Even more outrageous, the activist continued, was the judge’s linking such calm religious activities to some notional effort to “overthrow the constitutional order.” There is no way to connect them, Borshchev says, except by ignorance and brute force. Putin was right to call extremist cases against the Jehovah’s Witnesses “complete rubbish.”
But Putin’s words aren’t guiding the government in this regard – and perhaps they never were intended to so. Some 115 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been subject to criminal prosecution already, and “about 50” more are facing trials on charges like those brought against Christensen, Yaroslav Sivulsky, the representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He added that it was especially painful for him to see Russia going back to Soviet practices. His own father was sentenced to seven years in the camps for producing religious samizdat. Christensen now will be in jail “only because he considers his faith true,” a judicial act if anything even worse than the one that swept up his father, Sivulsky said.
As a result of this kind of “jurisprudence,” the Jehovah’s Witnesses leader said, “every individual [in Russia] can be thrown into jail.” There are 175,000 Witnesses in Russia, and already “about 5,000 have been forced to flee Russia. “We do not want to leave, but we do not want to sit in jails because we believe in God and consider our religion to be true.”
Borshchev said that in his view, the Russian powers that be are going after the Jehovah’s Witnesses because Witnesses prefer to keep to themselves and not interact with the government and because the headquarters of the Witnesses are in the United States. Roman Catholics have their HQ in Rome, and so other faiths should be worried about persecution as well.
All other participants in the roundtable agreed. The Christensen case establishes a dangerous precedent and can be easily extrapolated to others if they do not band together to secure his release and ensure that no more judges will have to be uncomfortable because they had to read out such sentences.
In short, Russia is facing a Pastor Niemoeller moment. And it is one that those who experienced the end of the Soviet system did not expect would come again to their country. Vladimir Raykhovsky, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council noted that in 1991 Russians recognized that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been the victims of unjustified repression.
“What has changed since that time?” he asked rhetorically. “Have the Jehovah’s Witnesses become different than they were? No, this is one of the most conservative organizations which does not change its principles. In April 2017, they were liquidated by the Supreme Court only because of their propaganda of religious superiority and exclusiveness.”
“In reality,” participants at the roundtable said, “the Jehovah’s Witnesses are often accused of religious ‘snobism.’ But as was noted at the press conference, in general, all believers consider their faith true and that of others not very much so (and Orthodox here are no exception.).” Consequently, all believers have reason to fear the fall out from this one case.