Russian Ban on Jehovah Witnesses: Religious Freedom, Human Rights of the Members or the National Security?

Supreme Court of Russia

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Russia’s Supreme Court has ordered the disbanding of the Jehovah’s Witnesses on Russian territory. The ban came into effect after the court rejected an appeal by the religious group against a ruling in April which declared it to be extremist, BBC reported on July 17, 2017.

The justice ministry had argued that the group distributed pamphlets which incited hatred against other groups.

The group described the ruling as the end of religious freedom in Russia.

The denomination says it has 175,000 members in Russia – a country where it was persecuted during the Stalin era.

An estimated eight million people worldwide are part of the Christian-based movement, best known for going door-to-door looking for new converts.

Russian Times explained and justified the decision in August of 2017:

The Russian Justice Ministry listed the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group as a banned extremist organization after establishing that some of their practices could constitute a threat to society and public security.

Announcing the move, the ministry said that it came as a result of a Russian Supreme Court verdict dated April 20, 2017 and the order of the Appeals Collegium of the Supreme Court dated July 17, 2017, in accordance with the Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activities.

The action ends a lengthy legal battle between Russian authorities and the Jehovah’s Witnesses that lasted at least since 2004. During the standoff, Russian regional and federal authorities objected to the denomination’s rule that does not allow blood transfusions, especially in cases in which adult believers attempt to prevent the procedure from being performed on their children, thus putting their lives at risk.

According to a public opinion poll conducted by state-run research center VTSIOM in Russian in July 2017, 76 percent of Russians support a ban on the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country. Only five percent said they were against the ban, Russian Times explained to the Russians and the rest of the world.

In the same poll, 53 percent of people who knew about the denomination said that their attitude to it was negative, and 44 percent described it as neutral. 20 percent said that they heard the name Jehovah’s Witnesses for the first time during the poll, and 27 percent said that they only heard the name and knew nothing about the group.

When researchers asked those who have a negative attitude to the group regarding their motives, 18 percent called the Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult, 12 percent mentioned the obtrusive behavior of the door-to-door preachers, and 6 percent said that the group was coaxing its members to give them money.

With over eight million members around the world, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown from a small American sect in 19th century to a worldwide religious movement.

Is the ban simply a religious freedom issue, a state sponsored religion, the Russian Orthodox Church and crushing of a minority sect?

According to Newsweek the ban has been supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become increasingly popular and influential under President Vladimir Putin. Seventy-two percent of the Russian population were identified as belonging to the Orthodox Church in 2008, more than double the percentage from 1991.

In August 2017, Vox reported: “In Putin’s Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are labeled “extremists” and accused of being American spies. Still, they keep their faith alive.”

No evidence has been presented by the Russian Government to show that Jehovah Witnesses are American spies. But, many speculate what reasons were there for the Russian Supreme Court and Government to come so strongly against a small community with only 175,000 members in Russia?

The Russian media has voiced concern about the Jehovah Witnesses’ children who could not receive blood transfusions in life threatening situations.

Generally the Governments are not moved by the ‘petty’ concerns of a few children, who could not receive blood transfusions, because of the refusal of their parents or community leaders. It would certainly be applaudable if each government was so concerned about human rights of the weakest and of the smallest factions of its citizens, but this is not the contemporary world, at least not at the present time.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe their allegiance belongs to God’s Kingdom, which they view as an actual government. They refrain from saluting the flag of any country or singing nationalistic songs, which they believe are forms of worship, although they may stand out of respect. Russia may have not found these beliefs particularly patriotic.

The other charge labeled against the Jehovah Witnesses is that of “extremism,” and that is the focus for the rest of the article.

Jehovah Witnesses are known for their unique practices, such as the prohibition of holiday celebrations and blood transfusions. But perhaps their most prominent trait is their focus on the end of the world. This may be the most extreme and unique belief that they have and perhaps the greatest proof of their extreme theology, which continues to persist despite dozens of failed prophecies during the last century.

According to Jon Austin, in Daily Express in 2015, in an article titled, Rise of ISIS and earthquakes are WARNINGS before ARMAGEDDON destroys Earth:

The ‘End’ of mankind, which has been long predicted by Jehovah’s Witnesses, could happen as soon as THIS YEAR – according to latest announcement from the Christian religion.

In the latest edition of Jehovah’s Witnesses monthly publication Watchtower, an article – translated into 700 languages – urges people to join the religion or face certain death when God sends his forces from the heavens to “remove all world leaders,” “exterminate his enemies” and “rid the world of Satan”.

Critics have lambasted the warning of a coming Armageddon as yet another “failed prediction” by the religion, which has previously delivered similar alerts such as a foretold apocalypse in 1975.

Indeed, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been warning people of the need to recognize Jehovah or face certain death when the ‘End’ comes for more than 100 years.

The Christian-based religion was founded in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, as an offshoot from the Bible Studies movement. He first prophesied the end of the world is coming in 1914.

A recent Time magazine article, described his prophecy as the 9th among the Top 10 End-of-the-World Prophecies:

The onset of World War I freaked a lot of people out. But it was especially trippy for the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society, a group that’s now called Jehovah’s Witnesses. The society’s founder, Charles Taze Russell, had previously predicted Christ’s invisible return in 1874, followed by anticipation of his Second Coming in 1914. When WW I broke out that year, Russell interpreted it as a sign of armageddon and the upcoming end of days or, as he called it, the end of ‘Gentile times.’ History proved otherwise.

1914 was not the only failed prophecy.  According to a well referenced article by Chris Morton:

Founder C. T. Russell taught there would be six thousand years from the creation of Adam until Jesus would return and begin his reign on earth. Initially, Russell predicted the end of the world in 1914.

When this prophecy failed, his successor, Joseph Rutherford, announced a recalculation of the original creation of Adam, moving the date up to 1925. Three other specific dates for the end of the world have come and gone. Since November 1995, Witnesses have ceased to predict particular dates but insist ‘vehemently that they have never made any false prophecies.'[1]

The extremism of the Jehovah Witnesses probably lies in the observation that despite very clear documentation of the failed prophecies they continue to insist ‘vehemently that they have never made any false prophecies.’

The main stream media in USA and Europe has condemned the Russian ban and presented it as a religious freedom issue. But, Russians in general have been supportive of this ban.

Fifty-one percent of respondents to a survey from Russia’s leading independent polling agency, the Levada Center, said that they “definitely” approved of the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses activities. A further 28 percent said they were at least somewhat supportive, Newsweek reported.

I am not going the final answer to the question that I raise in the title of the article. I have just presented the information for the perceptive minds to judge. It is up to you to decide, if it is an issue of religious freedom, human rights of the members of the society or a national security issue for Russia?

I will now link a couple of videos, first a National Geographic documentary about the Jehovah Witnesses:

Two other videos:


1. So What’s the Difference?: A Look at 20 Worldviews, Faiths and Religions and How They Compare to Christianity. By Fritz Ridenour. Paperback edition in 2001.

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