Staunton, Jan. 2 – The way in which the Russian government, its courts, prosecutors and many of the expert witnesses it relies on have moved against the Jehovah’s Witnesses hurts not only followers of that faith but Russians of other faiths and even Russian society and the state more generally, Yekaterina Elbakyan says.
That is because, the specialist on laws governing religion in Russia says, the authorities have so compromised those laws by their actions and especially by muddying the definition of what is a religious organization and what is religious extremism that the answers they are giving can be extended to almost anyone (sova-center.ru/religion/publications/2022/01/d45578/).
On April 20, 2017, the Russian Supreme Court liquidated the Administrative Center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and the 395 religious organizations subordinate to it, but it did not, Elbakyan points out, “liquidate the faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses” or ban the practice of its discussion of religious texts.
For that as for other religious rights, the legal specialist says, “there is no need to have the status of a legal person or an unregistered religious organ.” The constitution allows those things to take place without requiring that any official structure be formed, and it does not as a result make such practices ab initio extremist.
“Unfortunately,” Elbakyan continues, “many judges” fail to recognize that constitutional fact and they are assisted in this by the legal experts that prosecutors make use of in cases against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a result, the situation has deteriorated seriously in the Russian Federation for all religions and for other groups as well.
According to Elbakyan, that is because “religious minorities to a large degree are ‘a litmus test’ which reflects the real religious situation in any country and in its individual regions.” If religious minorities can practice freely, then everyone benefits; if they can’t, then everyone, including official religions and the state, suffers.
When groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses are treated in this way, some in the “traditional” religions think they are being defended from missionary activity; but in fact, the legal decisions that are being used against the Witnesses make them more dependent on the state and put their own faiths at risk.
And the authorities don’t achieve what they want either, Elbakyan says. “History has more than once shown that when a religious organization is banned, people do not cease to be believers. On the contrary, the number of such believers typically grows” rather than declines as the powers clearly hope.
Consequently, what the Russian powers are doing against the Witnesses is hurting not only the Witnesses who are the immediate victims but also other faiths, Russian society and the very authors of this repressive campaign.