By Paul Goble
The Russian Supreme Court in April declared that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were an “extremist” organization, prohibited its missionary activities, and declared that the Witnesses’ 396 Kingdom Halls were to be handed over to the state. The Witnesses have appealed that decision and a final hearing on their case will be take place on Monday.
Because of the appeal, the government has not yet implemented all the aspects of the original decision, and Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses are hopeful for a positive result, either there or later at the European Court of Human Rights. But the Russian government action has already had a serious impact on the community.
Taking their cue from the Russian government, Russians have attacked Witnesses more often—with the number of such attacks up by 750 percent between the month before and the month after the court decision — and expressed more hostility toward the Witnesses — almost 80 percent of Russians said they did not approve of the group according to one recent poll (watchtower.sharefile.com/share?#/view/s5b411ea64c64abcb and novayagazeta.ru/news/2017/07/13/133434-bolshinstvo-oproshennyh-levada-tsentrom-rossiyan-podderzhali-zapret-svideteley-iegovy).
Not all Russians have fallen victim to this official campaign. According to a report in Novaya gazeta today, for example, one policeman asked Witnesses who continue to engage in missionary activity to do so somewhere other than on his beat but then relented and allowed them to go ahead (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/07/13/73105-bog-prosto-esche-ne-doigral).
More seriously, Jehovah’s Witnesses deprived of access to their Kingdom Halls have created house churches that resemble in some ways the underground religious groups that existed in Soviet times. But they are doing so with many modern touches: many rely on laptops and even read the Bible on kindles.
Some Russian Witnesses are thinking about emigrating given the crackdown against them in Russia today, but most say that they “do not want to leave the country because of the ban. We love Russia. We love the Russian language. [And] we love these people,” the Witnesses say.
In the words of one Russian Witness, “Witnesses don’t take up arms, they do not participate in wars and meetings. We will struggle but by purely legal methods. I don’t understand why they are banning us. But it seems to me,” he said, “that those who are doing the banning don’t know the answer either.”
What is obvious, however, is that Vladimir Putin has chosen to attack religious groups that he believes Russians won’t defend and that the West will not stand up for, going after the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Pentecostals, and thus create precedents for moving against denominations as well.
While some in Russia and in the West have spoken out in defense of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not enough have, perhaps because they do not yet fully understand how serious the challenge Putin is posing by his campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, first to members of that denomination, then to followers of other religions and finally to all people of good will.