The day after the Supreme Court decision, Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio interviewed Andrew Roth, a Washington Post correspondent, and expressed bewilderment that Jehovah’s Witnesses should be placed in the same category as ISIS.1 The latter related the inside joke that Witnesses are now the most pacifist extremists in Russia.
Probing, Inskeep observed that Jehovah’s Witnesses are indeed known for pacifism. They are apolitical. They knock on doors, pass out pamphlets, and seek converts. “You may dislike them, but they don’t seem that threatening.” He asks how many there are in Russia, and Roth answered that they grew very quickly after the fall of Communism. That growth has unnerved the Russian Orthodox Church and even the government itself, which is “really trying to clamp down and to sort of recreate an idea of what official religion is in Russia…there’s an important symbiosis between religion and the political power in the country. And so the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin have walked in lockstep. And I think it’s fair to see that this crackdown is in some ways sort of influenced—growing influence of Orthodox Christianity and a view of Christianity that can support the Kremlin’s aim.”
A segment of an article considered at Witness meetings worldwide the week of May 15, 2017 follows:
“Like his father, Asa, Jehoshaphat maintained his devotion to God even when threatened by an overwhelming enemy force. (Read 2 Chronicles 20:2-4.) Jehoshaphat did become afraid! Yet, “he resolved to search for Jehovah.” In prayer, he humbly admitted that his people were “powerless before this large crowd” and that he and his people did not know what to do. He fully relied on Jehovah, saying: “Our eyes are toward you.”—2 Chron. 20:12. Sometimes we, like Jehoshaphat, may not know what to do, even being afraid. (2 Cor. 4:8, 9) But remember that Jehoshaphat acknowledged in a public prayer how weak he and his people felt. (2 Chron. 20:5) Those who take the spiritual lead in the family can imitate Jehoshaphat by turning to Jehovah for guidance and strength to cope with the problem they face. Do not feel ashamed to let your family hear such supplications. They will sense your trust in Jehovah. God helped Jehoshaphat, and he will also help you.”2
“What Do the Witnesses of Jehovah Have in St. Petersburg?” asked a May 5th post of MRKU (St. Petersburg).3 The article began: “The Supreme Court in fact recognized that Jehovah’s Witnesses were extremist. Now they are obliged to stop work immediately, which they already did. Further, apparently, for their property will come the new owners. And the property of these believers is good, especially in Petersburg.” Yes, the property of these believers is very good. They made it so. A bit down in the article is the heading: “Instead of a Dump the Built a Palace.”
Back in the 1990s, the article reports, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak presented the Witnesses a plot of land in both Solnechnoe and Komomyazh—a total of 11.5 hectares. It included the remains of a former Pioneer Camp consisting of residences, buildings, and a boiler house, from a construction company. There was also an unpleasant surprise—under the future building was found a hazardous waste dump. But the Witnesses paid for the complete remediation. They also agreed, as a condition, to pay a significant sum as their contribution to the development of the city.
Witnesses rebuilt the ruined camp and turned it into a well-landscaped lot. Fellow believers came from Finland, Sweden, and Norway to aid with the effort. The architect was Finnish. The construction work spanned ten years, from 1992 to 2002. It all belongs to “citizens of other countries, the Witnesses aver, and therefore it cannot be confiscated.” “What do the witnesses of Jehovah have in St. Petersburg?” MRKU asks? They answer their own question: “One of the most influential religious organizations in the world from now on in Russia was banned.”
Eight days after the ban, Lisa Mullins of WBUR interviewed a resident of the Witness’s branch facilities in St. Petersburg.4 His name is withheld. He stated: “For me and my wife we spent here for last 23 years. We live a happy and interesting life, now is everything changed. We have to stop our religious activity in St. Petersburg and our administrative center and we have to go somewhere else. Of course, it is very painful. Many cried. Some tried to be positive, but it’s emotional moment for every one of us because we built this administrative center. I spent one year building here, buildings and offices and everything with my friends from other countries, they all came to help us build our beautiful center and now we have to leave.”
Mullins asked about the evangelizing work—is it still taking place in Russia today? “Any activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses could be viewed as extremist activity,” was the reply. “You might be discussing the Bible with a neighbor and find that it is viewed as a criminal action subject to ten years imprisonment.” NW stated that reports were being received of people being beaten “not by police but by aggressive people who saw so many bad news from the government channel and after all this propaganda some people got angry and started to scream or even to beat some of our—we call brothers and sisters.” “So is it still happening, then?”—Mullins seeks to clarify with regard to the public ministry. “Some continue, some may be hesitant to do it. It’s difficult to say in whole Russia,” is the answer.
Conversation then turns to the reason for the ban. Why is it happening? “We have no answer for that question because we love our neighbors. We try to preach good news of the kingdom to all our citizen in Russia, our neighbors, and why government viewed as a threat—it is really difficult to understand. Some observers say that we are very fast growing or we are too active or that we are compete with the Orthodox church, but frankly say we are not competing with anybody but we are just doing what we have to do—what Jesus command us to do: go and preach in all nations, but as you know, our website JW.org is already banned in Russia, and from April 2015 no single copy of our literature came through the border because government decided to forbid any shipments of literature to Russia - even Bible was stopped at the border and sent to the Court for expert study on anti-extremism law basis. It means they want to pronounce our New World Translation Bible also extremist literature, which is—yeah, it is ridiculous.”
Mullins closes by inquiring whether NW fears he is putting himself in danger merely by speaking to her? The answer: “I don’t know—to be frank, I have no fear. if something will happen—okay it will happen—what I can do? What I am telling only the truth—then why I should fear? If something happens, okay, we will face this problem. For me it is easier because my family was exiled to Siberia. My father spent seven years in prison. My mother spent four years in prison. And I also myself spent one and a half years in prison for military service objection. That’s why I know what does it mean to be persecuted and I have no fear.”
“We were hoping the court would realize that we are not a threat,” said Robert Warren, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses from their New York world headquarters. “But now the environment is worse than ever.”5 Witnesses in Russia have been assaulted, fired from their jobs, and have suffered destruction of property. Witness children have been bullied by teachers. Repercussions have spilled over boundaries. In early May, a 61-year-old Jehovah’s Witness from neighboring Kazakhstan, a retired bus driver battling cancer, was sentenced to five years in prison and banned from preaching for three years after he gets out. But in late May there came a completely unexpected announcement: President Putin presented to Valery and Tatiana Novik, Jehovah’s Witnesses from Karelia, the Order of Parental Glory. Six of the eight Novikov children also attended the award ceremony.6
The Order is given to parents with many children who set an example in strengthening the institution of the family. An eligible awardee must head a socially responsible family that leads a healthy lifestyle, ensures the full and harmonious development of the children’s personality. They must display a high level of care for their health, education, physical, spiritual and moral development. In response, speaking about the spiritual and moral development of children, Valery Novik cited a text from the Bible, which serves as a guide for him, the parent. The words he uttered were from the New World Translation which can no longer be quoted because that Bible is extremist. So what he said, according to the NABRE was: “Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.”8
Look, I am probably all wet here, but it is just possible Putin is doing it to soften the blow against Jehovah’s Witnesses and/or to send a signal to intolerant ones that he is not with them. Perhaps it is akin to Eleanor Roosevelt putting in a good word for Witnesses during the outbreak of violence against them in the U.S.8 We err when we vilify him, in my opinion. When we do that, we are simply following the lead of the American media, whose reasons are political. If you watch Putin through any eyes other than that of the Western media, he does not come off as bellicose, sinister, or unreasonable. He heads a system of government that restricts some freedoms, so he is loathed in the West, where people are accustomed to a relative lack of restrictions.
Of course, national leaders all have departments of public relations—we mustn’t be naïve—but he simply does not display a villain’s appearance, given the authoritarian form of government he heads. The unbridled freedom of Western democracy has not worked well for Russians, and his actions display a pushback against some of it. I remain hopeful, perhaps naively so, that he is not at heart one of the instigators—that he has gone along for the ride but is troubled by the wave of violence against people that he, as a career person, doesn’t care for, but as a man, has nothing against and perhaps even regards with some favor. Perhaps he is like the Persian king, suddenly taking interest in what he has paid scant attention to previously, pondering what good thing should be done for Mordecai.9
He is careful to keep ties close with the Orthodox Church, but he may, at some point, no longer want to rubber stamp everything they do. Russia is painted in a bad enough light internationally as it is; he does not want to supply proof positive that the negative reports against his country are true. He wants Russia to take its rightful respected place among nations. He does not want to play hardball when there clearly is no reason for it.
Does the Witness religion break up families, as some have charged? The president of Russia has perhaps declared where he stands on that issue. The appeal of Russian Witnesses to the Supreme Court is to be heard in July. Perhaps it will not be the rubber stamp most people anticipate. Perhaps it will follow the pattern of the U.S. Supreme Court in the days of West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette, which reversed the unfavorable-for-Witnesses Gobitis decision made just three years earlier.10
Was Valery Novik like Esther? Was his conscience like Mordecai? Many Witnesses drew the analogy. In the days of Queen Esther, a scheme was launched to exterminate the Jews within King Ahasuerus’s realm. With other things on his mind, it appeared that the king had been maneuvered into endorsing it by enemies of the Jews. The queen, a Jew, at much personal risk, spoke up in behalf of her people and secured their deliverance. Her uncle Mordecai had exhorted her: “Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source….Who knows—perhaps it was for a time like this that you became queen.” Esther rose to the occasion and dangerously broke protocol with a volatile king, having resolved: “If I perish, I perish.” Her brave course won delivery for her people. Would the Novik family do the same for Witnesses in Russia?11
Let us not become overdramatic here. No one is risking his life to pick up his Grand Prize. Still, perhaps it was for a time like this that the Noviks became one of Russia’s families of good repute. We will know more when we see who President Putin gives the award to next. If it is to a family of the other extremists, an ISIS family, with bombs hanging from their belts, we will know that all of our speculations are for naught.
Eight governing members of Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to American prison in 1918, on violation of the Espionage and Sedition Act, mentioned previously. The religious press rejoiced. Dr. Ray H Abrams, in his book Preachers Present Arms, reports that “I have been unable to discover any words of sympathy in any of the orthodox religious journals.”12 By this measure, the Russian media’s response was almost cheery. Most of them rejoiced, but not all. One that did not was Novaya Gazeta, which ran an article summing up Witness beliefs with reasonable accuracy, if not proper order, and was sympathetic to their plight—taking for granted that they must continue to perform their ministry. Included were vignettes telling why some had become Witnesses and how they felt they had benefited from the faith.13 One woman said that she regretted only one thing—that she learned about the Bible too late to save her first marriage. Applying Bible principles would have done it, she felt, if she only had known them.
Said a man identified as Eugene, “In Russia, the image of Witnesses is being demonized. Previously, we also came up with many different names: the enemy of the people, sectarian, spy, now this is the fashion word: extremist.” He added “Witnesses do not take up arms, do not participate in wars and rallies. We will fight by purely legal methods. I do not understand why we are banned. But it seems to me that those who prohibit do not know the answer either.”
It had not been easy for them to start speaking to others of God, and they now felt unable to stop simply because it had been outlawed: “When I read that Jesus said, ‘Go and tell about me,’ I was so upset,” laughs Eugene. “Well, I did not want to go to anyone and communicate with anyone. It was hard for me, and now it’s given.” They hoped they would not have to flee Russia: “Even if the decision does not change, there is the European Court. We do not want to leave the country because of the ban. We love Russia. We love the Russian language. We love these people.”
Material is slotted for consideration at congregation meetings up to a year in advance. The material itself may have been written a year prior to that. Therefore, it is remarkable how worldwide “Christian Life and Ministry” meeting content seemed to parallel Russian developments. After the adverse April 20th verdict, the attention of individual Witnesses soon shifted to the appeal. Soon it was announced that such an appeal would be heard in July.
The uninitiated thinks that an appeal is a new trial, a second chance. It is not. It is a review of the first trial with the purpose of spotting procedural or constitutional errors. The verdict is not looked at anew unless errors are discovered. There were many errors in the original April 20th trial, but they were so blatant that it appeared nobody cared about errors. If they happened the first time, they would happen the second. However, hope springs eternal. Jehovah’s Witnesses advanced cause for optimism. They like optimism. By a single stroke of the pen all of their 396 registered organizations in Russia had been eliminated and their religious activity was prohibited. Just where does one start with that? They chose optimism.
Meeting content looked at similar events and court cases from other countries during that interim period leading up to appeal. Many thought one or all might prove a template for July. Perhaps somehow the Russian justices, upon learning their situation was not unique, would allow themselves to be instructed. The book God’s Kingdom Rules, then under consideration, summarized High Court victories in such countries as Switzerland, Romania, Netherlands, Serbia, Turkey, Greece, and the United States.14 A few other countries were also spotlighted for additional detail.
Of Nicaragua in 1953, the book stated: “Nicaraguans were amazed that the Supreme Court had sided with the Witnesses. Until then, the influence of the clergy had been so strong that the Court avoided conflicts with them. Also, the power of government officials was so great that the Court seldom went against their decisions.” Witnesses attributed their victory to their God and the fact they had continued preaching during difficult seasons.15
In Zaire, the association of Jehovah’s Witnesses was dissolved by presidential order on March 12, 1986, and the next day national radio announced: “We shall never hear of Jehovah’s Witnesses in [Zaire].” In short order, Kingdom Halls were destroyed, and Witnesses were accosted, robbed, and imprisoned. Seven trying years later, however, following the pattern of Gobitis, there was a reversal. The high “Court ruled that the government’s actions against the Witnesses had been unlawful, and the ban was lifted….Putting their own lives at risk, the justices had annulled a decision of the country’s president!”16
Perhaps Canada would be the place to watch. “Quebec’s Premier Maurice Duplessis, working hand in glove with Roman Catholic Cardinal Villeneuve, reacted to the tract [Quebec’s Burning Hate for God and Christ and Freedom Is the Shame of All Canada] by declaring a ‘war without mercy’ against the Witnesses….‘The police arrested us so many times we lost count,’ said a pioneer sister.”
“The trial court judge, who hated Witnesses, refused to admit evidence that proved the [defendant’s] innocence. Instead, he accepted the prosecution’s position that the tract stirred up ill will and thus the [defendants] should be found guilty…the brothers appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada,” which overturned the ruling. “Why? Brother Glen How, a lawyer for the Witnesses, explained that the Court agreed with the argument presented by the defense that ‘sedition’ requires incitement to violence or insurrection against government. The tract, however, ‘contained no such incitements and was therefore a lawful form of free speech.’…this victory broke the back of Quebec’s Church-State attack on the liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”17
The very week before the July 17th appeal of the Russian Supreme Court decision, added material involving Russia itself was considered at the weekly meeting, material that had been prepared up to two years beforehand. It was recounted how after decades of ban under the communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered in 1991, followed by formal legal recognition in 1992. The book God’s Kingdom Rules continued:
“Before long, however, some opposers—particularly those associated with the Russian Orthodox Church—were unnerved by the rapid growth in our numbers. Opposers filed a series of five criminal complaints against Jehovah’s Witnesses between 1995 and 1998. Each time, the prosecutor found no evidence of wrongdoing. The determined opposers then filed a civil complaint in 1998. The Witnesses prevailed at first, but the opposers rejected the verdict and the Witnesses lost on the appeal in May 2001. A retrial began in October of that year, leading to a decision in 2004 to liquidate the registered legal entity that the Witnesses use in Moscow and ban its activities.
“A wave of persecution followed. Witnesses faced harassment and assault. Religious literature was confiscated, renting or building houses of worship was severely restricted. Imagine how our brothers and sisters felt as they faced those hardships! The Witnesses had applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2001, and they submitted additional information to the Court in 2004. In 2010, the ECHR reached its decision. The Court saw clearly that religious intolerance was behind Russia’s ban on the Witnesses and ruled that there was no reason to uphold the decisions of the lower courts since there had been no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of any Witnesses. The Court further noted that the ban was designed to strip the Witnesses of their legal rights. The Court’s decision upheld the Witnesses’ right of freedom of religion. Although various Russian authorities have failed to comply with the ECHR ruling, God’s people in that land have drawn great courage from such victories.”18
In late June of 2017, a poll taken by the Levada Center revealed that 79% of Russian citizens approved of the ban. Was the poll timed to remind the judges that upholding the ban at the upcoming July 17th appeal date would be a fine thing, or is it but paranoia to think that? The figure means little in itself. The result depends upon how the question is asked, Chivchalov pointed out. If it is just a matter of stopping awkward unannounced calls about religion, then the figure would be replicated in many parts of the world; this author, too, takes cover when he spots persons unknown walking up his driveway. Get rid of them! is his first instinct. However, if the question is framed that violators might go to jail, get beaten up, and have property and belongings confiscated, the approval rate would likely drop sharply. For Russians are pretty much like people everywhere. Most are okay. A few are horrid.
“80% of the negative attitude toward Witnesses is due to media and state propaganda,” Boris Malyshev, of the Russian State Humanities University observed, and 20% due to the stereotyped mindset of citizens.” Few in the U.S. would consider the media hostile to them. Occasionally they are, but not consistently. Mostly they just botch the details of a religion they cannot get their heads around. But the Russian government recognizes only the four mainstream faiths, and all “the rest are considered an annoying misunderstanding,”19 Malyshev said. Witnesses are darkly perceived as “a purely American phenomenon.” Aleksei Levinson, of the Levada Center, confirms that “the state broadcasts the idea that there should be no religious minorities and the negative attitude toward Witnesses is intensified by reports about their links with ‘subversive foreign forces.’”
An organization must be based somewhere, but it is hard to paint Jehovah’s Witnesses as American, even though headquartered in New York State. Less than 15% of Jehovah’s Witnesses live in the United States. The rest are scattered throughout all countries, where they ever represent a tiny minority.20 Ironically, the other “off-grid” Christian faith with American headquarters is the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). It has over twice the concentration of members in America as do the Witnesses, and they are the most political of all faiths. Pew Research Center, in 2014, published a chart of political leanings by religion (29 faiths) and Mormons topped it, with 70% identifying as Republican, 19% as Democrat, and 11% as having no leaning.21 Jehovah’s Witnesses almost broke the chart, with a full 75% listed as having “no leaning (the next highest listing of that choice was Hindu with 26%),” 7% Republican and 18% Democrat. Yet the Mormons get their new church in Moscow, noted previously, while Jehovah’s Witnesses are losing their buildings. Don’t misunderstand. This writer does not begrudge the Mormons their new church. I am just vexed about ours.
About Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pew says that they “are taught to remain politically neutral and abstain from voting, [and they] stand out for their overwhelming identification as independents who do not lean toward either party. Three-quarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses put themselves in that category.” One might wonder why all of them do not. This writer’s take is that it is because persons self-identify for the Pew chart. The Watchtower organization, on the other hand, counts as members, not those who self-identify, but those who report some activity in the Christian ministry. I have little doubt that, of those, the figure would be in the 90th percentile.
Speaking at an early May joint news conference with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We have heard some very negative reports about the treatment of homosexuals in Chechnya and I asked President Vladimir Putin to use his influence to guarantee minority rights here as well as with Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Though she had mentioned the two in the same sentence, the BBC reported the gay plight and did not mention Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Associated Press also managed to edit Witnesses away, though most sources did not.22
It is seldom that the gay community and Jehovah’s Witnesses find common cause so that Angela Merkel can mention them in the same breath. American Witnesses thought it well that they were mentioned along with others suffering repression, but one Russian Witness said it said was not well. “Comparing JWs with gays is not a good thing in Russia,” she wrote. “Very few people will protect gays. I am afraid I can’t explain it but, believe me, it doesn’t sound good….Of course I don’t know, but hope report about [the intense persecution of] gay men is false. It is really hard to believe that there are alive gay men in Chechnya. They wanted to have gay parade in our city. And people wanted to beat them. Fortunately, the parade was forbidden because any gay propaganda is forbidden. Those gay men in Chechnya must be really brave…Russia doesn’t like minorities.”
There are gay men in Chechnya, and they are not faring well. In April, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta wrote of 100 men, thought to be gay, who were rounded up and tortured by government officials, spurred by concerns to head off that planned gay pride parade. Russia downplayed the incident, with the observation that “there were not gay men in Chechnya.”23
For the purposes of this narrative, religion reporter Joshua Gill picks up where Emily Baran leaves off. He uncovers a major piece of the puzzle. He connects the dots that few Witnesses knew existed, and fewer still knew of their interplay. One cannot thank him enough. Upon the lost appeal, Gill wrote in The Daily Caller:24
“The Russian Supreme Court’s July 17 ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses was the result of a decades long conspiracy funded by the French government, blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church, and sanctioned by the Putin administration….The latest phase of that plan first garnered international attention with Russian authorities’ arrest of a Danish citizen.” That would be Dennis Christensen, arrested May 25 for conducting a congregation meeting after the ban had gone into effect. Why is a foreign citizen the first person arrested? Is it to underline in bold the “No Tolerance” policy toward Witnesses? Arrest of a foreigner will surely draw the world’s attention more than arrest of a Russian, which is more easily written off as an internal affair and no concern of anyone else.
Gill spotlights the role of Alexander Dvorkin, the Russian Ministry’s Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies. That Council exists so as “to investigate religions that deviate from Russian Orthodox teaching and to recommend actions against those religions to the state.” They have recommended taking strong action on non-majority faiths. Mr. Dvorkin is also vice president of the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism (FECRIS), a French NGO dedicated to identifying as a “sect/cult or a guru the organization or the individual which misuses beliefs and behavioral techniques for his own benefit.” It is an organization fully funded by the French government, and it may be remembered that that government tried to eliminate Jehovah’s Witnesses by imposing a 60% tax on their activities in 1998. The tax was doggedly appealed by Jehovah’s Witnesses until it was struck down by the European Court of Human Rights fourteen years later.
The Daily Caller article reveals the depth of Dvokin’s misinformation and dislike of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Their adepts recruit failed university enrollees, and people on vacation as well [as though the two groups have everything in common, rather than nothing]; they have a wide range of psychological influence, especially on the unstable minds of adolescents and youths,” he says of both them and the Hare Krishnas. He has encouraged the public to “take part in the fight against sects, file complaints and collect raw data so that the local authorities can react quickly.” In a 2009 documentary called “Emergency Investigation: Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he compared Witnesses to drug dealers. The Journal for the Study of Beliefs and Worldviews attributes instances of public violence against Russian Witness members to that documentary. There is even a new app in Moscow with which to report sects, so that the “person or his relatives who got into the sect, now do not have to write statements, he can quickly send us information. There are agreements with law enforcement agencies and experts of the Ministry of Justice, they will process it, if something serious—automatically the information will come to the police.”25
It is impossible not to call to mind religious enemies of early times who instigated the violence against the original Christians, as related in Acts. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the foremost example among others, are more dangerous than Satanists, Dvorkin says, because they “conceal evil under the guise of good.” Counterintuitively, the Satanist Church of Moscow was not among the handful of groups he singled out. It has not been labeled extremist. It has also come out in enthusiastic support of the Witness ban.26
“Jehovah’s Witnesses Had Foes Before Putin” announced the Bloomberg headline the day after the decision to ban, with the subtitle: “Russia is reverting to Soviet-era restrictions on religion. But this denomination has survived worse.” The previously-quoted writer, Leonid Bershidsky, expressed no doubt that the “stubborn group” would fight on, but “the court has delivered another chilling reminder that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is even less free than the USSR was.”27
Witnesses in Russia will not intimidate easily because they have rarely known anything but persecution in Russia. Bershidsky recounts some history: “When, after Stalin's death, the state stopped systematically imprisoning them and switched to a harassment tactic, the flock started growing. By January 1991, when President Mikhail Gorbachev’s government officially permitted the organization, there were about 45,000 followers in the Soviet Union. They formed one of the most stubborn and resourceful resistance groups that ever existed in the Communist country.” Bershidsky then quotes Emily Baran: “They [under the Soviets] organized a highly complex underground organization, with its own finances, leadership structures, and internal reporting system that kept careful record of its members’ archives. While intellectual dissidents exercised caution in sharing their views with others who could denounce them, Witnesses spoke about their beliefs to complete strangers in an effort to convert them.”
The 1991 honeymoon between the government and Jehovah’s Witnesses was over almost as soon as it began. Witness promptly acquired over 100,000 new members, and that was enough for their opponents. Old unfavorable memes reappeared and were enhanced by some new ones in the guise of anti-cult crusading. Writes Bershidsky, “Russia has no more patience with openness and tolerance. Putin’s regime doesn’t care whether it passes any tests on that score. In a way, it’s as defiant as the Witnesses, and so far, it’s just as resilient. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been resilient for longer.”
Notwithstanding a certain clash of the titans air, mentioned previously, it is a fine article of support—well-informed. It is appreciated. But clashing is not what Witnesses want. All they desire is to exist. And to read the Bible. And to meet. And to spotlight Bible teachings. People do not “light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house,” says Jesus.28
Grant Witnesses these few concessions and they will be happy as pigs in mud. They won’t make any trouble. They will find out what are the rules of the national king for maintaining public order, which vary from country to country, and follow them. When the king levies taxes, they will pay them; they are known not to cheat in this regard. If they draw upon social services, they will draw upon them less than most groups. When it comes to police resources, they will draw upon these barely at all, provided those resources are not employed to prevent them from existing. Governments will have no trouble from them. Through personal and family morality, they will be a good influence, aiding governments in their own efforts to promote laudable qualities among their citizenry. It will be a win-win.
Was the letter-writing campaign of Jehovah’s Witnesses a waste of time and money? It dissuaded no one from imposing a ban on Witness activities. Other than earning a “Postal Glory” award from financially strapped postal systems, what exactly was accomplished?
Again, Witnesses like to put a good face on things theocratic. Mark Sanderson of the Governing Body gushed on about the “wonderful witness” that was given the world. And why not? What does the verse say? “You are my witnesses—oracle of the LORD—my servant whom I have chosen. To know and believe in me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, and after me there shall be none,” says Isaiah.29 And a psalmist declares: “Let them know that your name is LORD, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.”30 (As observed before, the modern trend is to remove the divine name. Some translations, though not the NABRE, have yet let it remain at this Psalm, since the passage sounds odd without it. The Russian synodal translation includes the name ten times. At the trial to ban the New World Translation, partly due to the name, the Witness attorney pointed out that it was engraved on the Constitutional Court building of St. Petersburg. Had those proceedings been held there, one can almost picture the judge going outside to check.)31 If one measures by these verses, the publicity campaign was a resounding success.
Moreover, it is hard to imagine a campaign that could so captivate and bind the Witness worldwide brotherhood. The witness given the world over appears to be lasting. Alexa.com, measuring worldwide web traffic, records two distinct spikes in traffic to the Witness website from search engines—just before the trial and just after the appeal.32 In the span of three months, the worldwide ranking of JW.org rose from #1200 to #800. People hear the charge that the website is extremist. Some visit to investigate, where they find that it is not.
Seen in this light, the Russian authorities are doing kingdom interests a great favor. It is a 21st century adaptation of Acts chapter 8: “On that day, there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria…those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” Opponents succeed in shutting down the good news locally. But not without much publicity, which ultimately intensifies the witness. In time, the kingdom message spills right back into where it was banned in the first place, stronger than before.33
Transcript: Steve Inskeep - Host, “Russia Labels Jehovah’s Witnesses An Extremist Group,” Morning Edition, April 21, 2017, accessed March 17, 2018, http://www.npr.org/2017/04/21/525010796/russia-labels-jehovahs-witnesses-an-extremist-group
- “Serve Jehovah With a Complete Heart,” The Watchtower – study edition, March 2017, 21
- “What Do the witnesses of Jehovah Have in St. Petersburg?” MK in Peter, May 5, 2017, accessed March 8, 2018, http://spb.mk.ru/print/article/1655820/ For English translation, see https://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/170505b.html
- Lisa Mullins, Interview: “Russian Government Cracking Down On Jehovah’s Witnesses,” NPR, April 28, 2017, accessed March 22, 2018, http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/04/28/russia-jehovahs-witnesses
- Lauren Markoe and Fred Weir, “Persecution in Russia and Kazakhstan worsens for Jehovah’s Witnesses,” The Christian Century, May 23, 2017, accessed March 22, 2018, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/persecution-russia-and-kazakhstan-worsens-jehovah%E2%80%99s-witnesses
- “The Family of Jehovah’s Witnesses Took the Order From the Hands of the Head of State,” Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, June 6, 2017, accessed March 8, 2018, https://jw-russia.org/news/17060606-176.html
- Proverbs 22:6
- Joel Engardio, “Russia’s Bans on Jehovah’s Witnesses,” American Civil Liberties Union, December 10, 2009, https://www.aclu.org/blog/russias-bans-jehovahs-witnesses
- Esther 6:1-3
- Hana M. Ryman and J. Mark Alcorn: “Pledge of Allegiance,” The First Amendment Encyclopedia, accessed March 22, 2018, https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1137/pledge-of-allegiance
- Esther 4:14
- Ray Hamilton Abrams, Preachers Present Arms (Round Table Press, Incorporated, 1933) 184
- Victoria Odissonova, “God Just has not Finished - 4 Days Before the Ban of ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ in Russia,” Novaya Gazeta, No. 75, July 14, 2017, accessed March 22, 2018, https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/07/13/73105-bog-prosto-esche-ne-doigral
- God’s Kingdom Rules (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 2014) 146-147
- Ibid., 143
- Ibid., 143-144
- Ibid., 138-139
- Ibid., 158-159
- Vladimir Dergachev, Anna Kovalenko, “Majority of Russians Support Ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” RBC News Agency, July 13, 2017, accessed March 8, 2018, https://www.rbc.ru/politics/13/07/2017/596650c09a79477e58e67e98?from=newsfeed. For English translation, see http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/170713d.html
- 2017 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, (Brooklyn, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 2017) 143
- Michael Lipka, “U.S. Religious Groups and Their Political Leanings,” Pew Research Center, February 23, 2016, accessed March 9, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/23/u-s-religious-groups-and-their-political-leanings
- Andreas Rinke and Denis Pinchuk, “Putin, Merkel, Struggle to Move Past Differences in Tense Meeting,” Reuters, May 2, 2017, accessed March 22, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-germany-putin-syria/putin-merkel-struggle-to-move-past-differences-in-tense-meeting-idUSKBN17Y1JC
- Shaun Walker, Russia Investigates ‘Gay Purge’ in Chechnya, theguardian.com, May 26, 2017, accessed March 22, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/russia-investigates-gay-purge-in-chechnya
- Joshua Gill, “The French Conspiracy With The Russian Orthodox Church That Destroyed The Jehovah’s Witnesses,” The Daily Caller, July 23, 2017, accessed March 22, 2018, http://dailycaller.com/2017/07/23/the-french-connection-how-the-russian-orthodox-church-and-the-putin-administration-colluded-with-a-french-ngo-to-destroy-the-jehovahs-witnesses/
- “In Moscow, Will Launch a Mobile Application With a Map of Religious Objects Before the End of the Year,” TASS News Agency, November 27, 2017, accessed March 9, 2018, http://tass.ru/obschestvo/4762790
- Jason Le Miere, “Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban Backed by Flourishing Satanic Church in Moscow,” Newsweek, May 12, 2017, accessed March 22, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/jehovahs-witnesses-russia-ban-satanic-church-608334
- Leonid Bershidsky, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Had Foes Before Putin,” Bloomberg.com, April 21, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-04-21/jehovah-s-witnesses-had-foes-before-putin
- Mathew 5:15
- Isaiah 43:10
- Psalm 83;18
- Anton Chivchalov, a tweet, December 6, 2017, accessed March 9, 2018, https://twitter.com/Chivchalov/status/938343479016554496
- https://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/jw.org One must not read too much into this, for there are constant fluctuations. Nonetheless, each spike (see the insert at web page bottom) reaches a new plateau that holds.
- Acts 8:1-4