By Derek H. Davis, J.D., Ph.D. – Since their formation in the late 19th century, Jehovah’s Witnesses have suffered relentless persecution worldwide for their controversial religious beliefs. Archibald Cox, Jr., famous for his role as the Watergate prosecutor that helped force the resignation of former U.S. President Richard Nixon, once noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses were “the principal victims of religious persecution … in the twentieth century.” Persecution against Witnesses was especially strong during WWII when their political neutrality, conscientious objection to war, and refusal to salute any nation’s flag made them the target of governments and citizen mob groups alike. Except for the Jews, they were proportionally the most persecuted group in Nazi Germany; they were banned during the war in countries like Russia and Spain, and sometimes beaten and jailed in places like Britain, Canada, Cuba, and the United States. The ACLU reported that by 1940 in the United States alone, “more than 1,500 Witnesses . . . had been victimized in 335 separate attacks.”
Today the Jehovah’s Witnesses are best known for their door-to-door preaching, distribution of literature (especially The Watchtower), and for their refusal of blood transfusions. In the United States, legal challenges by Witnesses (twenty-three Supreme Court rulings between 1938 and 1946) have strengthened their civil liberties, especially religious freedom, and Witnesses claim generally to suffer less religious persecution today in the U.S. than perhaps anywhere else in the world.
Although they currently number about 7 million adherents worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned or harshly restricted in many countries. Persecution seems especially strong in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) nations that formerly made up the bulk of the Soviet Union.
In Azerbaijan, for example, where there are only 800 Witnesses in a population of 8 million citizens, Witnesses are continuously subjected to raids on religious meetings, confiscation of literature, arrests of those attending religious meetings, and verbal and physical abuse by Azerbaijan police. On July 15 of this year, police raided a house in the Gakh District to confiscate 1,428 Witness journals said to represent “religious extremism.” Police also disrupted religious meetings in Baku and Ganja where worshipers were arrested and taken to the police station for questioning and detained for hours. According to Wolfram Slupina, in Ganja “police and local officials justified their actions by claiming that Jehovah Witnesses are not registered, even though Azerbaijani law does not require official registration for people to meet together in private homes.”
In Tajikistan, where Jehovah’s Witnesses have been legally registered since 1994, the Ministry of Culture issued a decision in 2007 to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. Consequently, approximately 600 Witnesses in that country can no longer meet legally for worship. Reasons cited for the ban were Witnesses’ refusal of military service and their witnessing activities in public places.
Witnesses seem to receive harsh treatment in Russia also. Forum 18 News Service reports that four lawyers (from Canada and the USA) defending Jehovah’s Witnesses have been deported from Russia since March. The deportation strategy hinders the Witnesses’ attempts to defend themselves in seven court cases where Russian officials seek to ban their literature as “extremist.”
According to Forum 18 News Service, public prosecutors across Russia have conducted more than 500 check-ups on local Jehovah’s Witness communities since February 2009. Witnesses believe prosecutors are conducting “fishing expeditions” that might enable them to shut down Witness headquarters in St. Petersburg and over 400 dependent organizations across Russia. The nationwide sweep seems to have been ordered by the General Prosecutor’s Office in Moscow, which complained that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ missionary activity and rejection of military service and blood transfusions “provoke a negative attitude towards its activity from the population and traditional Russian confessions.” Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia generally believe that the General Prosecutor intends to use Russian laws on religious extremism to restrict or ban worship and distribution of their literature.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have demonstrated themselves for nearly a century and a half to be peaceful and law-abiding citizens in those areas of the world where they reside. They deserve better treatment in CIS countries and elsewhere. Religious freedom can progress only when assaults against established, peaceful, honorable groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses cease.
Derek H. Davis, J.D., Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.
The mission of The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Center for Religious Liberty is to advance religious liberty for all persons, in all parts of the world, without regard to their religious, ethnic, gender, racial or national background. Religious liberty is a basic human right that must be nourished and protected by all human societies; it is the cornerstone of modern societies’ efforts to build a more peaceful world. The Center advances this mission by publishing relevant literature, hosting and sponsoring lectureships and conferences, sharing its expertise with media and other public information outlets, and partnering with other persons and groups who share the goal of advancing religious liberty. The web site for the Center can be found at www.umhb.edu/academics/crl