman for a legal company, worries that the Kingdom Hall in Moscow could be seized by authorities.

"We hope that won't happen," he says, noting that the building is not their property and thus cannot technically be confiscated in line with the court ruling. "This building does not belong to the Administrative Center [of the Jehovah's Witnesses]. But we don't know what could happen."

Vanichev explains that, in theory, the landlord could come under pressure to stop renting the property.

"There have been cases when we were renting a building and have made an advance payment and signed a contract, and pressure was put on the landlord and he has pulled out," he says.

Worshippers said they were shocked by the ruling and have placed their hopes on appeals.

"Of course, I'm worried about my life," says Sofia Nasonova, 24. "I've never done anything bad to anyone. I was a good girl at school. I was an honor student. The idea of me breaking the law is really surprising to me, that they want to ban us."

Her husband, 44-year-old Aleksei Nasonov, says: "We're going to hope that justice will triumph. We aren't breaking any laws. The law of freedom of conscience allows us to proselytize."

The situation is unpleasant, says Nasonov, who does renovation work and describes himself as a former alcoholic, but not unexpected.

"As it is said in the Holy Scriptures, Jesus was persecuted and his followers will be persecuted," Nasonov says. "So, in principle, we were prepared for this. It's unfortunate that this has happened."

After the service, the next congregation was soon assembling outside Hall No. 4. A smartly dressed elderly woman approaches Kondaudov and Vanichev talking outside.

"Sorry to interrupt. I've been following the news and I got a bit scared. How are we supposed to act now? It's not nice," she says.

"The only thing left is to smile, so as not to cry," Kondautov replies, laughing softly.

"Ah, I get it," she says. "And to open our arms in bewilderment."

"Yes, that will do as well," Kondautov concludes.

Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org


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