Rus­sia Comes Knock­ing

The Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses are no strangers to ha­rass­ment. But they may be about to be dealt a fi­nal blow

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK - By Katie Davies k.davies@ime­ | Il­lus­tra­tion by Sofia Miroe­dova

Af­ter more than a decade of le­gal wran­gling, con­tro­ver­sial anti-ter­ror­ism laws are set to de­liver a fi­nal blow to Rus­sia’s em­bat­tled Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses. For years, Rus­sia has chased the group in a game of cat and mouse. Au­thor­i­ties have held ship­ments of bibles at the bor­der. Meet­ing houses across the coun­try have been shut­tered. Po­lice have raided Sun­day ser­vices.

But now the group’s reli­gious lead­ers say their sit­u­a­tion is crit­i­cal. Pros­e­cu­tors who call the group an ex­trem­ist sect — re­spon­si­ble for tear­ing fam­i­lies apart and in­doc­tri­nat­ing young peo­ple — are now set to ban Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses from the coun­try for good.

“We con­sider this a se­ri­ous threat,” Robert Warren, a spokesper­son for Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses In­ter­na­tional, told The Moscow Times. “This de­ci­sion could in­flu­ence not just Rus­sia, but the whole for­mer Soviet Union.”

Ac­cord­ing to Warren, Rus­sia’s 175,000 Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses now fear reprisals in­spired by the govern­ment’s cam­paign: “We feel this move will ac­tu­ally spark real ex­trem­ist ac­tiv­ity against our be­liev­ers.”

A Tight­en­ing Noose

The loom­ing clo­sure comes at the end of a drawn-out le­gal process, di­rected against re­gional and na­tional branches of the group.

Re­gional branches have long been viewed with sus­pi­cion by govern­ment of­fi­cials. The group was banned out­right in the Rus­sian city of Ta­gan­rog in 2014. Other bans quickly fol­lowed in Sa­mara and Abinsk.

Then, in early 2016, the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses’ cen­tral head­quar­ters near St. Peters­burg was is­sued an of­fi­cial warn­ing to halt “ex­trem­ist ac­tiv­ity.” The warn­ing ar­rived at the same time as the or­ga­ni­za­tion was banned in five more Rus­sian re­gions: Bel­go­rod, Biro­bidzhan, Elista, Oryol and Stary Oskol.

The group’s fi­nal ap­peal against the warn­ing was re­jected in Jan­uary 2017. Now, au­thor­i­ties can now use any vi­o­la­tion of the anti-ter­ror law, in­clud­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of ‘ex­trem­ist’ ma­te­ri­als, to jus­tify shut­ter­ing the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness head­quar­ters and the or­ga­ni­za­tion across the coun­try.

A num­ber of al­leged in­fringe­ments of the anti-ter­ror laws were since dis­cov­ered dur­ing an “un­sched­uled in­spec­tion” of the Je­ho­vah’s head­quar­ters last month. As part of the raid, the or­ga­ni­za­tion was forced to hand over 73,000 pages of doc­u­ments. They were also asked to dis­close the names of its 2,277 min­is­ters lead­ing Rus­sian con­gre­ga­tions, a re­quest they re­fused.

Tol­er­a­tion in Mod­er­a­tion

While the au­thor­i­ties have the power to shut down the church, they might not ac­tu­ally fol­low through with the threat, says Ro­man Lunkin, head of the cen­ter for the study of Reli­gion and So­ci­ety at the Rus­sian Acad­emy of Sci­ences’ Euro­pean In­sti­tute.

“Un­like dur­ing the Soviet era, Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties are not try­ing to de­stroy reli­gion in gen­eral,” he says. “They will tol­er­ate many ‘sus­pi­cious’ sects or reli­gions as a ‘nec­es­sary evil’ in­clud­ing the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses, Pentecostal churches and some Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties.”

Rather, the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are af­ter con­trol, Lunkin says. This con­trol could come from the im­pend­ing threat of clo­sure, or by liq­ui­dat­ing the church’s cen­tral head­quar­ters.

“By do­ing this, of­fi­cials will be able to bet­ter con­trol these com­mu­ni­ties and mon­i­tor the groups scat­tered across the coun­try,” says Lunkin

Ex­trem­ist Bibles

More con­cern­ing for some an­a­lysts is the way Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties are us­ing anti-ex­trem­ism laws, de­signed to com­bat ter­ror­ists to gain con­trol over prob­lem­atic parts of so­ci­ety.

Alexan­der Verkhovsky, di­rec­tor of Moscow’s SOVA Cen­ter, which mon­i­tors abuses of anti-ex­trem­ism leg­is­la­tion, says au­thor­i­ties have seized on a dra­co­nian in­tepre­ta­tion of anti-ex­trem­ism leg­is­la­tion in a bid to close the Je­ho­vah’s head­quar­ters.

“The prob­lem is that those laws are badly for­mu­lated,” he said. “It’s very dif­fi­cult for these or­ga­ni­za­tions to ex­ist with­out vi­o­lat­ing one law or an­other.”

Law en­force­ment agen­cies have fo­cused on the “ex­trem­ist” lit­er­a­ture which Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses dis­trib­ute on streets or door-to-door.

Govern­ment-ap­pointed ex­pert pan­els, which gen­er­ally work as a three-per­son team com­prised of a psy­chol­o­gist, lin­guist and the­ol­o­gist, have so far banned more than 80 Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses pub­li­ca­tions. In most cases, the cen­sures are for “por­tray­ing other reli­gions in a neg­a­tive light,” or for try­ing to per­suade Rus­sian men to avoid com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice.

Not ev­ery­one agrees with the ex­pert con­clu­sions.

Lunkin and Verkhovsky fear that anti-ex­trem­ism laws are of­ten used un­fairly by overzeal­ous pros­e­cu­tors.

“There is a gen­eral ten­dency to [use these laws] to in­crease the po­lice’s in­flu­ence on the public sphere,” Lunkin says. “This af­fects reli­gion too.”

With sweep­ing new anti-ter­ror leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced in Rus­sia last year, the prob­lem is set to get worse.

“The leg­is­la­tion we’ve seen comes into play be­tween 2015 and 2016, forc­ing reli­gious groups to reg­is­ter and in­creas­ing sur­veil­lance of mis­sion­ary work is the most de­struc­tive and re­pres­sive we’ve seen for many years,” says Lunkin.

The Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses are among the first groups to feel the full st­ing of that new leg­is­la­tion. But they say that they will con­tinue to wor­ship re­gard­less.

“My par­ents were ex­iled to Siberia be­cause they were Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses,” says Yaroslav Sivul­skiy, a spokesper­son for the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses in Rus­sia. “They wor­shipped even while they were in those camps. We will con­tinue too.”

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