First of all, the activist says, it is important to recognize that legally at least all Moscow has done is ban the 396 registered Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organizations in Russia. They can no longer function and their property has been seized. But the Russian government has not banned the faith, whatever the Russian media say.
But because the media say that and because it remains unchallenged, “in practice we see that people are being persecuted for their convictions” even if they have no links to any of the 396 legal persons. “This is manifested,” Chivchalov says, in “a wave of arrests, detentions, interrogations,” break ins, trumped up charges, and illegal monitoring.
At the moment, he continues, there are 18 criminal cases before the courts, and 20 additional people are in preliminary detention, some for more than a year. There are many more people who are under house arrest and travel restrictions. And the number who have been subject to illegal break ins by the police “number in the hundreds.”
Those who remain “in freedom,” Chivchalov says, have their telephone calls monitored, are frequently called in for questioning, and are threatened with suggestions that unless they cooperate, their relatives will suffer. In some cases, the FSB advises the Jehovah’s Witnesses that they can end their problems by joining the Orthodox Church.
A major loss to the faith was the government’s seizure of the building in which was housed the distribution center for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, a complex worth “millions of dollars.” Its seizure, he says, represents “a colossal violation of all kinds of international norms.”
“It is surprising that in Europe in the 21st century people are being imprisoned for extremist literature. Why was it recognized extremist? Apparently for criticizing Orthodoxy. There is no other obvious explanation. And for that people are being imprisoned,” Chivchalov continues.
Unfortunately, “99 percent of the population simply isn’t aware of this. And if the major media outlets report that ‘the leader of an extremist cell’ has been caught,” most Russians assume this is part of “the struggle against terrorism.” And they then equate the Jehovah’s Witnesses with extremists like the Islamic State and act accordingly, nominally on their own.
Even if one accepted the government’s position that the organizations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are somehow extremist, a position that is absurd on its face, there is even the greater absurdity of attacking followers of the faith, “99 percent” of whom are not members of any of these legal organizations but simply believers.
And the situation appears to be getting worse: the education ministry has now proposed seizing the children of believers and putting them in re-education camps much as Moscow has done with children of ISIS followers. Chivchalov says he has no evidence that this has happened as yet to any Jehovah’s Witness family, but it is out there as a risk.
Even more absurd and outrageous, he says, even from the point of view of Russian law and the declarations of Vladimir Putin, Russian courts have declared that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible is an extremist document. The only way that they could do so under Russian law was to find that it wasn’t the Bible but rather “’a brochure in a gray cover.’”
As a result, anyone who cites verses “from this Bible online is subject to six to ten years of incarceration for extremism," he says.
In this way, “Russia has become the only country in the world where the Bible, in a specific translation, has been declared an extremist publication. That hasn’t happened in North Korea, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.” Russia is also “the country in which a Jehovah’s Witness website has been blocked.”
Many people think that the Kremlin chose to go after the Jehovah’s Witnesses because the Russian population was inclined negatively toward them. That isn’t the case: in the 1990s, the Witnesses were viewed positively by Russians, Chivchalov says. The Kremlin media created the negative image and then invoked it to attack the faith.
Despite persecution, he continues, “the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are continuing to do what they did. History shows that neither concentration camps nor exiles ever stop them from meeting, reading the Bible, praying and even talking about their faith with others. They are continuing to do that.”
“Of course, in the new situation, they cannot do this as openly as before. They aren’t distributing any literature because there isn’t any. Now they assemble in small groups in apartments, seek to change their meeting places, but they are not stopping” from meeting and spreading their beliefs. Moreover, there is little evidence many have broken with the Witnesses.
The situation in Russia today is “thank God,” still far from what it was in Nazi Germany or even in Stalin’s time. But “many people are emigrating from Russia, including to Belarus. Some have been refused asylum in Western countries, unfortunately, Chivchalov says
The situation in Belarus with regard to the Jehovah’s Witnesses is good and even improving, he suggests. In that country, he says, “there is no such monopoly by the Russian Orthodox Church as there is in Russia. Here is a more competitive milieu.” In Russia, where that is lacking, the Moscow Patriarchate wants to eliminate any competition.
Moreover, Chivchalov continues, the opinion of the West and Europe remains “very important” while in Russia, “it is absolutely of no importance what anyone says about it.”