Dennis Christensen “has spent the last 20 months in a cold cell with suspected drug dealers and only been allowed to meet his wife, separated by bars and a corridor, twice a month. If convicted, he could spend up to a decade in jail,” writes Andrew Osborn for Reuters. How much do you want to bet that those drug dealers now know their Bibles quite well? Alas, that may make them more unwelcome in Russia than had they landed the area distribution franchise for Drugs-R-Us.
He must have his moments of despondency. He must. But you would never know it. He is serene in appearances, and sometimes even cheerful. Jehovah’s Witnesses could not have wished for better examples to face the Russian bear than he and his wife Irene. See how he typifies the spirit of 1 Peter 2:23:
“Christ suffered...leaving you a model for you to follow his steps closely.... When he was being reviled, he did not go reviling in return. When he was suffering, he did not go threatening, but kept on committing himself to the one who judges righteously.”
Has he wavered in his love for his adopted homeland? He “does not regret that he moved to live in Russia. ‘It is one of the best decisions that I have made in my life, and it brought me much happiness,’” he tells the Reuters reporter. This despite his being anything but starry eyed. “To call me or other peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses extremists is the greatest stupidity that I have ever heard!” he says. “Of course I hope that he (the judge) will be just,” he said. “But I also know which country I’ve been living in.”
Only a month ago, President Putin, when asked, stated that the equating of Jehovah’s Witnesses with terrorists was “of course...complete nonsense,” something “you need to carefully deal with,” and later, “so this should be looked into” since “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too.” We may soon learn just how carefully he means to deal with and look at it, as the time of Dennis’s sentencing has arrived. As for Irena, “I’m not afraid of anything and Dennis is not afraid either,” she told Reuters.
I have never seen a picture of him in which he is not mild, even well dressed. He actually broke into song at one hearing via Internet, before the guard told him to shut up. Could one ask for a better example? The symbolism is complete. His surname points to the one he follows. Even his carpenter profession lines up. Even his last project as a free man spotlights the idiocy of branding him an “extremist”—building a playground for the community children. Would members of the only other group in Russia officially designated “extremist,” ISIS, also build a playground for the community children? Maybe, but it would be a long time gaining my trust to let my children play on it. On January 23, the prosecutor requested a sentence of 6 years and 6 months in prison. Why not add 6 days to the request to make it a nice, biblical 666?
It’s déjà vu for Jehovah’s Witnesses in that country, whose period of freedom has lasted only 17 years. “The only difference is that at that time [of the Soviet Union] they were called ‘enemies of the people’. Now they are called ‘extremists’,” says Irena.
Journalist Osborn does what all journalists must do. He probes for the actual reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses are opposed. Usually all one must do in such cases is read the charges of the prosecution, but here in the Christensen case the charges are ridiculous, and the ‘crimes’ easily refuted. So Osborn hits on one spot of contention after another, but presently puts his finger on the real trigger: “Russia has been the most outspoken in portraying it as an extremist cult.” He refers, perhaps unknowingly, to a burgeoning anti-cult movement which finds conditions fertile in Russia for a perfect storm, but which is active everywhere.
The reason that Putin declares it complete nonsense to call Witnesses “extremist” is because it is. As such, he and his in government would never have dreamt of doing such a thing. However much any of them may dislike Jehovah’s Witnesses, ISIS has taught them what extremism is. They are not so stupid as to confuse the two.
Likewise, the dominant Russian Orthodox Church did not originate the ban against the Witnesses. That is not to say that some of them did not squeal with delight like kids on Christmas morning, but it was not their idea. The thinkers there are not particularly happy about it, for the same set of laws that declare it a crime to proclaim the superiority of one’s religion in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses might easily be turned against them.
No, problems with the Church and the suspicious government merely make for excellent tinder. The spark that sets it off Osborn identifies with: “Russia has been the most outspoken in portraying it as an extremist cult.” It is a determined anti-cult movement that sets the match to the tinder. It is not even Russian originated, but like Bolshevism itself, is a Western import. Religion writer Joshua Gill has outlined how a French NGO dedicated to protecting people from ideas considered socially destructive—the manifest goal of anti-cultism--sent a well-known emissary to Russia who spread that view with missionary zeal, maximizing his existing status with the Russian Orthodox Church.
The anti-cult movement ever seeks to extend its reach. Only in Russia does it find conditions ripe for the perfect storm, but its influence is afoot everywhere. The match was even literal in 2018 Washington State, where six attacks resulted in two Kingdom Halls burnt to the ground. Of course, that is not the intent—to incite violence. Anti-cultists speak against it, for the most part. But when you yell “CULT!” in a crowded theater, who can say what will happen? The correct term, non-incendiary and chosen by scholars for just that reason, is “new religious movement.”
Assembling material in preparation for ‘Dear Mr. Putin – Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia,’ I became more and more convinced that the anti-cult movement was behind it all, and it is a conviction that has only strengthened since. In the book’s introduction, I wrote:
“Does Kuraev really mean to suggest that prosecution presented no intelligible arguments at the Supreme Court trial? An observer of the trial might well think it. He might well wonder just what does the government have against Jehovah’s Witnesses? There must be something, but it is not stated. At one point the judge asked the prosecution (the Ministry of Justice) whether it had prepared for the case. A decision had been plainly made somewhere from on high and it would fall upon the judge to rubber-stamp it. Of course, he did, perhaps because he wanted to remain a judge. The actual reasons behind anti-Witness hostility were never presented. So I have presented them in Part II, along with how they might be defended.”
I even went on to caution members of my own faith:
“Some Witnesses, truth be told, will be uncomfortable with Part II and might best be advised to skip over it. They will love the idea of defending the faith but may be unaware of the scope of the attacks made against it, some of which are truly malicious. Deciding to sit out this or that controversy will earn them taunts of ‘sticking one’s head in the sand’ from detractors, but it is exactly what Jesus recommends, as will be seen. Not everyone must immerse themselves in every ‘fact,’ for many of them will turn out to be facts of Mark Twain’s variety: facts that “ain’t so.” You can’t do everything, and most persons choose to focus on matters most directly relevant to their lives.”
That caution is repeated, with even greater applicability, in the newer ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ The book is not recommended to all Witnesses. Read it if you want a specific reply to charges laid against the faith. For those able to focus upon forward motion only, the book is not recommended. For those not, it is. The line that invariably gets the largest applause at Regional Conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses is: “Would you like to send your greetings to the brothers in Bethel [headquarters]?” The hard work and integrity of these ones is appreciated by all. So not everyone will feel the need to check out every derogatory report.
In some respects, the Witness organization appears to this writer to be out of step with regard to the attacks it faces today. With a long history of persevering in the face of religious threats to stomp it out of existence, it seems slow to acknowledge that religions are mostly licking their wounds these days, and it is the irreligious world, with anti-cultists in the vanguard, that most vehemently presses for its downfall.
At a December 11. 2018 meeting with the Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, one council member, Ekaterina Shulman, addressed President Putin: “There is a list of organizations, for which there is information that they are involved in terrorism and extremism. There are 489 of them, and 404 of them are Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Pressing her luck, she continued: “Here I will take a sinister pause. There could be an abundance of claims against Jehovah’s Witnesses—they don’t allow blood transfusion, don’t send children to hospitals, [ed: not a charge that I have heard before] but they definitely are not calling for violence or committing it.”
Putin’s response was: “We should treat the representatives of all religions in the same way – this is true, but still, it is also necessary to take into account the country and the society in which we live. True, this does not mean at all that we should include representatives of religious communities in some destructive, or even in terrorist organizations. Of course, this is complete nonsense, you need to carefully deal with it. Here I agree with you.”
Later in the meeting, Putin returned to the topic and added: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too. I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into. This must be done.” The Washington Post and Time picked up on the story the next day, the Post saying that he “has pledged to look into the reported persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Now, what to make of this?
Yaroslav Sivulski, the press secretary for JWs in Russia, stated: “We have noted the president’s reaction with surprise. If he knows about the whole situation, then probably his reaction could change something. We hope that he will give instructions to have the matter examined and something may happen. Though, knowing the realities of our country, there is not much optimism.” Okay, so they’re not breaking out the champagne just yet.
The online community of Jehovah’s Witnesses was a cynical bunch, by and large, with many thinking Putin was just being slippery. In fact, since translating from Russian to English poses challenges, one Witness understood him to say: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are also Christians, for which I do not really understand how to persecute them,” as though he was searching for more effective ways to do it. Hmm. Did he say “I really do not understand how to persecute them” or “I really do not understand how they are persecuted”? It is the six-million-dollar question. It is a little like the Twilight Zone episode in which the earthlings were relieved to find the alien’s handbook “To Serve Man.” ‘Ahh, it means their intentions are good,’ and they breathed easily, but at the show’s end they discovered to their discomfort that it was a cookbook.
I tend to take President Putin’s remarks at face value. There is no reason that he has to say what he does, even expanding it to ‘Jehovah’s Witness are also Christians,’ contradicting prominent religious people who say they are not. When his Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who was also among the officials that Witnesses contacted via a letter campaign launched in hopes of averting the 2017 ban, was asked a similar question last year, he could not have answered more harshly than he did. I think Putin is being genuine, at last waking up to something that he has barely paid attention to. Maybe it is like the hinge squeaking in the background somewhere that he has barely noticed but now it is driving him nuts. Perhaps he will even pick up his WD-40, go lubricate it himself, and subsequently vent his wrath upon whoever allowed such idiocy to take center stage in the first place, painting his country before all the world as a nation of goons--in the spirit of Ahasuerus avenging Haman.
A president is a busy man. It is popularly believed that anything that goes down in a country will have his fingerprints all over it, but this is seldom so for matters of ‘low priority.’ Of course, this is not low priority for Witnesses, but it can hardly be otherwise for him. At a subsequent news conference, he spoke to the danger of nuclear war, which he hopes the West does not get too cavalier about: “The danger of the situation escalating is being downplayed,” he said, adding that the lowering of thresholds for nuclear capability “could really lead us to catastrophe.” If he loses sleep at night, it is not over the travails of a small religion. It is over the thought of the world going up in flames.
Western media excoriates him, but it cannot be wise to let the propaganda of one king mold our view of the other. I was very careful, in writing the book, Dear Mr. Putin – Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia, not to do that. In the event it was ever read by anyone that mattered, I did not want to sabotage it by being disrespectful or accusing.
It wasn’t that hard to do—for example, by spotlighting the two, likely three, times that Russia, not the United States, saved the world from certain nuclear war. Lieutenant Colonel Petrov spotted an incoming missile from the U.S. on his screen, correctly judged it a malfunction, and against orders, did not relay the report to the excitable Kremlin. Second-in-command Vasili Arkhipov refused to sign-off with his two fellow officers to launch a nuclear attack during the Cuban missile crisis—thwarting an attack that had to have unanimous backing. Nikita Khrushchev arguably brought that crisis to a close with his last-minute telegram to President Kennedy.
However, in refraining from criticizing Putin personally, I was not just being expedient. I honestly came to feel it not likely that he was one of the instigators. I admit that feeling wavered in view of the abuses of the last few months, with Witnesses physically accosted by police, but now it intensifies. Promisingly, he is not cut from the same cloth as many in high government. He was not born to privilege in the ruling class. He started from the ground up, as a regular office worker, and lived with his parents during the early days of his working life. He thus probably retains a feel for the interests of the ‘common man’ that his co-rulers do not. In the end, it hardly matters, because ‘the heart of a king is as streams of water’ in Jehovah’s hands. But it helps if it is neither ice cubes nor steam to begin with.
He didn’t have to say it, is the point. He could have issued some boiler-plate beatitude of how ‘the situation is serious and we continue to monitor it closely.’ He certainly didn’t have to say that Witnesses are Christian too, thus showing that he will not be shoved around by ones who insist they are not. His statement makes it much harder for Russia to thumb its nose at any upcoming ECHR verdict, indicating that he has no intention of doing that. How can his words not ease the pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses in that country? After all, if you were a Russian cop, would YOU violently accost one after what he just said?
Still, he is conscious of the majority. How much freedom of worship will be restored remains to be seen, since he observes that with 90% of the country being of a certain religious orientation, one cannot throw everything overboard so as to please the “sects.” It is enough not to persecute them, which he seems inclined not to do. Maybe the brothers will have to tip-toe around for a while, and it will not necessarily be a bad thing for our people to focus on being discreet. That has long been the direction of theocratic training, anyhow. If Putin truly had evil intent, however, he would not have returned to the topic to say that he doesn’t really understand why Jehovah’s Witnesses are persecuted. Now let’s see how well he holds up as the more devious ones labor to ‘educate’ him on the topic. We will see whose resolve prevails. Probably, JW representative Sivulsky has it just right: he is surprised and cautiously optimistic.
In some respects, it may prove a replay, with hopefully different outcome, of the situation with Pilate judging Jesus. Pilate knew that he was being set up. He knew Jesus was innocent. He worked rather hard to free him—that much is clear by reading any one of the gospel accounts, and the conclusion is inescapable upon reviewing all of them. But the scoundrels were so insistent, even hinting that to release Jesus would be treasonous, that he eventually caved. After all, it wasn’t his prime concern. He had a province to run. He tried to do the right thing. That’s how it is with many today. They try to do the right thing, but they only try so hard. When the going gets rough, they opt for expediency.
The Russian Orthodox Church has insisted that it did not instigate the ban and I am inclined to believe them. That is not to say that prominent ones were not delighted at the outcome, or that some instigators did not have Church connections. But the villainy stems from an anti-cult movement, with French connections, that is active in many lands. Conditions in Russia were ripe, that’s all, just like they were ripe for Communism 100 years ago, which was also imported from abroad.
Writing ‘Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia’ took the better part of a year. There were few publicly available online sources that I did not read during this time, save only for those that were repetitive. The most telling report was one by Joshua Gill, a religion writer, revealing from where most of the trouble came.
“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, 2017 for conducting a congregation meeting after the ban had gone into effect, and still in prison at this time of writing, (December 2018) his case only recently coming to trial.
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 steadfastly 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; they have a wide range of psychological influence, especially on the unstable minds of adolescents and youths,” he says of 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, just as the violence visiting Kingdom Halls in Washington State is similarly stoked by the inflammatory use of the C-word. Is the FECRIS mission of identifying as a “sect/cult or a guru the organization or the individual which misuses beliefs and behavioral techniques for his own benefit” not exactly the battle cry of the anti-cultists worldwide?”
Mine was the minority view among the Witnesses I spoke with. “You are a better Christian than I am,” one said. “You always expect the best from people. I don’t believe a word a politician says.” Note that his distrust is of “a politician,” not of Putin specifically, though he hardly sings his praises. One could even say that it is a sign of being “insular”—they are all the same to him. Having said that, they are all the same to many persons today—it is hardly a quirk of him alone. Why, long ago Mark Twain even said that politicians must be changed as frequently as a diaper—and for the same reason.
It is true that I try to think the best of people. Am I a “better Christian” in this instance? Or just a dumber one? Time will tell.
From the book: 'TrueTom vs the Apostates!'