Russian Crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses Scatters Them to Finland and Elsewhere

Russian security agents from the FSB (the successor to the KGB) and members of the Russian National Guard are on the hunt for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The religious organization was banned by Russia’s Supreme Court a year ago; the justices ruled that the Watchtower tribe promotes “extremism.” Citizens found to be Jehovah’s Witnesses face six to ten years in jail. Small-scale raids against the religion seem to be on the increase. The Barents Observer writes that

On Friday, Murmansk regional authorities’ newspaper Murmanski Vestnik reported about raids made by FSB and the National Guard of Russia (Rosgvardia) in Polyarny on the Kola Peninsula.

Two local residents were detained under suspicions of being members of the administrative center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, organizing teaching and meetings where reading of banned religious literature took place. Searches were carried out at six addresses in Polyarny.

The town is home to a naval yard and several of the diesel-powered submarines and other warships of the Northern Fleet have Polyarny as [their] homeport. …

Viewed with skepticism for [refusing] military service, voting and refusal to take blood [transfusions], the members are seen as … a threat to themselves, their children, and public safety.

Not sure why the part about the warships is relevant. Whatever you may think of the faith’s adherents, non-violence is part of their core doctrines, and it’s unlikely that they pose a military threat of any kind — much less against a world power.

In fact, the whole thing seems pretty absurd to me. If individual Witnesses are guilty of actual crimes and misdemeanors — child molestation, fraud, sedition, refusal to serve, what have you — then why not prosecute and punish them under the same laws that apply to everyone else? Surely, people meeting peacefully to read their in(s)ane holy texts can hardly undermine a state as mighty as Vladimir Putin‘s.

Russia’s population is 144 million. Before the 2017 ban, the country had about 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. That amounts to a speck of just over 0.12 percent of the total populace.

I can maybe see cracking down on open proselytizing (though I’m pleased that that would never fly in the U.S., where we are all protected by the First Amendment), but wholesale repression of the sort the Russian state is now pursuing sure looks like a serious human-rights violation.

What’s the point of the ban, and of the raids? One reason seems to be that the dominant Christian Orthodox Church in Russia doesn’t like competition:

One pamphlet distributed by the group quoted the novelist Leo Tolstoy as describing the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church as superstition and sorcery.

Officials have accused the religion of destroying families, propagating hatred and endangering lives. The Church had also joined calls for a ban.

By now, most Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia seem to have been driven underground, and some of the higher-profile ones will effectively become martyred (always a dangerous phenomenon).

Then there are those attempting to flee for a more hospitable environment. That mini-exodus has already begun:

A wave of practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses are fleeing Russia. More than a thousand people are now seeking asylum in several European countries, including Finland, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported earlier this winter.

That number is sure to increase as long as armed agents of the state continue their handiwork.

Other countries where Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and China — collectively, a rogues’ gallery of illiberalism and oppression.

(Thanks to Marjorie for the link. Image via Shutterstock)

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