Jehovah’s Witnesses have historically served as a bellwether for religious freedom for other minority groups. In Russia, that includes evangelicals, who remain ambivalent over whether to defend the rights of Witnesses as a fellow non-Orthodox faith. The Russian Justice Ministry submitted a Supreme Court lawsuit to label the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters an extremist group. This would allow Russia to enact a countrywide ban on its activity, dissolving its organization and criminalizing its worship. The court will convene to rule on the case in April.
“Considering that the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is professed by hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, [liquidation] would be a disaster for rights and freedoms in our country,” said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters. The ban would impact about 175,000 followers in 2,000 congregations nationwide. “Without any exaggeration, it would put us back to the dark days of persecution for faith.”
Though both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Evangelicals have been restricted and punished by Russia’s recent anti-missionary law, evangelicals can’t necessarily expect the same treatment. “No one else is in a comparable position to that of the Jehovah’s Witness community,” said Alexander Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis.
Police raided an average of three Jehovah’s Witnesses centers a month in 2016. In areas where the group has already been banned, police cite their criticism of traditional Christianity and Orthodoxy—as well as their objection to military service—as grounds for the extremist label.
Russian Protestants don’t consider themselves as extreme—or as annoying—as the Witnesses, so, they aren’t too eager to speak out against the recent case against them. While evangelicals have reason to oppose the Jehovah’ Witnesses on a theological basis, nevertheless, they should have reason to defend their right to exist. After all, once the government “liquidates” the Jehovah’s witnesses, what other minority religions will come under government investigation?
Because of their theological and methodological differences, “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia appear to be foreign and almost alien,” said Michael Cherenkov, the Ukraine-based executive field director for Mission Eurasia. Those two characterizations are especially damning in Russia, where leaders are wary of outsider influence. Before the “missionary activity” restrictions from last year’s legislation, Russia adopted a “foreign agent” law to regulate all international groups, NGOs, and foreign missionaries with more oversight and paperwork. So, there is a progression unfolding of repression and control.
A similar dilemma emerged in Russia in 2004 when Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned from Moscow under the application of a 1997 religion law. Back then, religious freedom advocates warned, “many of the claims made about the Jehovah’s Witnesses practices could also be made of other religious communities practices as well.”
Traditional Russian Orthodoxy continues to be increasingly conflated with a sense of Russian patriotism and nationalism; so many believe the government will keep pushing against the freedoms of minority faiths.
“A ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses is just the beginning in a series of repressions. Society needs an internal enemy to which the government can point in full cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church,” Cherenkov said. “The silence of Protestants with regard to repressions against Jehovah’s Witnesses will merely unleash a new wave of restrictions and repressions.”
The experience of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a harbinger of what to expect as nations, including Western nations, eventually suppress the freedoms of other minority religious groups, particularly those whose worship and witnessing practices are labeled extreme. Don’t expect other religious denominations to defend them.
“And ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.” Matthew 24:9.