Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses sponsored by the Russian government is picking up again

After a period of freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are once again facing intense, state-sponsored persecution.

Since a Supreme Court ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center as an extremist organization in 2017, the group has been stripped of its legal status. Many of his places of worship, known as Kingdom Halls, have been confiscated.

Individual witnesses are treated as enemies of the state.

According to Jarrod Lopes, a New York-based spokesman for the global organization, 77 Jehovah’s Witnesses were in Russian prisons for practicing their beliefs and another 31 were under house arrest at the end of the year.

Many others have been targeted. In the past five years, a total of 1,660 homes have been searched, Lopes said.

A ruling by the Russian Supreme Court showed that individual or collective worship by Jehovah’s Witnesses is not in itself a crime.

It is unclear how this ruling will affect those currently awaiting trial, Lopes said.

In November, a court in Vladivostok – some 8,500 kilometers east of Moscow – acquitted Dmitry Barmakin of organizing extremist group activities. The Jehovah’s Witness simply “exercised the right to religious freedom enshrined in the Russian constitution”.

Other defendants have been less successful, Lopes said.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to be condemned and condemned as extremists, which puts them on a par with terrorists like al-Qaeda,” he said.

The persecution, Lopes said, is unjustified.

There is nothing criminal, Lopes argues, to read the Bible, sing songs and pray.

“In a criminal case, you often try to investigate who was injured as a result [defendant]”he said.” In this case, they have no victims because none of these people get hurt. “

In 2016, there were around 171,000 Jehovah’s Witness “publishers” in Russia, people in good standing who actively share their faith.

Church officials said a total of 321 church-related properties worth $ 53 million were seized.

In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom asked the US State Department to classify Russia as a country of particular concern because it committed or tolerated “particularly serious violations of religious freedom”.

Under the International Religious Freedom Act, countries qualify for the list if they have “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious offenses … including offenses such as – (A) torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; (B) prolonged detention without charge; (C) causing the disappearance of people by kidnapping or secretly detaining them; or (D) some other blatant denial of the right to life, liberty, or security of persons. “

In November, Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken added Russia to the list, placing it alongside Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

James Carr, a Searcy man on the commission, was taken aback by Moscow’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, finding that they make up a fraction of 1% of the country’s population.

The former superpower now has an estimated 146 million inhabitants.

“Here’s a powerful force: Russia … and for some reason they’re scared of these people,” said Carr.

“I don’t know many members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, but I know enough to know that they are quite peaceful people. And they are put in jail just for practicing their beliefs, ”he said.

The convicts could be jailed “not for six months, but in some cases for many, many years,” he added.

With 8.6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world, they are a global force. While they refer to Jesus as the founder of their organization, they say the modern movement arose out of a small group of what called themselves Bible Students who lived near Pittsburgh in the late 19th century.

They have referred to themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1931.

They are taught to be respectful of political authorities.

In the New World Translation of the Bible that Witnesses use and distribute, they are instructed to “obey governments and authorities, to be ready for any good work, … to be reasonable”. (Tit 3: 1-2.)

They are also asked to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions” so that they “may continue to lead quiet and peaceful lives with total devotion and sincerity”. (1 Timothy 2: 1-2.)

Nonetheless, if they believe a law is contrary to Jehovah’s biblical dictates, they will refuse to keep a law.

Politically neutral, they also refuse to participate in many civic activities.

Witnesses do not vote or run for office, take oaths of allegiance or sing patriotic hymns. They will also not do military service, although they have the option to do community service if their conscience allows.

Persecution is not a new phenomenon to the Witnesses. The Soviets banished many of them to Siberia. The Nazis took others to concentration camps.

In the United States, Jehovah’s Witnesses encountered hostility, particularly when they refused to salute the flag or serve in the armed forces.

The witnesses had an overwhelming influence on US constitutional law, according to Jane G. Rainey, professor emeritus of political science at Eastern Kentucky University.

“Perhaps no other religious sect, relative to its size, has a greater influence on the expansion of freedom of worship in the First Amendment than Jehovah’s Witnesses,” says Rainey in the First Amendment encyclopedia.

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