As the threat of a total ban on their activities in Russia looms closer, 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses have been asked by their leaders, the Governing Body, to participate in a letter-writing campaign protesting the infringement of religious freedoms.
A press release posted to JW.org yesterday called for a “direct appeal to Kremlin and Supreme Court officials for relief.”
It was further pointed out that, quite apart from resulting in the seizure of Watchtower property, the proposed ban would make individual Jehovah’s Witnesses “subject to criminal prosecution for merely carrying out their worship activities.”
In a PDF sheet accompanying the press release, Witnesses have been given detailed instructions on how to write their letters, how soon to send them (no later than April 1) and what information to include. Addresses for the likes of Russian President Vladmir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev are supplied, along with orders to “not mention the names of individuals in Russia who are Jehovah’s Witnesses” for fear of reprisals.
Not without precedent
As the press release points out, this is not the first time Jehovah’s Witnesses have been mobilized in this way. A letter writing campaign 20 years ago in response to a “smear campaign by some members of the [Russian] government in power at the time” is cited. Correspondence-based protests over persecution of Witnesses in Jordan, Korea and Malawi are also referenced.
One example curiously absent from the JW.org article is that of the 1934 letter-writing campaign urged by then-Watchtower president Joseph Rutherford against Adolf Hitler, which receives mention in the 1993 book Jehovah’s Witnesses – Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom (page 693):
Early the following year , a personal letter regarding the situation was written by J. F. Rutherford to Adolf Hitler and delivered to him by special messenger. Then the entire worldwide brotherhood went into action.
Rutherford’s letter, a follow-up to a letter sent by Watchtower in 1933 aimed at placating the Nazis, threatened Hitler with repercussions in the form of “publication throughout the earth of the facts” regarding his persecution of the Witnesses.
When Rutherford’s deadline passed without any sign of let-up by the Nazis, a flurry of telegrams was sent to Hitler from Witnesses in Britain and America including the warning: “God will destroy you and your national party.”
Fast forward to 2017 and the approach being taken by Rutherford’s successors may be less bombastic and inflammatory, but it is just as unlikely to bring relief to Witnesses in Russia. More likely, Putin’s regime will be angered by the inundation of millions of cookie-cutter messages of indignation unleashed in countless languages, and may even feel emboldened to intensify their actions.
If Hitler’s response to the letter-writing approach was to famously snarl “This brood will be exterminated in Germany!” can we expect someone like Vladmir Putin to react differently?
Don’t get me wrong – though I am personally strongly opposed to the leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and firmly believe that some of the Governing Body’s more harmful policies should be given much closer scrutiny by governments (especially shunning, manipulation to refuse blood, and covering up of child abuse on an industrial scale) as an “apostate” former Witness I am against what Russia is doing.
Banning: the wrong strategy
As I have already argued, a ban is the wrong approach to take when dealing with cultic movements. It drives them underground, making it far more difficult to hold their leaders accountable for their more harmful practices.
A ban would also, as JW.org points out, be an infringement of the religious freedoms of individual Witnesses in Russia (per article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Yes, there may be hypocrisy in the fact that Watchtower routinely violates the religious freedoms of former Witness “apostates” like myself through shunning, but two wrongs do not make a right.
Despite the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world are justified in their indignation against Putin and his thugs, the fact remains that they are being asked for little more than a token gesture of solidarity. A mountain of paper detritus in the Kremlin’s mailroom will do nothing but irk and enrage, making the plight of those most vulnerable to Russian oppression only more precarious.
Protests at Russian embassies by Witnesses would have at least caught the attention of the media, with the prospect of increased external pressure on Putin’s regime, but Jehovah’s Witnesses typically shy away from the slightest whiff of physical confrontation. Hence, Rutherford’s paper-based model of antagonizing maniacal despots is the go-to approach for the current Watchtower leadership.
Whichever way we look at it, the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is grim and these beleaguered people deserve our sympathy and solidarity. Nobody deserves to be robbed of the right to believe what they want by their own government, no matter how damaging or detrimental those beliefs may be.
It is already bad enough that Russian Witnesses are being taken advantage of by their religious leaders without their government turning on them and threatening to hunt them down like fugitives simply for being cult victims.
We can only hope that, sooner or later, Witnesses in Russia will realise that the organization to which they pledge allegiance just so happens to be completely unworthy of their time, dedication and loyalty.
Hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany died under the misapprehension that they were championing Jehovah’s “theocracy.” It is my sincere wish that Witnesses in Russia will not similarly be made to suffer before they realise that true paradise comes in the form of the freedom to think for yourself.