Staunton, July 16 – When Moscow banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, many observers, including this writer, felt that the most likely course of development would be for that denomination to follow the path taken by so many religious groups in Soviet times and become an underground “catacomb” church.
But in what must be the most remarkable development even as Russian government persecution of the Witnesses has continued and in recent days intensified, they have not gone underground but have continued to act as a normal above-ground faith, meeting openly even though their kingdom halls have been taken from them.
As Moscow’s Novaya gazeta and the experts on religious affairs it spoke with note, the Russian courts banned the formal structures of the Jehovah’s Witnesses but insisted they were not banning the faith as such. And the Witnesses have used this “paradox” to continue to practice (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/07/16/86294-peredel-nebes).
As a result, as Nikolay Sapelkin, a Russian historian of religion, says, “the current loss of registration has not significantly influenced the situation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For more than a quarter of a century, they have created their own commercial firms and organized a ramified system of interaction.”
Despite the ban on the formal structures, “the communities haven’t gone anywhere. Instead, they are continuing their activity in the new circumstances. The only difficulties involve the recruitment of new followers since they are not permitted to engage in open missionary activity,” Sapelkin argues.
As even Vladimir Putin recognized, finding the Witnesses to be extremists opens a can of worms Moscow doesn’t want to do. If one agreed to that, it would be possible to find all the traditional religions of Russia “extremist,” something no one at present wants to do given the reaction it would provoke.
And Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA information and analysis center, adds, the history of the Russian state’s relationship with the Jehovah’s Witnesses is “not unique” but rather follows the pattern of banning texts as extremist, then banning local groups that possess these texts, and then prohibiting the all-Russian organization of which they are a part.
What that leads to is all too obvious: The constitution gives Russians the right to profess their faith because “faith itself cannot be prohibited.” But when the Jehovah’s Witnesses practice their faith, Verkhovsky continues, the authorities insist that they are violating the law by assembling in groups banned by the courts.
“This technique is not unique,” but the extent of it in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is. “In the post-Soviet period, criminal cases have not multiplied as fast for other groups as they have for the Witnesses,” a pattern which is leading to the undermining of “one of the key freedoms” the constitution describes.
By not going underground but continuing to practice their faith in the open to the extent they can, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are calling attention to this threat and represent the first line of defense against it.