Over the last week, Jehovah’s Witnesses globally have been frantically writing and mailing letters to the Kremlin expressing their indignation at Russia’s likely ban of their religion, which would inevitably lead to intensified harassment of the 170,000-strong Witness community.
The move comes after the Russian Ministry of Justice, on March 15, filed a claim at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation aimed at liquidating the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia on the grounds of extremism.
In a video posted to the organization’s “JW Broadcasting” video website, Governing Body member Mark Sanderson conveyed his dismay that, quite apart from the seizure of Watchtower property, the ban could lead to individual Witnesses being “criminally prosecuted for meeting together for worship, for sharing their faith with others, or even for reading the Bible together.”
In addition to addressing Russian Witnesses directly with a message of solidarity - in the Russian language, no less - Sanderson issued a rallying call for the 8 million worldwide followers of the faith to inundate Vladimir Putin and various other Russian leaders and officials with written pleas for a change of heart.
Reaction to the ban outside Russia has been almost universally one of surprise and condemnation. “The Russian government’s latest actions appear designed to eliminate the legal existence of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” observes Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “If the Supreme Court rules in April that this group is ‘extremist’ it would mark the first time that Russia legally has banned a centrally-administered religious organization and would effectively criminalize all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activity nationwide. USCIRF calls on the Russian government to stop its harassment of this peaceful religious group.”
And yesterday Watchtower posted a video to the “Newsroom” of JW.org, its main website, featuring Heiner Bielefeldt - Former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Bielefeldt is quoted as saying: “If Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremist, I think we all are.”
A unique perspective
Since I am a former Jehovah’s Witness “apostate” who continues to experience shunning by his believing Witness family members simply for having a change of heart about the religion of his birth, you might expect me to be rubbing my hands with glee at Russia’s heavy-handedness. But you would be wrong.
Please understand, I have no warm, fuzzy feelings toward Mark Sanderson or the rest of the Governing Body leadership. Though they would vehemently deny it, their teachings are the cause of a great deal of distress and trauma in the lives of many - especially since 1981, when a Watchtower magazine (September 15 issue, to be exact) effectively made it impossible to leave the organization for conscientious reasons without being shunned.
As a result of this sweeping rule change decades ago, my two-year old daughter still has not met her grandfather, my father, who is shunning my wife and I because we have left his religion.
This bizarre measure, the equivalent of Scientology’s “disconnection” practice, is replicated in countless Witness families whenever anyone baptized into the faith - often when they are high school age or younger - decides to part company. The cruel practice was rubber stamped in a series of videos at last year’s “Remain Loyal to Jehovah” convention, in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were effectively told to not even answer the phone if a disfellowshipped son or daughter calls.
According to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, anybody should be allowed to both have or leave a religion if they so choose. The Witness leadership routinely violates this provision through its shunning policy, and yet in multiple countries they are still allowed to enjoy tax exemptions and even charitable status for their work.
All things considered, hopefully you can understand why I cannot quite bring myself to concur with Beilefeldt’s claim that “if Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremist, I think we all are.” Shunning and the covering up of child abuse (Jehovah’s Witnesses have been found to be doing the latter on an industrial scale by the Royal Commission in Australia) may not constitute extremism in the traditional sense, but these areas of abuse, enshrined in Watchtower teachings and official policy, certainly have a devastating impact on people’s lives.
So, why am I and many other Jehovah’s Witness “apostates” against the banning of our former faith? Put simply, because two wrongs do not make a right.
If there is one thing I have come to appreciate more than anything since walking away from religion and becoming an atheist, it is that human rights are an essential component of the progress of humanity. Start tampering with them, or dismissing certain rights as inconvenient, and the whole fabric of civilization begins to unravel. We start to slide into the sort of grim dystopia envisioned by Orwell.
Just because the leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses have no real regard for religious freedoms, this does not mean their followers deserve to be stripped of these same freedoms by a government that should be serving and protecting them. For example, though my Witness father (an elder in the organization) is shunning me, my wife and child, I cannot bear the thought of him being interrogated, harassed or thrown in prison simply for what is going on in his mind. I consider him to be a victim, and victims deserve kindness and patience - not cruelty and aggression.
This brings me to a further compelling reason why banning Jehovah’s Witnesses in any country is a terrible idea: it does nothing but feed into their persecution narrative and drive them underground where the abuses can continue, only this time without any hope of intervention from the outside world.
“Many cult members are already indoctrinated with an ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” observes cult expert Steven Hassan, author of the book Combating Cult Mind Control. “If they feel the threat of government agencies, this will reinforce their beliefs and make them more devoted. Instead of agreeing to comply with authorities, dedicated followers are often likely to just go underground but become more committed to the cult. They will see themselves as part of a persecuted group and view the ban as evidence that the outside world is dangerous. Banning cults does not stop them from existing, it only forces them to become more secretive.”
Sadly, the looming ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses is already being enthusiastically pointed to by the Witness hierarchy as evidence that they are God’s one true faith. “It may seem that nothing like this could happen in the country where you live. However, all of us should seriously reflect on the times in which we live,” urged Sanderson in the aforementioned video. “The relative stability we may currently experience could change very quickly. While the conditions of this world rapidly deteriorate, and with the Great Tribulation so near at hand, we must prove ourselves ready.”
Ironically, it could be argued that oppression in Russia is only fuelling the Watchtower leadership by artificially substantiating their grim, apocalyptic world view. Otherwise, Witnesses in the region are already on the decline.
In 2016, Witness numbers in Russia dropped by 2,562 compared to the previous year. Similar reductions were also reported in neighboring Poland (-2,071) and Ukraine (-1,008).
The information age is wreaking havoc on Witnesses globally all by itself without any backward, brutish regime dropping the ban hammer. It is sobering to consider that, simply by simulating the Great Tribulation (the prelude to Armageddon) and making world events appear to conform to Watchtower’s doomsday narrative, the Kremlin could end up stifling the growing exodus from the faith, or even reverse it altogether.
For more information on the beliefs, practices and history of Jehovah’s Witnesses, please check out my book “The Reluctant Apostate: Leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses Comes at a Price” - available on Amazon.