By Paul Goble
Over the past five years since Moscow outlawed the Jehovah’s Witness organizations in the Russian Federation, the Russian authorities have brought suit against its followers two times as often as they have against all other similarly outlawed religious denominations, Aleksandr Verkhovsky says.
It is not clear precisely why Vladimir Putin and his regime have it in for the Witnesses, the head of the SOVA monitoring and analytic center says. Some have suggested the size of the denomination threatens the Russian Orthodox Church, a close ally of the Kremlin. But Verkhovsky suggests Putin has another and more powerful motive.
The Kremlin leader may calculate that the Witnesses are a perfect target to send a broader message because they are sufficiently unpopular in many places that few are likely to be willing to come to their active defense. Thus, Putin can attack without fear of the adverse consequences he would suffer in the case of others (takiedela.ru/2022/04/svideteli-iegovi/).
The Witnesses do have a center in the US, Verkhovsky continues, but so do other denominations which have been banned in Russia. What makes them stand out, he suggests, is that they are “a large organization which doesn’t want to have anything to do with the authorities” besides registering and paying taxes. For the Kremlin, that makes them “suspicious.”
Verkhovsky is undoubtedly correct, and his argument should send a message to all other religious groups and those both in Russia and the West concerned about human rights: It is long past time to support the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia against Kremlin repression because they are truly on the front line.
If Putin sees there are real costs involved for moving against the Witnesses, he may back off and not attack others. But if he sees the current situation in which few speak out on the behalf of the Witnesses for whatever reason, he will continue to attack them and then attack the many others who are also on his target list and do so from a stronger position.