Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Russia Cracking Down on Jehovah’s Witnesses Even More Often than on Islamist Radicals

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 6 – The number of religious people in Russia charged with extremism has doubled over the past year, with “the lion’s share” of cases being directed against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, rather than against Muslim radical groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, SOVA experts say.

            In part, this reflects the fact that Muslim radicals are often charged with other crimes such as terrorism; but in part, it is the result of the hostility of both the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church to a religious group that is pacifist and disciplined and that is increasingly numerous unlike most other non-traditional religions in Russia.

            Olga Sibiryeva, an analyst at the SOVA Center, says that “the unjustified application of anti-extremist legislation toward believers in recent years has become the most important instrument of repression.”  The repression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has gone up since it was banned by the Russian authorities (

                “To accuse pacifists of extremism is, of course, a great ‘achievement’ of our powers that be,” she continues. It reflects both the general dislike of religious minorities and the specific dislike of any whose religious convictions lead them to oppose what the state wants. From the government’s perspective, they are “dangerous.”

            Moreover, because the regime’s confiscation of their property has not stopped the Jehovah’s Witnesses from continuing to meet, Moscow has decided to take more extreme forms against the group, including charging them in an unwarranted way with crimes, Sibiryeva says. Hence the large number of them found in this category.

            Moscow human rights expert Lev Levinson says the repression against the Jehovah’s Witnesses has opened the way to more repression against other religious groups not identified as “traditional” for Russia in the 1997 law (Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism), a move intensified by media campaigns against what Moscow views as “cults.”  

            Russian television has created “a collective portrait of new religious movements which are cultured totalitarian sects as dangerous for life, health, property, and the inviolability of the individual. It is said that they occupy themselves with ‘encoding’ their beliefs,” turning their followers into zombies.

            The Jehovah’s Witnesses are an especially attractive target from Moscow’s point of view, Levinson says. Their headquarters are in the United States, and they have a centralized organization. Moreover, they are extremely disciplined, pacifist, and ready and able to compete in many places with the Russian Orthodox Church.  Few other groups are as effective.

                They number more than 150,000 in Russia, far larger than most of these others; and because of their pacifism, they form the largest share of those doing alternative service rather than agreeing to be drafted.  That makes them stand out in the view of both state and church, the human rights expert says.

            Levinson adds that the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is “the obvious result of the formation in Russia of an ideological state” in which Orthodoxy is viewed as one of the basic building blocks of the state ideology. The campaign against them is purely political and not about any religious issue.

            The situation with regard to Muslims and especially Muslim minority trends, Ali Charinsky, the leader of the For the Rights of Muslims group now in emigration in Ukraine, is both similar and different, similar in that Moscow is generally tightening its control over these groups but different in that there are major regional variations with the situation in the North Caucasus getting better while that elsewhere is becoming worse.

            He even says that the repressions against the Jehovah’s Witnesses have helped raise the consciousness of Russians that what their government is doing is wrong and is leading ever more of them to resist.  “It is one thing when you deceive people by telling them that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a terrorist group and you are only fighting against them. People believe that.”

            But, Charinsky continues, it is quite another matter when the government calls Jehovah’s Witnesses or all non-muftiate Muslims the same thing. That is absurd on its face, and people are beginning to recognize that fact. They can see that if these groups are called extremist, anyone can be, including political opposition figures or even themselves.

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