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Putin disavows crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses, giving hope to detained

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a Cabinet meeting in Moscow on Dec. 26, 2018. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (RNS) — Before he was arrested in April, Anatoly Vilitkevich often went door to door in his hometown, proselytizing and passing out literature inviting strangers to join his church. On April 10, masked police officers armed with automatic weapons arrested the 32-year-old handyman at the apartment he shares with his wife, Alyona, in Ufa, in central Russia. They advised him to bring warm clothes.

“They said he wouldn’t be coming home again,” said Alyona Vilitkevich. His sole crime under Russian law was doing what Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for the world over.

But lately Vilitkevich’s family has cause for hope. Last month, while meeting with human rights defenders, Russian President Vladimir Putin called assertions that Jehovah’s Witnesses had been classified as members of a terrorist, or even destructive, organization “complete nonsense.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians too. I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted,” Putin said. “So this should be looked into. This must be done.”

While his critics claim it was impossible that Putin did not know the scope of the crackdown against the Jehovah’s Witnesses — not least because Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, raised the issue with him during a visit to Moscow in 2017 — Kremlin watchers said the president’s comments could spell the end of a two-year-long persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.

Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses wait in a courtroom in Moscow on April 20, 2017. Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organization be considered an extremist group, ordering closure of the group’s Russia headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Shortly after Putin’s statement, Arkadya Akopyan, a 70-year-old man from Kabardino-Balkaria, a region in southern Russia, was sentenced to 120 hours of community service after being charged with commissioning people to distribute “extremist” Jehovah’s Witness literature. He had faced up to six years in prison.

The Vilitkeviches have both been Jehovah’s Witnesses since the 1990s, when the breakup of the officially atheist Soviet Union saw an influx of new religious beliefs to Russia. But as Russia’s relations with the West collapsed after the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Moscow began to target “foreign” religions. In July 2016, Putin approved legislation that outlawed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Baptists’ missionary work.

There was a further escalation in April 2017, when a Russian Supreme Court ruling classified the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist organization.” The decision put the country’s 170,000 members of what is officially a pacifist Christian denomination on a par with the Islamic State militant group and neo-Nazi movements.

Judges of Russia’s Supreme Court attend a hearing in Moscow on Jan. 23, 2014. Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

In its ruling, the Supreme Court was responding to Justice Ministry attorneys who alleged that the Christian group posed a threat to “public order and public security,” although they did not specify how. Russian government officials also accused the Jehovah’s Witnesses of preaching the “exclusivity and supremacy” of their beliefs.

Since then, the government has closed Jehovah’s Witness prayer halls, confiscated the group’s property and banned its translation of the Bible, which uses the word “Jehovah” in place of “God” or “Lord.” Analysts at the United Nations warned that the Supreme Court ruling signaled a “dark future” for religious freedom in Russia.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, has not commented on the crackdown, but senior officials in the church, a key Kremlin ally, have been enthusiastic in their support. The Witnesses, said Metropolitan Hilarion, an aide to the patriarch, “manipulate people’s senses and destroy minds and families.”

Despite Putin’s comments, there are still 25 Jehovah’s Witnesses behind bars awaiting trial or being tried, while another 24 are under house arrest. Scores more have also been charged with participating in or organizing the group’s activities.

Danish citizen Dennis Christensen was detained in Oryol, Russia, after a Jehovah’s Witness service was raided. Photo courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

One of the first to be arrested was Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old Danish citizen, who was detained in May 2017, when masked officers stormed a Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible study group he was attending in Oryol. Agents from the FSB security service, formerly known as the KGB, accompanied the officers.

Christensen, who has lived in Russia for more than 20 years and is married to a Russian, was charged with organizing Jehovah’s Witnesses prayer meetings. A verdict in his trial, which began in February, is expected this month. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

Roman Markin, a 44-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, was detained about the same time as Anatoly Vilitkevich. Police broke down the door to Markin’s apartment in Murmansk, a city in Russia’s far north. “They forced him and his 16-year-old daughter to the floor at gunpoint,” said Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Markin spent 176 days behind bars before he was placed under house arrest.

In May, in Birobidzhan, a small town close to Russia’s border with China, police raided 20 homes belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The raids were carried out by about 150 police officers, who reportedly called their operation “Judgment Day.”

Some analysts say the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been singled out because of their resolutely apolitical stance. Witnesses refuse to vote, serve in the military or participate in politics in any way.

“The Jehovah’s Witnesses were targeted because they do not support the wave of patriotism sweeping the country during the confrontation with the West,” said Roman Lunkin, a religion analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

Whether the arrests continue or not, there are few signs that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are prepared to abandon their religion.

“We continue to worship, cautiously, at private apartments,” said Pavel, a Jehovah’s Witness in Moscow who asked that his last name not be disclosed. “There is concern, of course. But we keep our faith and continue to believe that God’s name is Jehovah. We do not deny our beliefs.”

A house where Jehovah’s Witnesses prayed in Zheshart, in northwest Russia, was destroyed by arson in 2017. The Witnesses say a Molotov cocktail was found at the site. Photo courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

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Marc Bennetts

27 Comments

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  • Mr. President, my friend!
    Great idea for keeping President Erdogan in the loop for future problems that need to be addressed. Excellent,

  • Vlad: DonnieBoy how you deal with JWs in west? These what you try build wall for?

    Donald TRump: Pootie Baby my love, they won’t let me build wall and now I’m so SCARED. I shut down government but now everyone blame me for what I do. So UNFAIR to get responsibility for my own actions. It’s TERRIBLE. Now it’s getting really HOT over here on me with Mueller going to impeach my ass too. I need trip to Moscow and be safe there. You help me please please?

    Vlad: Good job with shut down democracy government DonnieBoy. You learn teaching from Russia school good. No problem for come to Moscow. We make apartment below my penthouse for you and big babushkas keep you warm and your small hands busy yes and Mark Connelly service you on knees as usual. I handle Melanoma divorce for you and no problem Russia-style with my big bare chest on hers. Soon we break America and build great Russiamerica together, then soon break EU. We start with Brexit ha hardly need help and take over Europe next.

  • I haven’t seen much reason to trust Putin’s rhetoric past the end of the day he says whatever. With his expanding control over Russian media, he has little fear of being confronted with any gap, no matter how large, between word and deed.

    Since Putin has significant support from the ROC, other sects shouldn’t be breathing easy. Any tolerance will be snuffed as soon as it’s the least threat.

  • The Bible teaches this and lovers of the bible follow this are the terrorist?

    Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16 Have the same attitude toward others as toward yourselves; do not set your mind on lofty things, but be led along with the lowly things.b Do not become wise in your own eyes.
    17 Return evil for evil to no one. Take into consideration what is fine from the viewpoint of all men. 18 If possible, as far as it depends on you, be peaceable with all men. 19 Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but yield place to the wrath; for it is written: “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says Jehovah. 20 But “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing this you will heap fiery coals on his head. 21 Do not let yourself be conquered by the evil, but keep conquering the evil with the good.

  • This is good news. Freedom for all religions. The JWs I know are good, law-abiding, honest Christians. Not riddled with hypocrisy like many other religions.

  • “jehovah in place of God or Lord!?” Dont the russians have the internet? how hard is it to find that the word LORD was inserted to replace the word “Jehovah” hundreds of years ago? Dont the russians know what the Dead Sea Scrolls are? heck Many king james bibles openly say that in the preface.

  • The people speaking against Jehovahs witnesses on Quora, are linked together from other sites, such as Jehovahs-witness dot com, a hate site about jehovahs witnesses, where people who want to complain, or be a crybaby about their being thrown out due to bad behaviors. they will always claim they left on their own, or they will claim to have had prominance (in the eyes of people seeing on the internet, at least) by saying “Im an ex bethelite.” or “Im an ex pioneer” Or elder. they will claim to have been witnesses for decades. Such as 31 years, but they are only 35 years old.
    Or they will claim to have deep knowledge about Jehovahs witnesses, but they were actually just a rebellious teen that never got baptized, well over 30 years ago, and still claim to be an ex-jw. A woman named Jan is doing that.

  • That’s not uncommon with cult-type religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s difficult to successfully deprogram that nonsense.

  • Watch Tower Society unfulfilled predictions
    Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society publications have made a series of predictions about Christ’s Second Coming and the advent of God’s Kingdom, each of which has gone unfulfilled. Almost all the predictions for 1878, 1881, 1914, 1918 and 1925 were later reinterpreted as a confirmation of the eschatological framework of the Bible Student movement and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with many of the predicted events viewed as having taken place invisibly. Further expectations were held for the arrival of Armageddon in 1975, but resulted in a later apology to members from the society’s leadership.

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses accused of silencing victims of child abuse
    Scores of alleged victims come forward and describe culture of cover-up in religious group in UK

    Sarah Marsh

    @sloumarsh
    Sun 25 Mar 2018 07.54 EDT Last modified on Thu 27 Sep 2018 12.24 EDT
    This article is over 9 months old
    More than 100 people have contacted the Guardian with allegations of child sexual abuse and other mistreatment in Jehovah’s Witness communities across the UK.

    Former and current members, including 41 alleged victims of child sexual abuse, described a culture of cover-ups and lies, with senior members of the organisation, known as elders, discouraging victims from coming forward for fear of bringing “reproach on Jehovah” and being exiled from the congregation and their families.

    A Guardian investigation also heard from 48 people who experienced other forms of abuse, including physical violence when they were children, and 35 who witnessed or heard about others who were victims of child grooming and abuse.

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses link to UN queried
    Sect accused of hypocrisy over association with organisation it has demonised.
    Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent

    Mon 8 Oct 2001 18.42 EDT First published on Mon 8 Oct 2001 18.42 EDT
    The United Nations is being asked to investigate why it has granted associate status to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the fundamentalist US-based Christian sect, which regards it as the scarlet beast predicted in the Book of Revelation.
    Disaffected members of the 6m-strong group, which has 130,000 followers in the UK, have accused the Witnesses’ elderly governing body of hypocrisy in secretly accepting links with an organisation that they continue to denounce in apocalyptic terms.

    The UN itself admitted yesterday that it was surprised that the sect, whose formal name is the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, had been accepted on its list of non-governmental organisations for the last 10 years.

  • Jaja the name Jehovah was not recorded on NT manuscripts, THE INFAMOUS WATCHTOWER REAL ESTATE INC. ADDED IN THE NEW WORLD TRANSLATION.

  • And then we find the ass kissers of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses saying: I am not a Jehovah s Witness but they are the true religion.

  • And then we have Bethelites who write on behalf of the WATCHTOWER but with the purpose of hurting ex members saying hurtful things, calling them apostates, hurting ex members who abandoned the sect because of being raped by Elders and all of this coming from the religion of love. I laugh on these Bethelites because I know why they are there, they are there because they are afraid of the real world, they can t keep a 9 to 5 job, they work for food but they have to agree with the boss and keep cleaning toilets.

  • Members should not be persecuted, the only people that should be put on trial are the Circuit and District Overseers, the President and members of Bethel, they should be prosecuted and put in jail for the rest of their life, the same all over the world, not forgetting the Governing Body in Patterson, NJ, they should be prosecuted for crimes against humankind. This is not a religion, it is a pure evil organization.

  • you are very wrong on that. if you read your bible you would know that the original book of Matthew was written in Hebrew and contained the name Jehovah. As well as versus that had direct quotes from the Hebrew scriptures. BUT i did notice that you are not disputing that God’s name is Jehovah…..why is that?

  • you are so bitter and sad……it’s easy to see you may have been one of JWs but was disfellowshipped for wrong doing and got hurt and upset. Expectations are not the same as teachings nor predictions. Yes they had wrong thoughts regarding the end, but even you cannot deny that what is going on in this world is leading to Armageddon. you can’t say that the teachings changed nor are they wrong…..this world is ending and it will be soon.

  • I don’t see Jehovah’s Witnesses inciting violence or anarchy. They are pretty neutral and want to stay out of politics and government. How does that classify them as an extremist/terrorist organization? This is definitely a human rights issue. They should be able to freely practice their religion just like everyone else.

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