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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Witnessing Religious Repression

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Some religions are widely admired even by people who do not share their doctrines. The Jehovah's Witnesses are not among them. For precisely this reason they provide an excellent test of a country's commitment to religious freedom. The March 26 Moscow court decision banning the Witnesses' activities in the capital is a long-term threat to every religion in Russia that takes its own beliefs seriously.

The Jehovah's Witnesses call themselves "Christian" but deny core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity. They have repeatedly predicted that the world is about to end. They discourage their members from reading religious or even nonreligious writings other than those of their own faith and put them under extreme pressure to engage in personal missionary work. A few years ago, using the Witnesses' own figures, I calculated that each of their active members in Russia was contributing an average of 216 hours of missionary service per year. I also concluded that it took the denomination 1,878 hours of missionary work to achieve just one conversion, contrary to their opponents' hysterical image of "zombies" cloning themselves via mass brainwashing.

Nevertheless, the Jehovah's Witnesses are perfectly legal in every country that meets minimal standards of religious freedom. Even France, at the height of its "cult scare" four years ago, produced a court ruling that the Witnesses are not a "menace to public order" and may therefore enjoy tax exemptions.

The recent Moscow court decision is significant for three reasons. First, it goes beyond previous repressive steps such as denying official registration to a religious organization. Without registration a religious body has no corporate right to rent buildings or to publish religious literature, but it can still conduct regular, publicly announced worship services in its members' homes. The Jehovah's Witnesses, however, will probably soon become the first national religious organization to have one of its local branches explicitly "banned" under the terms of the 1997 law that re-established state control over religious life. The court decision will not take legal effect until the Witnesses' appeal is decided, but their chances of winning on appeal do not look good.

That ban will deny the Witnesses' right to any form of collective religious activity, such as open worship services even in private homes. It may also breathe new life into the 1997 law, which despite its harsh provisions has been largely moribund in practice. If that law were strictly enforced, any religious organization founded later than the mid-1980s -- when Russia was still under totalitarian atheist rule -- would lose most of its legal rights. That would be the equivalent of suppressing every newspaper or political party founded since the dawn of glasnost.

The court ruling's second key feature is that the prosecution's reasoning could be used against almost any religion. While the judge's detailed opinion is not expected until mid-April, the public prosecutors' office for Moscow's northern administrative district argued in seeking the ban that the Jehovah's Witnesses incite inter-religious conflict. As evidence, municipal prosecutors noted that the Witnesses' publications claim that their religion is true and that others are false and argued that the Witnesses require their members to take part in so many activities "that no time is left for fulfilling family obligations, useful labor, family communication, recreation together and self-improvement."

You can easily imagine how atheist authorities might use this precedent against other believers. Any Christian body claiming to be the sole true heir of the early Church -- as nearly all used to and as the Orthodox Church still does -- could be convicted of inciting religious hatred. Truth claims by religious believers, unlike those by adherents of secular ideologies, would be illegal. Similarly, Orthodox monastic life would not long survive the Soviet-style assumption that religious activities are irrelevant to "useful labor" or "self-improvement."

Such reasoning will not soon be used against the Orthodox because the great majority of ethnic Russians still identify themselves as Orthodox -- but majorities are fickle. Only 3 to 4 percent of Russians seriously practice Orthodoxy; within a few generations they may find themselves as isolated as are serious Lutherans in Sweden, but without legal guarantees of religious freedom.

Thirdly, the case illustrates the secular authorities' tactics of "divide and rule." The prominent rabbi Berl Lazar made a carefully hedged comment that, "as regards confession of faith proper, that is, the relationship of a person with the Almighty, there cannot and should not be any restrictions of freedom. But as regards relationships among people, the law has the right to say its piece." Most other leaders of mainstream religions in Russia also failed to speak up for the Jehovah's Witnesses, making it more likely that when they in turn face repression, nobody will speak up for them.

Ironically, the Witnesses have also been guilty of selective commitment to religious freedom. Some years ago I visited Irkutsk, which has an artificially high concentration of Witnesses because Stalin exiled so many to Siberia. In Irkutsk the Witnesses are beneficiaries rather than victims of religious discrimination, enjoying free grants of land and other privileges denied Old Believers and many Protestants. They told me that church-state relations there are excellent.

Irkutsk is an extreme case. Several other regions have found the golden mean between that extreme and the one now triumphant in Moscow. John Burns, the Witnesses' lawyer, told me in a March 31 interview that until now "we have actually won most of our local court cases": Tatarstan, Lipetsk, Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Novgorod. But he warned that "Moscow sets the tone for the whole country." He is not optimistic about the future.

Lawrence Uzzell is president of International Religious Freedom Watch. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.