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The murder of a New York City religious group in Russia

Why Putin’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses should worry us.

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Russian Federation Supreme Court hearing case of Jehovah's Witnesses

 

You may not have noticed last week when the Russian Federation government got court clearance for its campaign to eradicate dissident religions in its land. The test case involved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a small sect that was founded in the United States and, until recently, had its headquarters in New York City.

The Russian Supreme court approved the severe punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists” and ordered all their property seized. Besides the Russian Federation, the Witnesses are not tolerated in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea.

Although the Russian state is not slaughtering the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the street, it is determined to wipe out the religion from Russia by criminalizing it and its sympathizers. If you have a Jehovah's Witness pamphlet in  your house, you could be fined hundreds of thousands of rubles (over $10,000) and sentenced to prison for 10 years. As far as the Russian potentate President Vladimir Putin is concerned, Jehovah”s Witnesses have passed from the endangered species list to the wipe out list.

In the late 19th Century, Charles Taze Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He called their organization the Watch Tower Society. In 1909, he moved the society’s headquarters to Brooklyn, New York.  You could hardly miss the giant “Watchtower” sign as you went across the Brooklyn Bridge. The Witnesses have provided stability and strength to their adherents. On August 4, 2016, the religious group sold is Brooklyn headquarters building to Jared Kushner and other developers.

 

The Jehovah's Witness HQ, as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge, was a relatively self-contained community of thousands of people. They even made their own glass windows.

 

Dwight Eisenhower, the leader of the armed forces against the Nazis and President, was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness before converting to Presbyterianism, and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams are two of the 8.2 million active Jehovah’s Witnesses. After her win in the 2015 Australian Open, she talked about how her faith rooted in her Witness upbringing gave her strength and constancy. “I was down and out and he helped me today and I just said prayers, not to win but to be strong and to be healthy and in the end I was able to come through so I have to give the glory to him first and foremost.”

Jehovah's Witnesses are a regular feature on the streets in New York City. Every month, I know that two Witnesses will be ringing by doorbell to explain the new issue of their magazine Awake, which they leave with me. I admire their persistence and fortitude, which now will be put to test in Russia.

 

Guilty of extremism and terrorism? Says Putin of Russia about these pacifists caught on camera in Bushwick, Queens.

 

Putin is determined to wipe out this small, familiar site presence on city streets around the world. He doesn’t like their opposition to serving in the Russian military, nor their refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the state.

Mainly, the authoritarian mind doesn’t like anyone around with an independent spirit. Such a group might imagine the world as a different place than one in which everyone lives in a straitjacket.

Because the Witnesses are such a small (about 170,000 in Russia) and somewhat exotic religious group, the Russian state figures that it can wipe them away and get the public to assent. It is all part of creating an authoritarian order.

Russian human rights lawyers cite how the Witnesses were ruthlessly suppressed after 1935 by Hitler. They were singled out in concentration camps by being forced to wear a purple triangle. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has detailed the Nazi mistreatment of the religious group.

The latest repression hearkens back to Soviet times. Thousands were sent in the 1950s to camps in Siberia, the Far East, and Kazahkstan. After Stalin died, the Witnesses were still sentenced to camps for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Witnesses enjoyed legal recognition.

What can you do against the rising tide of religious persecution in Russia? One way is to give encouragement to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to meet with Russian Federation officials to discuss amending their law. Government officials count their email!

You could write something like this:

"I urge you to recommend to the Russian Federation that it amend its extremism law in line with an international human rights standard, such as having a clear criteria to determine what is the advocacy or use of violence, and to ensure that the law is not used against members of peaceful religious groups or disfavored communities."

Here is the appropriate email for Erin D. Singshinsuk, Executive Director ---

esingshinsuk@uscirf.gov

 

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