A major reason the Russian state has been repressing the Jehovah’s Witnesses are “their absolute pacifism and categorical refusal to use force,” the appeal continues. They are in no way extremism: if the standard Moscow has used to ban the denomination were applied to other faiths, “all religions would have to be banned.”
“What has taken place with them in essence is taking place with us: this is a test of the immune forces of society. The persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses shows the baselessness of [Russia’s] anti-extremism legislation in general. If society doesn’t defend the Jehovah’s Witnesses, if their rights are not restored, this will mean everyone can be called an extremist.”
The rights activists and intellectuals called for an end to the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the immediate freeing of all now being held. Attached to the appeal is a list of 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been declared political prisoners by the most prominent Russian rights groups.
Among the signatories are some of Russia’s most prominent rights activists, including Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Svetlana Gannushkina of Civic Action, Aleksandr Daniel of Memorial, Sergey Lukahsevsky of the Sakharov Center, Lev Ponomaryev of For Human Rights, Aleksandr Soldatov of Portal Credo, and writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya.
There are an estimated 150,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and since the courts banned their organization, many of them have been charged with crimes carrying up to ten years in the camps. According to members of the group, repressions against the Jehovah’s Witnesses intensified in mid-April and have spread across the Russian Federation.
In May, the European Court of Human Rights received an appeal from Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, given that they have exhausted all possible appeals within the Russian Federation. That makes the declaration of the activists and writers critically important in attracting public attention to the plight of this religious community.
If the Putin regime gets away with its suppression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it will beyond any doubt first move against Protestant groups, members of other religions, and ultimately, as the signatories of this appeal note, against all Russians, in exactly the way Pastor Niemoeller warned about the Nazis 75 years ago.
Niemoeller’s classic warning needs only to be updated: “If they come for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and we don’t say anything, they will ultimately come for others and for us – and then there will be no one left to defend us or anyone else.