The Case of the Banned Church

It has been said, cynically enough, that the twentieth century didn’t begin on January 1, 1900, but on July 28, 1914. That was when World War I officially started, the worst bloodbath in history up to that point, only to be exceeded a few decades later by World War II.

But 1914 wasn’t merely the beginning of World War I. According to some Bible students studying the Old Testament book of Daniel, 1914 was the year that the Battle of Armageddon was to have ended; the year “the time of trouble of the Gentiles” was to have ended; the year that “false” Christianity was to have been eradicated; the year that all kingdoms of the world were to have been finished; the year that Jesus was to set up His kingdom on earth; and, finally, 1914 was to be the year that all the saints, from antiquity onward, were going to be resurrected from the dead.

Stacks of booklets distributed by Alexander Kalistratov, the leader of a Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation, are seen during a court session 2010. Kalistratov was found guilty by a Russian court of inciting religious hatred for distributing literature about his beliefs.

No question, no matter how momentous 1914 was, it was not because any of these predicted events occurred. None did.

Of course, this was not the first nor last time that Bible students, making predictions about future events, lived to see the predicted events fail when dates came and went. In fact, the religion that made these predictions, Jehovah’s Witnesses, kept on going despite the failures, to where today there are more than 8 million worldwide. And though generally one doesn’t hear too much about Jehovah’s Witnesses, they made international news in 2017 because in April of that year the Russian government outlawed the entire religion, which means that practicing this faith is now deemed a crime, punishable by fines and possibly jail-time.

Now, in the twenty-first century, after all the religious persecution of the past one, could a modern nation, a world nuclear power, ban an entire religious faith, one that has been around since the nineteenth century? And this to a faith that, no matter how strange its beliefs, is known for the most part as quite pacifist and quite disengaged from national politics—regardless of whatever country they reside in?

The answer is, unfortunately, Yes.

The Yarovaya Law

Though those following religious freedom trends in Russia saw it coming, suddenly in April this year such headlines as the following appeared: “British Government ‘Alarmed’ at Russian Ban on ‘Extremist’ Jehovah’s Witnesses” (Independent); “Russia Just Effectively Banned Jehovah’s Witnesses From the Country” (Washington Post); “Russia’s Supreme Court Bans Jehovah’s Witnesses” (Fox News); Jehovah’s Witnesses Banned in Russia for ‘Extremist’ Activity” (NBC News).

Why would a whole religion, just on the basis of its being a religion, be outlawed?

Behind it all is the old idea of fear about national security and about threats to a nation as an excuse to curtail human rights. The Russians have, like many countries, faced the scourge of Islamic extremist terrorism, having been the victim of numerous attacks, many often linked to its action in Chechnya. In response the national government has passed various anti-terrorism, anti-extremist laws in order to try to deal with the threat. The latest version, known as the Yarovaya law, includes new police and counterterrorism measures that, some fear, echo the time the KGB, the Russian secret police, ran roughshod over human rights in former Soviet Union. According to watchdog agencies, the latest laws can place a host of new restrictions on religious groups, particularly small ones that were imported to Russia from overseas.

The new law, warned Thomas J. Reese, who heads the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people.” He warned, too, that “neither these measures nor the currently existing anti-extremism law meet international human rights and religious freedom standards.”

The Russian Orthodox Church

Most Americans, particularly those born and raised here, take religious freedom for granted. That’s all we’ve known. But for most of human history, most of humanity hasn’t experienced the kind of religious freedom that we have in the United States. And Russia is, certainly, no exception.

Even before the oppression of faith under the dogmatic atheism of the Soviets, czarist Russia was hardly a bastion of religious liberty. The Russian Orthodox Church, the “state” church, worked in tandem with the czarist government to suppress non-Russian Orthodox faiths. Based on ancient animosities between Eastern and Western Christianity that went back many centuries to the Great Schism, the Russian Orthodox Church saw Roman Catholicism, even more than the Protestant “sects,” as perhaps its bitterest rival (this hatred had been most powerfully represented in some of the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the nineteenth century). However, after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church itself was persecuted by the atheist regime, sometimes quite fiercely, as it was potentially a greater threat to Communist hegemony than were most other faiths.

With, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has now flourished. About two thirds of the country adheres to that faith. In contrast to Western Europe, whose churches are all but empty on Sunday, Russian Orthodox churches are filled. The reasons are many, but an important one is that Russian Orthodoxy is clearly linked with the resurgence of Russian nationalism, a key to President Putin’s political popularity and power. Russian nationalism has been, and is now again, most clearly expressed through and in the Russian Orthodox Church, essentially the national church of Russia since, some would argue, the tenth century A.D.

Though the other main faiths—Judaism, Islam, even Buddhism—are left alone, it’s the smaller religions, those coming from outside Russia, that have started to face repression, especially from the newest anti-terrorism laws, which the Russian Orthodox Church backs strongly. Between legitimate fear of terrorism, the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, and resurgent nationalism, these smaller faiths are feeling the crunch.

And especially now the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Extremists”

Though, like other faiths, Jehovah’s Witnesses faced persecution under the Soviets, even after the collapse of Communism they have struggled with legal challenges. In Russia, as elsewhere, the only contact most people have with the Witnesses is through their rather ubiquitous literature program, in which they distribute booklets and pamphlets, many of which pretty much denounce everyone and everything except their own faith. And ever since the tightening up of anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws, their booklets and pamphlets have been deemed “extremist.” Since 2105, in various places around the country, local branches of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been fined, or banned, or both, on charges of distributing extremist literature. This has resulted in raids on various Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting places, the confiscation of property, and the banning of meetings.

“A couple of months ago,” said an article in The Guardian, “the Russian police raided the Birobidzhan branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and ‘discovered’ extremist literature. The Jehovah’s Witnesses describe the incident thus: ‘Masked special police disrupted a religious meeting and planted literature under a chair in the presence of the attendees.’ The police ordered the place to be permanently closed.”

Things came to a head in 2107, when Russia’s Minstry of Justice declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses national headquarters, in St. Petersburg, an extremist organization. In April the Russian Supreme Court dismissed a countersuit filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, seeking to declare the Ministry of Justice’s actions as unlawful, and the case was heard at the Russian Supreme Court in April. Within two weeks the Court ruled in favor of the government and declared the entire Jehovah’s Witnesses faith and their adherents “extremist.” A lawyer for Russia’s justice ministry, Svetlana Borisova, told the court that Jehovah’s Witnesses “pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order, and public security.” The ruling effectively banned the religion from being practiced in Russia. Overnight 175,000 Russians have had their faith deemed illegal, their churches closed, their assets seized, and all church activities halted. Those found in defiance of the ruling face criminal penalties, including prison.

This action, however shocking, was the culmination of years, even decades, of harassment by the Kremlin, which had earlier launched a legal effort, now aided by the new anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws, to ban the faith once and for all. With the April ruling it finally seems to have succeeded.

“After six days of hearings,” said the Washington Post, “the Supreme Court sided with the government on Thursday. They ruled that the group’s St. Petersburg headquarters and 395 churches could be seized and liquidated. All church activities, including worship and door-to-door evangelizing, were banned. Those who defy the ruling face a fine of several thousand dollars and six to 10 years in prison.”

What Is It About the Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Of course, this is hardly the first time Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced persecution. What is it about this little group that often catches the ire of governments?

While Jehovah’s Witnesses do have beliefs that put them decidedly out of the mainstream of Christianity, it’s not their beliefs per se that get them into trouble, but how they put some of them into practice.

One of the strangest is their refusal to accept, even many in medical emergencies, blood transfusions. Citing such texts as Leviticus 17:14 (“For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off”), they are adamant about not allowing blood transfusions, even if a life is at stake. Regardless of however bad most theologians would agree that this theology is, this position has at times brought Jehovah’s Witnesses into conflict with the law, especially in cases of minors whose lives might be at risk without a blood transfusion. It’s one thing when a 40-year-old refrains from a treatment that could risk his or her life. It’s another when someone, based on a very dubious reading of Scripture, withholds a potentially lifesaving procedure from a 3-year-old.

Perhaps even more problematic has been their stand about governments in general. Believing that they belong only to God’s kingdom, they openly try to avoid politics as much as possible. Says their official Web site: “Jehovah’s Witnesses remain politically neutral for religious reasons, based on what the Bible teaches. We do not lobby, vote for political parties or candidates, run for government office, or participate in any action to change governments. We believe that the Bible gives solid reasons for following this course.” Most governments, oppressive ones in particular, would find the position that they don’t participate “in any action to change governments” to be exactly the kind of compliant citizenry that they want. Yet “compliant” isn’t always a word that accurately describes the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attitude toward government. The Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to join the military, for instance, hasn’t always gone over well, usually in nations in which the law demands that participation, and especially in times of war, when many Jehovah’s Witnesses young men have gone to jail because of their refusal to join the military.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses faced problems in the United States in the 1940s, when, in an infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision, Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the High Court ruled that public schools could compel students to salute the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance—two practices that many Jehovah’s Witnesses, based on their attitude toward earthly kingdoms, do not do. After the ruling, mobs attacked their churches (called kingdom halls); some members were beaten; some were jailed; some were run out of town. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with many editorials around the country, condemned the decision as a terrible blow to religious liberty and to the freedom of conscience. According to the ACLU, more than 1,500 Witnesses were physically attacked in more than 300 communities nationwide. Three years later, partly in response to the violence, the United States Supreme Court, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, reversed the decision, in which the majority opinion expressed these famous words: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

In Nazi Germany, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to join the military, participate in Nazi organizations, or pledge allegiance to Hitler led to systematic persecution, with thousands jailed or placed in concentration camps. It has been estimated that 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were at one point incarcerated and that 1,200 died in the camps, with about 250 executed. They were the first Christian denomination to be banned, and, perhaps, they were treated more fiercely than any other Christian group during the Nazi years.

From Canada to Cuba, to France, to Singapore, to South Africa, Witnesses have faced persecution, often because of their refusal to do military service but also because many times their literature has been deemed as “inflammatory” or “radical” or “unpatriotic” or, as in the recent situation in Russia, “extremist,” a labeling that helped lead to the recent court decision. Though lawyers for the Jehovah’s Witnesses say that they plan to appeal the ruling, or even go to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France, at present the situation doesn’t look too promising for them.

What Now?

Reaction to the ruling in Russia was not positive. Even many people not sympathetic to Christianity in general, or even Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular, were swift to condemn what happened, not just on humanitarian reasons but on principle. Both governmental and nongovernmental agencies were quick to express concern.

Ganoune Diop, secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), worried about the issues the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling raised.

“This action,” he said, “contradicts Russia’s constitutional protection of freedom of worship and religion for all its citizens, not just for those who belong to majority faiths.” He argued that Article 28 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation guarantees freedom of religion and thus, “the decision to close down the operations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—labeling this peaceful religious minority as ‘extremist’—should deeply concern the international community.”

Other Christian groups, generally deemed as apostates by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and wary of the faith as a whole, have nevertheless expressed concern. An entire religious denomination suddenly outlawed? What’s worse is the justification for the outlawing: that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are “extremist.” That’s ludicrous on the face of it. (After all, how many Jehovah’s Witnesses have engaged in terrorism or have blown up themselves and others?).

Though the whole campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses is concerning, and raises a host of questions about Russia’s commitment to religious freedom and to human rights, in the end the bottom line concern is the following: If something like this can happen to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the question remains: Who’s next?


Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.