Jehovah's Witnesses sing during a service in Russia.

There are over 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Although they are putting on a brave face, many are afraid for what the future may bring.


It’s a bad time to be a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia. The Russian Supreme Court has just upheld a law that effectively bans the faith nationwide. The ruling classifies Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist group” that is a “threat to public security.” Faith leaders were locked out of their offices, and 395 churches – along with all of their assets – are at risk of being seized and liquidated by the government. The Kremlin has threatened large fines and jail time for anyone who defies the ruling.

The news shocked the country’s 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and sparked fiery criticism from religious freedom advocates. Human Rights Watch called the decision a “terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.”

JW Extremism: A Real Threat?

According to journalists familiar with the issue, this decision has been a long time coming. Over the years, many Jehovah’s Witness publications have been flagged by authorities as extremist literature. Prosecutors have long attempted to portray Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organization that destroys families, fosters hatred and threatens lives. This has helped to galvanize public opinion against the religion.

While Jehovah’s Witnesses are often criticized for being overzealous and treating ex-members poorly, they are not known for committing terrorist acts. In fact, JW’s argue that other faith systems are objectively more dangerous than theirs.

Why Would a Government Ban a Religion?

The Soviet Union was notoriously anti-religion (Karl Marx famously called it the “opiate of the masses”). And while the Soviet regime has since become a chapter in history books, hostile attitudes toward certain religions endure.

In reality, though, there may be another force at work beyond a general dislike of religion. Experts say that Jehovah’s Witness ban could be politically motivated. In a piece earlier this month, the Washington Post offered some insight into the situation:

The church’s 170,000 Russian members don’t vote, won’t serve in the military and refuse to attend national celebrations that glorify violence. That means they often avoid state-sponsored rallies celebrating, say, the annexation of Crimea. That’s a problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is naturally suspicious of groups with pro-Western sympathies (the sect is based in the United States). It’s also a way for him to show support to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Fighting Back

Jehovah’s Witnesses, for their part, say the Russian government’s claims are completely unfounded and are being used as an excuse to outlaw their religion. It doesn’t appear the group will be going down without a fight.

“We will appeal this decision, and we hope that our legal rights and protections as a peaceful religious group will be fully restored as soon as possible”, said a spokesman.

Soviet Union flagTurbulence Ahead

Although they are putting on a brave face, many Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country are afraid for what the future may bring. Not only will they be refused the right to practice their religion going forward, but any church members who defy the order will likely be thrown in jail.

However, Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not resilient. As historian Emily Baran notes:

When the Soviet Union barred religious literature from crossing its borders, Witnesses set up underground bunkers to print illegal magazines for their congregations. When Soviet officials prohibited Witnesses from hosting religious services, they gathered in small groups in their apartments, often in the middle of the night … When these actions landed them in labor camps, Witnesses sought out converts among their fellow prisoners.

Takeaways

Ultimately, Russia’s actions highlight the fragility of religious freedom. Perhaps the government really does have good reason to believe that JWs present a threat to public safety. However, another scenario is that since church members refuse to exercise blind patriotism, the authoritarian regime has decided they are better off banning the religion entirely. Many are concerned that this may lead to a slippery slope. Are other religions in danger? Only time will tell.

What do you think? Are Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group?

 

20 comments

  1. Francisco Rosaly says:

    Yipeeeeeeeeeeee! 👍👍👍

    1. Rev. Curtis Steinhour says:

      what is your problem. they are Christians and we are Christians

      1. Jay Rose says:

        You do not no what you are most only no what they have been taught you worship the Serapes Christos Images False faith the False religion of Conquers

  2. Dar says:

    Yes, ban them!

    1. Rev. Curtis Steinhour says:

      what is your problem. they are Christians and we are Christians

  3. Jerome says:

    I totally believe people irrespective of religious beliefs should be allowed to practice freely. As long as they are not preaching hate and I for sure have never seen any hate from jehovas wittiness. I love their style of worship and their approach and I do believe that you should commit to what you believe in, and stick to it . Go JW. Russian wittiness will pull through as many others have struggled to be who they are to practice their religion which is their god given right . Too many hater of the truth !

  4. Beth K says:

    Although I agree that the way Jehovah’s Witnesses operate – encouraging members to shun friends and family who do not also become Jehovah’s Witnesses, and can be annoying in the way they door-to-door proselytize, they do not as a group commit violent or property crimes, nor engage in terrorist activities.

    Curtailing the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious freedom is a serious threat to everyone’s religious freedom – to worship or not worship as we choose, and as we are guided.

    1. Karen Snizek says:

      They do commit crimes. Look up the Australia Royal Commission they have been looking into all religions and how they protect or fail to protect child abuse victims. The JW’s have failed to report to any authorities over 1thousand known cases of child molestation. And they refuse to acknowledge their errors. Hiding pedophiles and not helping our innocent children is indeed a crime!

  5. Robert Hauck, MD, FAAP says:

    A surprise? Hardly! It’s been pro forma for dictators to outlaw religious groups and especially to target minority groups as a focus of hatred in order to mobilize support for their regimes. Look at our human history of the past several centuries and the targets of fascist and populist leaders: Jews, gays, educated people, blacks, whites, Christians, Muslims, a different sect or tribe, Romanos, Mexicans. Today’s news is reporting prejudice targeted at Jehovah’s Witnesses (Russia), Muslims and Mexicans (US), all immigrants (France), Muslims-of-a-different-sort (mid-East), Christians (Egypt). Why should we expect anything different from Russia’s ruthless strong-man?
    RH, Washington State

  6. brian oerman says:

    JW while strict on their views of religion are not a threat and think it is better to turn the other cheek and walk away when violence happens. I hardly call them a threat to society. I know this because i was once one. They are very nice once you get to know them. However i do not agree with their downing of other religions. I agree with Universal Life Church “We are all children of the same universe”

  7. JOHN MAHER says:

    AS ANNOYING as the [ WITNESSES ] are THEY NEVER are VIOLENT, JUST PAINs in the ARSE !!!

  8. Frank Villari says:

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
    — Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

  9. Amber Fry says:

    Oy, well… I have to say I honestly don’t believe banning a religion, especially one that currently isn’t trying to take over the government or dictate to other people what they simply must believe. That said, I live in the US where things are different regarding religion as our own constitution lays out. What the people there are willing to take or what they are willing to do about it over there should be up to them. We are in the middle of our own fight right now with our own president wanting to overhaul our national guidelines to serve his own distorted vision of how things should be, regardless of what we the people want.

    Should it be banned? Personally I don’t think so. There are far more important things to worry about.

  10. Gail Townsend says:

    While I disagree with many of their beliefs, they are far from being a threat to anyone. People who are celebrating because they don’t like witnesses should take care — their religion may be the next to be banned. The witnesses are non-violent pacifists, but they do not believe in nationalism, and this has always rankled the political forces. Many witnesses went to concentration camps with the Jews in WWII Germany. They are no strangers to religious persecution.

  11. Anne 'Arie says:

    My opinion? Some people love to be martyrs! Although I have friends who are JW, I know how annoying it is to have them drop off people in neighborhoods trying to recruit new members. All it takes is one fanatic to ruin it for everyone and perhaps Russia had one too many fanatics beating on their door. While I don’t believe in ethnic cleansing or persecuting others for what they believe, I can see how this could happen. Perhaps the solution is to teach people that participating in discussions they would rather walk away from just to be polite is a mistake. I don’t have to answer my door if I don’t want to. It’s my door, after all! Same goes for the phone. I pay for a phone for my convenience, not for the convenience of every crackpot who wants to call me trying to share or sell their ideas. If the people I hang up on feel that I’m being unfair, then that’s too bad. Life goes on.

  12. Jim says:

    I’m going to use the same post I used on the story about China banning Muslim names for babies, with one slight change:
    “It’s Russia. I’ll bet 99.99999% of people comment here have never been there, myself included. They are not exactly known for being socially progressive. Just leave it alone.:

  13. Bill says:

    Why would anyone be surprised at this? Putin is not exactly a liberal in his social and political views. I would like to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists from knocking on my front door, but to label them as extremists using the excuse that they could be some sort of physical threat is just the sort of thing you would expect from Trump’s good buddy.

  14. Sam1 says:

    This is not surprising because Jesus already told His desciples of being presecuted, jailed and even put to death. Jesus said to rejoice for the time of His coming is near.

  15. the druid shrum says:

    Russia, like most countries of the world, does not have the first amendment. Americans tend to think that religious expression is universal. It is not. Celebrate your rights, most others do not have them. Just sayin’.

  16. Rev John says:

    Well done Mr Putin. Sadly, it should have been all religion until a child is 18yrs of age. No child should be groomed or indoctrinated into a religion before they can decide what is true and what is fiction. All children should be taught Science and natural history (including genetic biology) Then they can choose their religion , if they want one when they can make a rational decision.
    Then there may not be so much conflict in the world. NO MORE – ‘My imaginary friend is better than yours’

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