Jehovah’s Witnesses and Religious Persecution: Do Signed Declarations Help?

George D. Chryssides

Picture by Narcis Ciocan on Pixabay.

On December 17, 2021, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom issued a joint statement on behalf of the International Religious Freedom and Belief Alliance (IRFBA), condemning the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in several countries, and calling on governments worldwide, inter alia, to release prisoners, end torture, home raids, all forms of harassment and discrimination, to allow alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors, and to abandon targeting Witnesses with “anti-extremism” legislation. Few people to whom I have spoken, including my own Member of Parliament in the UK, have shown any familiarity with the document, which raises the question of how effective such declarations are likely to have. In what follows, I aim to outline the reasons for the widespread hostility towards Jehovah’s Witnesses, focusing particularly on their situation in Russia today.

The IRFBA is a network of countries whose aim is to advance religious freedom worldwide, and consists of 35 members, together with four “friends” and two “observers.” Twelve of its members endorsed the statement concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses. The IRFBA’s stance is based on the principles of religious freedom enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the right to believe and practice one’s chosen religion, privately or collectively. The U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom acts as the IRFBA’s Secretariat, organising meetings and disseminating information, and the UK special envoy, Fiona Bruce MP, is the organisation’s chair for 2022. The IRFBA receives information from various religious organisations, and is concerned with upholding international law, taking reactive and proactive measures, raising consciousness, promoting relationships among the various religious groups, and providing support for victims of religious persecution.

Most members of the public have little more than vague familiarity with Jehovah’s Witnesses through their house-to-house evangelism or the literature carts displayed in public places, although during the Covid pandemic these methods of disseminating their faith were suspended. A brief description of their beliefs and practices may therefore be appropriate. The organisation that is now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses originated with Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), who was deeply influenced by the nineteenth century Adventist movement, and brought together a small group of Bible students in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He set up the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania for the distribution of religious literature. The first edition of Zion’s Watch Tower (known today as The Watchtower) appeared in 1879, and the journal was used by a number of like-minded religious groups, who used its material for their worship, and would get together occasionally for assemblies and for their annual Memorial (the celebration of Jesus’ last evening meal with his disciples). Russell was both a preacher and a prolific writer, and penned six volumes entitled Millennial Dawn, which gave rise to his supporters being called “Millennial Dawnists” by their detractors.

After Russell’s death, the second leader Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942) made this federation of congregations into a unified, centralised organisation, and gave them the name of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. Jehovah’s Witnesses base their beliefs firmly on the Christian Bible, which they believe to be inerrant on all matters of history, doctrine, and guidance for life, and the teachings are grounded in their interpretation of scripture, rather than on any extra-biblical revelations or new prophecies. The name Jehovah’s Witnesses highlights their belief that God’s true name is Jehovah, and that they are exclusively his people, all other forms of religion being false. It is therefore important to them that they disseminate “the truth,” as they call their teachings, particularly since they believe humanity to be living in the last days leading up to Armageddon. Only Jehovah, they hold, can solve humanity’s problems, not social action or military conquest — hence their firm and consistent opposition to participating in any form of military activity. Their stance has resulted in serious opposition in various countries and in various stages of the Society’s history.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position on war has contributed to much of their unpopularity. In times of war, when citizens rally round in defence of their country, conscientious objection is viewed as unpatriotic. However, for Jehovah’s Witnesses, patriotism is not regarded as a Christian virtue. One particularly controversial Watch Tower publication, The Finished Mystery, commissioned by Rutherford shortly after Russell’s death stated:

Nowhere in the New Testament is Patriotism (a narrow-minded hatred of other peoples) encouraged. Everywhere and always murder in its every form is forbidden; and yet, under the guise of Patriotism the civil governments of earth demand of peace-loving men the sacrificie of themselves and their loved ones and the butcher of their fellows, and hail as a duty demanded by the laws of heaven (Russel [attributed] 1917: 247)

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attitude towards war goes beyond mere avoidance of armed combat. They refuse to do anything associated with the war effort, such as joining an ambulance corps, sewing military uniforms, or loading or unloading cargo that is destined for military purposes. They will accept alternative civilian service, provided it is not under military supervision. However, not every country allows alternative service, and many countries prescribe a period of alternative civilian service which is substantially longer than the normal period of military training.

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not regard themselves as subject to any earthly government, but perceive themselves as members of Jehovah’s kingdom. If their actions seem unpatriotic in wartime, they can point out that their members in the enemy country are equally refusing to engage in combat, and hence if everyone behaved like Jehovah’s Witnesses wars throughout the entire world would cease.

Criticisms of Russell’s organization

The earliest criticisms of the Millennial Dawn movement were largely, although not exclusively, theological. A number of early critiques were published, one of the earliest being part of a series of pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals, which were distributed between 1910 and 1915 and marked the inception of the Christian fundamentalist movement. The chapter on “Millennial Dawn” by W. G. Moorehead, a professor at a Protestant theological seminary, provided a detailed critique of “the false doctrines of Millennial Dawn” (Moorehead 1912: 897-911). His main objections, echoed by subsequent critics, concerned Russell’s denial of Christ’s deity and physical resurrection, as well as his rejection of eternal torment in hell for the wicked and the Trinity doctrine. Russell made no attempt to minimise such departures from mainstream Christian doctrine, and indeed on two occasions engaged in public debate with mainstream clergy, in front of large audiences. Russell believed that the Christian faith had abandoned its true beliefs and practices at an early stage, and that his Bible Students were restoring original authentic Christianity.

Opposition intensified under Rutherford, whose firm stance on conscientious objection resulted in raids on Watch Tower premises, the arrest of several Watch Tower leaders, and prison sentences. Some of the public took the law into their own hands, lynching Bible Students and destroying their places of worship. Some years later, controversy arose around a number of schoolchildren who had heard Rutherford’s views on patriotism, and refused to salute the national flag. This led to lengthy litigation, lasting several years, in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were finally vindicated, but the verdict fueled public anger.

Christian theological criticism has continued to the present day, mainly from Protestant evangelicals, who vigorously challenge Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible. However, during the 1970s a new wave of new religious movements emerged in the United States and Europe. This was a period of declining church attendance and dwindling public interest in Christian doctrine. In any case, many of the new forms of spirituality – for example Scientology, and the Hare Krishna movement – made no claim to be forms of Christianity, and hence Protestant evangelical critique was irrelevant. Another type of opposition emerged: these groups’ methods of evangelism, members’ lifestyle, and effects on family life were the problem, not their inconsistency with Christian teachings. In particular, these new religions were accused of “brainwashing” — a key concept that the anti-cult movement continues to emphasise. Brainwashing theory purportedly explains how followers of new religions come to accept beliefs and practices that seem irrational and bizarre within the dominant culture. If they can acquire members by rational persuasion, it is argued, some irrational process must be at work, for example a compelling charismatic leader, a controlled environment, repetitive teaching, and discouragement of dissenting opinions. Brainwashing theory, of course, has been firmly rejected by academic exponents of NRMs (e.g. Barker 1984), but the nebulous nature of the concept enables it to fit almost any spiritual movement that exists outside the mainstream.

Ever since Rutherford gave the organisation its firm structure, measures were taken to ensure uniformity, and anyone who promotes divergent teachings, or whose standards of behaviour are judged to be contrary to biblical teaching, can be subjected to a judicial committee.

It did not take long for the accusation of brainwashing to be applied to Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are zealous, and their faith is highly demanding: until fairly recently, members typically attended five meetings each week, as well as assemblies and conventions, which could last several days, and which were largely devoted to numerous talks by elders, reinforcing the Society’s teachings. In addition, house-to-house evangelism is expected: in the past Witnesses were expected to undertake ten hours of “field service” each month (although such targets have now been abolished) (31). Ever since Rutherford gave the organisation its firm structure, measures were taken to ensure uniformity, and anyone who promotes divergent teachings, or whose standards of behaviour are judged to be contrary to biblical teaching, can be subjected to a judicial committee, which has the powers to “disfellowship” (expel) them. One consequence of disfellowshipping is “shunning”: members outside one’s household may not speak or have social contact with a disfellowshipped member, thus providing a strong disincentive for anyone to quit the organisation.

Opposition in Russia

The Russian anti-cult movement successfully combined these theological and societal opposition to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Orthodoxy’s religious opposition to Jehovah’s Witnesses differs somewhat from that of Protestant evangelicalism. For the latter, the Reformation principle of sola scriptura (scripture alone) is held supreme — the view that the Bible exclusively is the source of authority. This differs from Orthodox Christianity, where Christian scripture is only one source of authority, the other being the Church’s tradition: religious truth must be in line with the doctrines of the ancient church which were formulated before the Great Schism of 1054. Before the Great Schism the Eastern and Western branches of the Church were united, and the creeds that were formulated by the nine Councils that met prior to that date were common to the entire Christian Church. These are therefore definitive, and their contents, which include belief in Christ’s deity, his eternally-begotten nature, and the triune nature of God, are fundamental to the faith, and any deviations are deemed heretical. By rejecting these, Jehovah’s Witnesses place themselves in conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Under the Stalinist regime, of course, such matters were not an issue, but their refusal to fight in World War Two, coupled with their determined evangelism and denunciation of earthly governments, caused Stalin to send many of them into exile.

After President Mikael Gorbachev’s announcement of perestroika in 1986, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ fortunes seemed brighter. In 1990 a Law on Freedom of Religion was adopted, and Russia’s opening up to the West enabled numerous new forms of religion to find their way into the country, as well as a revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses were allowed to register as a religion in 1991, both in Russia and Ukraine. Many incoming new religions were convinced that the former communist regime had created a “spiritual hunger” in the country, and those claiming a Christian identity were inspired by Jesus’ “Great Commission”, described at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). The Orthodox Churches have seldom been concerned with proselytising, and have never taken to the streets to evangelise or to disseminate literature in public places. However, the ROC’s lack of evangelical zeal put it at risk of losing ground to the influx of new religions. In some regions local laws were introduced to restrict the activity of incoming foreign missions, and to favor traditional faiths.

It was not long before state and Church opposition recommenced. Particularly instrumental in both forms of opposition has been the Orthodox anti-cult agitator Aleksandr Dvorkin. Born in Russia in 1955, Dvorkin studied Russian language and literature at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute, and emigrated to the United States in 1977, where he gained a Bachelor’s degree in 1980, and in the same year was baptised in Christ the Saviour Church, New York, into the Orthodox Church in America. In 1988 he became a subdeacon and altar server at St Nicholas Cathedral, Washington DC. He is sometimes described as a cleric, but his role was liturgical rather than priestly.

Dvorkin’s academic expertise lay more in Russian literature and Mediaeval Studies, but this did not prevent him from subsequently claiming to be a “sectologist” — an expert on “cults.” He lived in the United States at the time of the mass suicides of the Jonestown Peoples Temple, in which 918 members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple died, and which became an iconic example of the perceived dangers of the so-called “cults.” Dvorkin succeeded in perpetrating the belief that new religious movements were dangerous, and that Jonestown provided evidence of such perils. Having returned to Russia in 1991, he commenced work the following year in the Synodal Department of Religious Education and Catechesis, where he came across a number of new religious groups, to which he took exception. In 1993 he established the Saint Irenaeus of Leon Information-Consultation Center (SILIC), supported by the Moscow Patriarchate, and receiving the approval of Patriarch Alexey II. SILIC became the hub of the anti-cult movement, and part of a global network of anti-cult organisations. Initially Dvorkin targeted small, non-traditional, and relatively unknown religious groups in Russia, but his critique soon extended to more familiar organisations such as the Hare Krishna movement, the Unification Church (popularly known as the “Moonies”), and especially Scientologists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

SILIC is part of a network extending throughout Europe, with links to the United States as well. Its opposition to “cults” has therefore a secular dimension as well as a religious one. Dvorkin’s experience in the West enabled him to forge links with Western anti-cult organisations, and in particular the organisation FECRIS (Fédération Européenne des Centres de Recherche et d’Information sure le Sectarisme [European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism]), of which SILIC became a member association. FECRIS was created in 1994 to coordinate the work of some 25 anti-cult organisations worldwide, and is substantially funded by the French government, with participatory status in the Council of Europe, and special consultative status in the UN Economic and Social Council. Dvorkin’s involvement with FECRIS enabled him to become its vice president in 2009, a position which he held until 2019, when he was not re-elected. (The reasons for this are unclear.) SILIC receives financial support from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government.

SILIC’s influence was instrumental in the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. This required religious groups from abroad to re-register, and permission was denied to numerous incoming organisations, particularly those that were deemed to threaten public order and safety, undermine family life, to endanger health, to incite the populace to abandon their civic obligations, or to undertake “extremist” activities (227). The 1997 legislation was designed to discriminate against non-traditional religions. Registration allowed religious organisations to worship and teach, distribute their literature, open bank accounts, own property, and invite visitors from abroad. To be eligible to register as a centralized organisation (the category into which Jehovah’s Witnesses fell), one had to have been in the country for 15 or more years. Jehovah’s Witnesses satisfied the residential criterion, and successfully re-registered nationally on April 29, 1999.

Only some 7% of the Russian population attend church with any degree of regularity, although 75% self-define as Orthodox.

The combination of religious and secular criticism of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and indeed the new religions more widely, enabled civil and religious authorities in Russia to mount a concerted attack. Only some 7% of the Russian population actually attend church with any degree of regularity, although 75% self-define as Orthodox. Thus Orthodoxy has combined national unity with religious spirituality, and has become the custodian of “spiritual security” — a term now widely used both inside and outside the ROC. Challenging this “spiritual security” are what Dvorkin has labelled “totalitarian sects.” The precise meaning of this term is unclear, but it has been taken up by anticultists and the media, and its sheer vagueness and pejorative connotations have enabled it to be applied indiscriminately to new religious groups, and of course Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Spiritual security and national identity were inextricably linked. Viktor Zorkal’tsev, the Communist parliamentary deputy, stated in 2003: “Freedom of conscience is only freedom when this is the freedom not only to believe, but to act. However, freedom of conscience has boundaries. And these boundaries can be defined by a single expression — spiritual security. Spiritual security is, if you like, one of the conditions of a civil society” (Payne 2010: 716-717). Part of the perceived problem of the “totalitarian sects” was that they came from the West, bringing with them Western values, such as consumerism, freedom of choice and expression, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. This was evidenced in Patriarch Kirill’s sermon on March 6, 2022, in which he justified the invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that the country was in danger of appropriating Western values, particularly singling out Gay Pride parades as an affront to traditional cultural and religious values. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses would disapprove of all of these also.

In the wake of 9/11, there arose an understandable fear of terrorist organisations, and particularly in Russia measures were taken to restrict the activities of groups that were regarded as “extremist.” “Extremism” became a ground of accusation against new religious groups. However, “extremist” was also defined to encompass religious groups that disseminated “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of a person on the basis of their religious affiliation or attitude towards religion”, and the registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion was revoked in 2004. In 2006 the legislation was modified, so that action could be taken against organisations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite their profoundly non-violent nature. Jehovah’s Witnesses were labelled “extremist” on the ground that they asserted their superiority over other forms of religion that were extant in Russia, and in particular the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims religious superiority. Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a number of legal challenges between 1998 and 2004. They were charged with splitting up families, and pursuing a lifestyle that interfered with work, leisure, and holidays. Their evangelizing tactics allegedly invaded citizens’ privacy, and they were accused of luring minors into their organization. Refusal of blood was allegedly tantamount to suicide, and their refusal to undertake military service was a ground for prosecution (Watch Tower n.d.). Although Russia allows alternative civilian service, anyone who belongs to an extremist organization can be compelled to join the military.

In 2009 Kemerovo State University published an “expert study”; although it did not suggest that Jehovah’s Witnesses incited anyone to violence, it claimed that its literature demonstrated a lack of respect to the Christian faith. As a result, a list of purportedly “extremist materials” was compiled;altogether, 93 Watch Tower publications were defined as “extremist literature.” These included The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, which is a straightforward narrative about the life and ministry of Jesus and, curiously, My Book of Bible Stories, which is a children’s book introducing Jewish-Christian scripture. Allegedly this book portrayed priests unfavourably; although these were ancient Jewish authorities, their appearance was sinister, and their robes bore some resemblance to those of Eastern Orthodox clergy. Even the Society’s The New World Translation of Holy Scriptures was listed. This proved to be a source of contention in some legal cases, in which it was argued successfully that it was “not a Bible” (140). In 2021 the Oktyabrskiy District Court of St. Petersburg ruled that the JW Library app (which provides access to most Watch Tower publications from 1950 to the present) was extremist, and banned its use.

The Western perception of “cults” as groups that target the youth prompted the fear that they were “infiltrating” institutions such as college and universities.

In 2010 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, who upheld their case against these various accusations. The Russian authorities were directed to reinstate their legal status as a religion, and to pay a sizable fine. However, Russia defied the verdict and instead escalated its attack on the Witnesses. In April 2017 the 2002 legislation was implemented, and the Russian Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities, confiscating properties, valued at over $90 million US dollars, and liquidating the organisation’s assets. Over 1000 private homes were raided and many were placed under house arrest. Some were imprisoned, and even tortured (Watch Tower n.d.).

The hostility to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as with numerous other new religions from the West, was no doubt due to the idea that they are importing Western values and eroding national identity. Associated with the fear that proselytisation might cause the ROC to lose ground, the missionary activities of Western religions required substantial financial backing, which suggested that they were capable of offering converts financial inducements, or paying missionaries by results. Further, the Western perception of “cults” as groups that target the youth prompted the fear that they were “infiltrating” institutions such as colleges and universities. Their Western origins also gave rise to a fear in certain circles that some missionaries were engaged in undercover espionage, and were potentially CIA agents in disguise.

The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has shocked the entire world, has had some repercussions on the anti-cult movement, although its long-term effects on new religions are not yet apparent. SILIC’s membership has caused embarrassment for FECRIS. The names of the two Russian member associations — C.R.S. (Center for Religious Studies, Russia) and C.R.S.S. (Center for Religious Studies, Saratov, Russia), of which Dvorkin continues to be president — have been removed from the FECRIS website, although the Saratov Antisectarian Center continues to affirm its affiliation to FECRIS and offers a web link. The FECRIS website’s home page carries a statement about the Ukraine war, and in its role as an NGO with participatory status at the Council of Europe, endorses the Council’s condemnation of unjust military aggression against Ukraine, and calls on President Putin “to get Russia to stop its acts of war and its crimes against the Ukrainian people and its legitimate, democratically elected Authorities.” At the time of writing Dvorkin’s status in FECRIS remains unclear; the FECRIS website continues to maintain a page featuring Dvorkin giving an interview on August 27, 2017, following a FECRIS international conference in Salekhard on, “Why did the Supreme Court consider Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists and terminated their activities on Russia territory? What do experts see as the greatest danger for Russian regions today?” The interview is entirely in Russian, without translation or subtitles, and it is possible that its continued inclusion may be due to an oversight. It is unclear whether SILIC remains within FECRIS. The Saratov branch of the Center for Religious Studies continues to assert its membership of the umbrella organisation. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities continue their attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses, many of whom continue to face trial for their convictions.

Do official statements help?

Amidst these difficult circumstances for Jehovah’s Witnesses, how does the Office of International Religious Freedom’s “Statement on Jehovah’s Witnesses” help the situation? Many academics, myself included, have gone on record to express their views, and a webpage strongly condemns Russian opposition and calls into question the so-called experts who advise the Russian government — but seemingly to no avail (Watch Tower 2016). If the ECHR cannot enforce Russian compliance with international law, what chance is there that the Office of International Freedom can make a difference? Such statements are unlikely to bring an end to the persecution, but they define the stance of the signatories, and demonstrate that the salient issues are monitored and noted. They can be used as a resource for students, researchers, and those involved in training in fields such as law enforcement, NGOs, and the study of religion. They also provide some reassurance to the faith communities themselves: the Watch Tower Society regularly monitors the actions of governments and government departments and disseminates information from its news desk, which carries features on its website.

As for Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves, neither state hostility nor official reports are likely to change their own stance on how they worship Jehovah. Their opponents do not seem to learn from history. Whenever Witnesses have been the victims of persecution, they have stood firm, continuing to practice their faith despite opposition, continuing to meet and to undertake their house-to-house evangelism, and refusing to comply with pressures to force them to engage in armed combat, or anything else they believe is contrary to Jehovah’s law as they understand it. ♦

George D. Chryssides is an Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University (UK), and formerly Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He has written extensively on new religions, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, and his latest book Jehovah’s Witnesses: A New Introduction was published by Bloomsbury in January 2022.

Recommended Citation

Chryssides, George D. “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Religious Persecution: Do Signed Declarations Help?” Canopy Forum, June 13, 2022.