Threatened with an imminent ban on their worship in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are responding with a direct appeal to Kremlin and Supreme Court officials for relief through a global letter-writing campaign. The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is inviting the over 8,000,000 Witnesses worldwide to participate.
On March 15, 2017, Russia’s Ministry of Justice filed a claim with the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation to label the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia as extremist and liquidate it. The claim also seeks to ban the activities of the Administrative Center. If the Supreme Court upholds this claim, the Witnesses’ national headquarters near St. Petersburg will be shut down. Subsequently, some 400 registered Local Religious Organizations would be liquidated, outlawing the services of over 2,300 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. The branch property, as well as places of worship used by Witnesses throughout the country, could be seized by the State. Additionally, individual Jehovah’s Witnesses would become subject to criminal prosecution for merely carrying out their worship activities. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the claim on April 5.
“The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses wants to heighten attention to this critical situation,” states David A. Semonian, a spokesman at the Witnesses’ world headquarters. “Prosecuting non-violent, law-abiding citizens as if they were terrorists is clearly a misapplication of anti-extremist laws. Such prosecution is based on completely false grounds.”
“Reading the Bible, singing, and praying with fellow worshipers is clearly not criminal,” adds Mr. Semonian. “We hope that our global letter-writing campaign will motivate Russian officials to stop this unjustifiable action against our fellow worshipers.”
The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witness have written a letter to all congregations around the world in relation to the above. And they have also provided instructions on how individual members should write a letter to the Russian authorities if they choose to do so. In some countries, like Ghana, the instructions have some noticeable differences.
AvoidJW.org agrees with Mr. Semonian that “prosecuting non-violent, law-abiding citizens as if they were terrorists is clearly a misapplication of anti-extremist laws.” We also agree that “reading the bible, singing, and praying with fellow worshipers is clearly not criminal”.
If the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses is authorized by the supreme court, this is exactly what will happen. Jehovah’s Witnesses across the whole Russian country will be prosecuted simply for their reading of the bible, singing of their hymns and praying with fellow worshipers.
This is wrong.
Human Rights Violations by Jehovah’s Witnesses
Every human has a right to believe whatever they want in whatever way they wish as per Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). There are limits to such rights insofar as individuals cannot infringe on another’s rights when exerting those rights as per Article 29.2.
Many former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that the religion denies them their human rights. These human rights violations are as follows:
- Article 1 – Former members are not treated in a spirit of brotherhood. Former members are despised and shunned by remaining members.
- Article 2 – If everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms as set out in the UDHR without religious distinction, then it is incumbent upon religious organisations to consider the rights and freedoms of its religious members and former members. In other words, they must recognize and comply with the UDHR. Jehovah’s Witnesses think that because they are a religious organisation, they do not need to comply. This is false reasoning. See violation of Article 30 below.
- Article 4 – Former members are held in a state of mental slavery – shunning of such persons will continue until such a time as former members return to being members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Former members will enjoy a lifetime of shunning if they never return to the religion.
- Article 5 – Shunning is a form of psychological torture. It is a cruel, inhumane and degrading form of treatment and punishment.
- Article 7 – If all are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of the UDHR and against any incitement to such discrimination, then Jehovah’s Witnesses must desist from shunning former members and desist from writing articles in their publications requiring members to shun former members.
- Article 8 – Considering Article 2 & Article 30 of the UDHR, nations need to recognize and insist that religious organisations comply with the UDHR. Religions cannot disregard the UDHR simply because they are a religion. Maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses would not find themselves in their current predicament in Russia if they complied fully with the UDHR.
- Article 10 – Jehovah’s Witnesses have judicial committees and meetings that are held in order to discipline members who break their rules and regulations. It has been proven time and time again that these proceedings are not fair or impartial. They have secret policies and regulations that members are not privy to. Furthermore, they only inform members in “broad terms” of any proceedings brought against them. This does not allow a member to defend themselves properly.
- Article 12 – Many former members have experienced harassment in varying forms and for various reasons by Jehovah’s Witness elders and other overly-zealous members.
- Article 14 – Regardless of religious orientation, one has a right to marry whomever they wish with the free and full consent of the intending party. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses penalize members who do not marry Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Article 18 – Jehovah’s Witnesses violate the very article that they invoke to ensure their religious freedom. How? They deny members the right to change religion. If any member decides to change religion, they will disassociate them and require all remaining members to shun that former member.
- Article 19 – Jehovah’s Witnesses do not allow freedom of thought. Any opinions or expressions that go against Jehovah’s Witnesses current teachings, beliefs and doctrines will be dealt with harshly. Members who do not comply will be labeled an apostate, disfellowshipped and shunned.
- Article 20.2 – If no one is compelled to belong to an association, Jehovah’s Witnesses need to desist from shunning members who no longer want to associate with them in a religious context.
- Article 21.1 – Jehovah’s Witnesses do not allow members to get involved in politics. If any member wishes to, the church will disassociate them and they will be shunned.
- Article 23.1 – Jehovah’s Witnesses restrict access to certain vocations. For example, if a member chooses to join the army they will be disassociated and shunned.
- Article 25.2 – Jehovah’s Witnesses will disfellowship any member who has a child out of wedlock. While that member remains shunned, it is likely that the child will also be shunned, or endure pain that other children are ever likely to experience.
- Article 26.1 – Jehovah’s Witnesses do not deny their members some education. However, they will inhibit or restrict member’s congregational privileges if they pursue third level education. Although not a direct violation of an educational right, it does severely restrict members vocational pursuits.
- Article 26.2 – The restriction of education is directly related to the deprivation of understanding, tolerance and friendship among those of a different persuasion. Education is one of the strongest factors associated with social capital in general and greater trust and higher tolerance in particular: the better educated individuals are, the more likely they are to have high levels of interpersonal trust and low levels of discriminatory attitudes and negative attitudes towards migrants (Hooghe et al. 2008; Stouffer 1955; Maykovich 1975; Quillian 1995; Scheepers, Gijsberts and Coenders 2002; Kunovich 2004; Semyonov, Rainmann and Tom-Tov 2004). Jehovah’s Witness members have a restricted worldview and are less understanding & tolerant of non-members and severely limit their friendships with outsiders.
- Article 28 – Socially speaking, how can the rights and freedoms set out in the UDHR be fully realized if religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses restrict them?
- Article 30 – Jehovah’s Witnesses flagrantly disregard this article of the UDHR by thinking they are exempt from adhering to it simply because they are a religion. They are not exempt. No one is exempt. As per Article 29.1, we must all do out part to exercise our rights and respect the rights of others.
Jehovah’s Witnesses violate 18 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights either in whole or in part. It is most noteworthy to point out that most of these violations are directly related to their shunning policy. If Jehovah’s Witnesses ended their shunning policy today, the vast majority of their human rights violations would disappear.
Unfortunately, Jehovah’s Witness leaders believe that the bible mandates that they shun former members. They quote 1 Corinthians 5:13 where it says “Expel the wicked person from among you” (New International Version). Yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation of “wicked” is both broad and vague. It’s left to the interpretation of elders to determine whether a person is wicked. In the real-world sense, the evidence suggests that all who leave the religion, all who question the religion, and all who commit acts of perceived wrongdoing (including those taking certain prohibited vocations, or accepting blood to save their life) are “wicked”. Therefore, the Jehovah’s Witnesses use of shunning is both extreme and cruel as the shunning encompasses those who cannot be categorized as “wicked” when one considers the previously quoted scripture in context.
Human Rights Violation by Russia
Jehovah’s Witnesses do have mildly extreme views and practices, all of which are found in their literature. Should they be banned? No. No religion should be banned for having extreme views. For example, a person may believe that child sacrifices are needed to be offered up to their god. It’s an extreme belief and it would be a horrific practice if allowed. Should the religion be banned for having such a belief? No. Such a belief should be permitted but the practice forbidden by law because it encroaches on the right of the child. Likewise, Jehovah’s Witnesses should be allowed to believe as they wish. If they have practices that encroach on human rights, they should be forbidden by law.
Russia’s approach is to take extreme measures to deal with a mildly extreme organisation. To ban the religion is an extreme breach of human rights. Why treat perceived extremism with extremism? It’s ridiculous! And it’s wrong.
Human Rights Upheld through Regulation
It would be in Russia’s best interests to regulate the religion rather than ban it. And here is the issue: There is no nation on earth that regulates religion. Religion is lumped in with charities. Although religions may do some charity work, they are not charities. They are religions.
Religion at its most basic level operates on the idea that there is a higher power that we need to appease and that if we maintain a moral life, we will be rewarded for our good works.
Charities on the other hand, operate on the principle that good works are required to ensure and maintain the human rights of individuals. Although some charities may have a religious aspect to them, many have no religious connection and do not perform their good works to appease any higher power.
It is AvoidJW.org’s belief that religions and charities are not intrinsically linked. We believe religion should not be considered a charity. We believe that nations who are serious about human rights should form religious regulatory authorities to ensure religions operate within the confines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This is where Russia could take the lead. Russia could use Jehovah’s Witnesses as a case study. If Russia believes Jehovah’s Witnesses are an extremist organisation, it would be in their own interests to set up a religious regulatory authority to oversee the religious group – and all other religious groups. In this way, they can maintain control of the religion and ensure that its extremist views and practices were restricted or curtailed.
To ban Jehovah’s Witnesses will only create a new problem for Russia. If Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned, it won’t stop them believing what they believe. They will continue to do so. Only this time, they will do it in secret, away from the prying eyes of the Russian authorities. IN such a situation, Russia would have to invest heavily to police the ban on such a religious group.
And what happens if Russia decides to ban other religious groups? They will have to invest even more to police those groups too. It’s a slippery slope and it does not fair well for all involved.
We at avoidjw.org hope that the Russian authorities will see sense and not ban Jehovah’s Witnesses.
We will be sending this article as a letter to Russia in the very slight hope that it will help alleviate the situation in that country. If you as a reader agree with the sentiments of this article, you are more than welcome to copy the article or take points from it and write your own letter to Russia.
We hope dearly that Jehovah’s Witnesses can continue to worship their God in the way that they see fit. We hope, too, that one day Jehovah’s Witnesses will seriously consider the human rights of their former members and curtail or end their shunning policy.