Apr 21, 2017

Jehovah's Witnesses Had Foes Before Putin

Leonid Bershidsky
APRIL 21, 2017

When the Russian Supreme Court banned Jehovah's Witnesses and ordered the confiscation of the denomination's property on Thursday, it wasn't the first time. The faithful were outlaws in the Soviet Union, too, until that country's final year. The stubborn group will fight on -- but the court has delivered another chilling reminder that President Vladimir Putin's Russia is even less free than the USSR was.

Jehovah's Witnesses are a U.S.-based global religious organization, and they often are targeted by authoritarian and belligerent governments because members don't believe in government authority. They don't vote, serve in the military, salute flags or hail leaders. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, the Witnesses wouldn't use the Nazi salute because, according to their beliefs, it amounted to idolatry. Hitler responded by sending more than 10,000 "Bible Students," as they called themselves then, to prisons and concentration camps, where their pacifism particularly inspired torturers.

In the Soviet Union directly after World War II, Witnesses were mostly concentrated in western Ukraine and Transcarpathia, and they had the bad luck to trade Nazi persecution for the equally harsh Stalinist kind. In two secret operations in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Witnesses were removed to Siberian labor camps. There were only about 10,000 of them then. But adherents of the denomination didn't stop practicing and preaching in exile and in the camps, and when, after Stalin's death, the state stopped systematically imprisoning them and switched to a harassment tactic, the flock started growing.

By January 1991, when President Mikhail Gorbachev's government officially permitted the organization, there were about 45,000 followers in the Soviet Union. They formed one of the most stubborn and resourceful resistance groups that ever existed in the Communist country. Emily Baran wrote in a 2014 book about Soviet Jehovah's Witnesses:

They organized a highly complex underground organization, with its own finances, leadership structures, and internal reporting system that kept careful record of its members' archives. While intellectual dissidents exercised caution in sharing their views with others who could denounce them, Witnesses spoke about their beliefs to complete strangers in an effort to convert them.

The 1990s were a time of unprecedented freedom for the Witnesses in Russia. They converted about 100,000 new members, acquired influence and, in some cities, expensive real estate. But in the early 2000s, after Putin came to power, harassment began anew, with courts regularly banning the Witnesses' regional communities and literature. That became easier with the passage of "anti-extremist laws" that ban the preaching of one religion's advantage over others. Witness literature readily fit the description: They don't just consider themselves the one true faith, but also proudly preach it.

The Witnesses fought the verdicts, sometimes reaching the European Court for Human Rights and winning there. But during Putin's latest presidential term, Russian courts have been encouraged to disregard the ECHR's decisions. Even though the European court is likely to overturn Thursday's Supreme Court ruling once the Witnesses' attempts to appeal reach Strasbourg, the Russian government is likely to stay firm on the ban, initiated by the justice ministry. The next step may be the prosecution of individual Witnesses for continuing to worship and proselytize.

Jehovah's witnesses are in many ways extreme, even though their non-violent creed is hardly "extremist." That makes them a test case for religious freedom: The less liberal and tolerant a country is, the harsher it treats this particular denomination.

Western democracies have struggled to accept Jehovah's Witnesses. At different times, they have faced bans in France, Spain and Canada because of their attitudes to military service and flags. But in recent years, following some protracted legal battles, European countries have come to recognize their right to their beliefs. The European Union has denounced the Russian ban.

At the other end of the spectrum, African dictatorial regimes have killed, tortured and driven out Witnesses. A number of Muslim nations have banned them, and so has China. Russia is now positioning itself at the restrictive end of the spectrum, and that augurs ill for other Protestant denominations and smaller religious groups. Like Western non-governmental organizations and members of the news media, which have been driven from Russia in the last four years, these groups represent a fifth column. Perhaps they don't defy the state as openly as Jehovah's Witnesses, but to Putin and his circle they still somehow appear disloyal because of their reluctance to join the big religions that maintain a relationship with the state and are controllable.

Russia has no more patience with openness and tolerance. Putin's regime doesn't care whether it passes any tests on that score. In a way, it's as defiant as the Witnesses, and so far, it's just as resilient. But the Jehovah's Witnesses have been resilient for longer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.


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