Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses

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Throughout Jehovah's Witnesses' history, their beliefs, doctrines, and practices have engendered controversy and opposition from local governments, communities, and religious groups.

Many Christian denominations consider the interpretations and doctrines of Jehovah's Witnesses to be heretical. Some religious leaders have accused Jehovah's Witnesses of being a cult. According to law professor Archibald Cox, in the United States, Jehovah's Witnesses were "the principal victims of religious persecution … they began to attract attention and provoke repression in the 1930s, when their proselytizing and numbers rapidly increased."[1]

Political and religious animosity against Jehovah's Witnesses has at times led to mob action and government oppression in various countries, including Cuba, the United States, Canada, Singapore, and Nazi Germany. The religion's doctrine of political neutrality has led to imprisonment of members who refused conscription (for example in Britain during World War II and afterwards during the period of compulsory national service).

During the World Wars, Jehovah's Witnesses were targeted in the United States, Canada, and many other countries for their refusal to serve in the military or help with war efforts. In Canada, Jehovah's Witnesses were interned in camps[2] along with political dissidents and people of Japanese and Chinese descent. Activities of Jehovah's Witnesses have previously been banned in the Soviet Union and in Spain, partly due to their refusal to perform military service. Their religious activities are currently banned or restricted in some countries, for example in Singapore, China, Vietnam, and many Islamic states.

According to the journal, Social Compass, "Viewed globally, this persecution has been so persistent and of such an intensity that it would not be inaccurate to regard Jehovah's witnesses as the most persecuted religion of the twentieth century".[3] The claim is disputed, as deaths resulting from persecution of Christians of other denominations during the twentieth century are estimated to number 26 million.[4]

Countries[edit]

Benin[edit]

During the first presidency of Mathieu Kérékou, activities of Jehovah's Witnesses were banned and members were forced to undergo "demystification training."[5][clarification needed]

Bulgaria[edit]

In Bulgaria, Jehovah's Witnesses have been targets of violence by right wing nationalist groups such as the Bulgarian National Movement. On April 17, 2011, a group of about sixty hooded men carrying BMPO flags besieged a Kingdom Hall in Burgas, during the annual memorial of Christ's death. Attackers threw stones, damaged furniture, and injured at least five of the people gathered inside.[6][7] The incident was recorded by a local television station.[8] Jehovah's Witnesses in Bulgaria have been fined for proselytizing without proper government permits, and some municipalities have legislation prohibiting or restricting their rights to preach.[9]

Cuba[edit]

Under Fidel Castro's communist regime, Jehovah's Witnesses were considered "social deviants", along with homosexuals, vagrants, and other groups, and were sent to forced labor concentration camps to be "reeducated".[10] Jehovah's Witnesses could not refuse blood transfusions on religious grounds, as the Cuban Healthcare system gave no right to refuse treatment (even on religious or animal rights grounds).[citation needed]

Canada[edit]

During both world wars, Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted for abhorrence of patriotic exercises and conscientious objection to military service.[11]

In 1984, Canada released a number of previously classified documents which revealed that in the 1940s, "able bodied young Jehovah's Witnesses" were sent to "camps", and "entire families who practiced the religion were imprisoned."[2] The 1984 report stated, "Recently declassified wartime documents suggest [World War II] was also a time of officially sanctioned religious bigotry, political intolerance and the suppression of ideas. The federal government described Jehovah's Witnesses as subversive and offensive 'religious zealots' … in secret reports given to special parliamentarian committees in 1942." It concluded that, "probably no other organization is so offensive in its methods, working as it does under the guise of Christianity. The documents prepared by the justice department were presented to a special House of Commons committee by the government of William Lyon MacKenzie King in an attempt to justify the outlawing of the organizations during the second world war."[12]

France[edit]

Prior to World War II, the French government banned the Association of Jehovah's Witnesses in France, and ordered that the French offices of the Watch Tower Society be vacated.[13] After the war, Jehovah's Witnesses in France renewed their operations. In December 1952, France's Minister of the Interior banned The Watchtower magazine, citing its position on military service.[14] The ban was lifted on November 26, 1974.[15][16]

In the 1990s and 2000s, the French government included Jehovah's Witnesses on its list of "cults", and governmental ministers made derogatory public statements about Jehovah's Witnesses.[17] Despite its century of activity in the country, France's Ministry of Finance opposed official recognition of the religion; it was not until June 23, 2000 that France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses qualify as a religion under French law.[18] France's Ministry of the Interior sought to collect 60% of donations made to the religion's entities; Witnesses called the taxation "confiscatory" and appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.[19][20] On June 30, 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that France’s actions violated the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses by demanding 58 million euros in taxes.[21]

Jehovah's Witnesses in France have reported hundreds of criminal attacks against their adherents and places of worship.[22]

French dependencies[edit]

During the ban of the The Watchtower in France, publication of the magazine continued in various French territories. In French Polynesia, the magazine was covertly published under the name, La Sentinelle, though it was later learned that The Watchtower had not been banned locally.[23] In Réunion, the magazine was published under the name, Bulletin intérieur.[24]

Georgia[edit]

In 1996, one year after Georgia adopted its post-USSR Constitution,[25] the country's Ministry of Internal Affairs began a campaign to detain tons of religious literature belonging to Jehovah's Witnesses.[26][27] Government officials refused permits for Jehovah's Witnesses to organize assemblies, and law enforcement officials dispersed legal assemblies. In September 2000, "Georgian police and security officials fired blank anti-tank shells and used force to disperse an outdoor gathering of some 700 Jehovah's Witnesses in the town of Natuliki in northwestern Georgia on 8 September, AP and Caucasus Press reported." [28]

In cases when the instigators were formally charged, prosecution was impeded by a lack of cooperation by government and law enforcement.[29] In 2004, Forum 18 News Service referred to the period since 1999 as a "five-year reign of terror" against Jehovah's Witnesses and certain other religious minorities.[30] Amnesty International noted: "Jehovah's Witnesses have frequently been a target for violence … in Georgia … In many of the incidents police are said to have failed to protect the believers, or even to have participated in physical and verbal abuse." [31] Individual Witnesses have fled Georgia seeking religious refugee status in other nations.[32]

On May 3, 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the government of Georgia for its toleration of religious violence toward Jehovah's Witnesses and ordered the victims be compensated for moral damages and legal costs.[33][34][35]

Germany[edit]

During 1931 and 1932, more than 2000 legal actions were instigated against Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany and members of the religion were dismissed from employment.[36] Persecution intensified following Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor in 1933 and continued until 1945.[37] A "Declaration of Facts" was issued at a Jehovah's Witness convention in Berlin on June 25, 1933, asserting the religion's political neutrality and calling for an end to government opposition. More than 2.1 million copies of the statement were distributed throughout Germany,[38] but its distribution prompted a new wave of persecution against German Witnesses, whose refusal to give the Hitler salute, join Nazi organizations or perform military service demonstrated their opposition to the nationalist and totalitarian ideologies of National Socialism.[39]

On October 4, 1934, congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany sent telegrams of protest and warning to Hitler. According to one eyewitness account Hitler was shown a number of telegrams protesting against the Third Reich's persecution of the Bible Students. The eyewitness, Karl Wittig, reported: "Hitler jumped to his feet and with clenched fists hysterically screamed: 'This brood will be exterminated in Germany!' Four years after this discussion I was able, by my own observations, to convince myself … that Hitler's outburst of anger was not just an idle threat. No other group of prisoners of the named concentration-camps was exposed to the sadism of the SS-soldiery in such a fashion as the Bible Students were. It was a sadism marked by an unending chain of physical and mental tortures, the likes of which no language in the world can express."[40][41]

About 10,000 Witnesses were imprisoned, including 2000 sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by purple triangles; as many as 1200 died, including 250 who were executed.[42][43] From 1935 Gestapo officers offered members a document to sign indicating renouncement of their faith, submission to state authority, and support of the German military. Historian Detlef Garbe says a "relatively high number" of people signed the statement before the war, but "extremely low numbers" of Bible Student prisoners did so in concentration camps in later years.[44]

Despite more than a century of conspicuous activity in the country, Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany were not granted legal recognition until March 25, 2005, in Berlin;[45] in 2006 Germany's Federal Administrative Court (BVerwG) in Leipzig extended the local decision to apply nationwide.[46]

India[edit]

Jehovah’s Witnesses' Office of Public Information has documented a number of mob attacks with impunity in India.[47] It reports that these continuing instances of violence "reveal the country's hostility toward its own citizens who are Christians." Reports also indicate that police assist mob attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses.

For example, in one incident on December 6, 2011, three Witnesses were attacked by a mob in Madikeri, in the state of Karnataka. The male Witness "was kicked and pummeled by the mob" and then the mob dragged them towards a nearby temple; while making lewd remarks, the mob "tried to tear the clothes off of the female Witnesses." According to the report, the police came and "took the three Witnesses to the police station and filed charges against them rather than the mob."[48]

Malawi[edit]

In 1967, thousands of Witnesses in Malawi were beaten by police and citizens for refusing to purchase political party cards to become members of the Malawi Congress Party.[49]

Singapore[edit]

In 1972 the Singapore government de-registered and banned the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that its members refuse to perform military service (which is obligatory for all male citizens), salute the flag, or swear oaths of allegiance to the state.[50][51] Singapore has banned all written materials (including Bibles) published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, both publishing arms of the Jehovah's Witnesses. A person in possession of banned literature can be fined up to S$2,000 (US$1,460) and jailed up to 12 months for a first conviction.[52]

In February 1995, Singapore police raided private homes where group members were holding religious meetings, in an operation codenamed "Operation Hope". Officers seized Bibles, religious literature, documents and computers, and eventually brought charges against 69 Jehovah's Witnesses, many of whom went to jail.[53][54] In March 1995, 74-year-old Yu Nguk Ding was arrested for carrying two "undesirable publications"—one of them a Bible printed by the Watch Tower Society.[55]

In 1996, eighteen Jehovah's Witnesses were convicted for unlawfully meeting in a Singapore apartment and were given sentences from one to four weeks in jail.[56] Canadian Queen's Counsel Glen How flew to Singapore to defend the Jehovah's Witnesses and argued that the restrictions against the Jehovah's Witnesses violated their constitutional rights. Then-Chief Justice Yong Pung How questioned How's sanity, accused him of "living in a cartoon world" and referred to "funny, cranky religious groups" before denying the appeal.[53] In 1998, two Jehovah's Witnesses were charged in a Singapore court for possessing and distributing banned religious publications.[57]

In 1998 a Jehovah's Witness lost a law suit against a government school for wrongful dismissal for refusing to sing the national anthem or salute the flag. In March 1999, the Court of Appeals denied his appeal.[50] In 2000, public secondary schools indefinitely suspended at least fifteen Jehovah's Witness students for refusing to sing the national anthem or participate in the flag ceremony.[58] In April 2001, one public school teacher, also a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, resigned after being threatened with dismissal for refusing to participate in singing the national anthem.[50]

Singapore authorities have seized Jehovah's Witnesses' literature on various occasions from individuals attempting to cross the Malaysia-Singapore border. In thirteen cases, authorities warned the Jehovah's Witnesses, but did not press charges.[58][59][60]

As of 2008, there were 23 members of Jehovah's Witnesses incarcerated in the armed forces detention barracks for refusal to carry out mandatory military service. The initial sentence for failure to comply is 15 months' imprisonment, with an additional 24 months for a second refusal. All of the Jehovah's Witnesses in detention were incarcerated for failing to perform their initial military obligations and expect to serve a total of 39 months.[60] Failure to perform annual military reserve duty, which is required of all those who have completed their initial 2-year obligation, results in a 40-day sentence, with a 12-month sentence after four refusals.[60][61] There is no alternative civilian service for Jehovah's Witnesses.

In 2008–2009, the Singapore government declined to make data available to the public concerning arrests of Jehovah's Witnesses.[62][63]

Soviet Union[edit]

Jehovah's Witnesses did not have a significant presence in the Soviet Union prior to 1939 when the Soviet Union forcibly incorporated eastern Poland, Moldavia, and Lithuania, each of which had a Jehovah's Witness movement. Although never large in number (estimated by the KGB to be 20,000 in 1968), the Jehovah's Witnesses became one of the most persecuted religious groups in the Soviet Union during the post-World War II era.[64] Members were arrested or deported; some were put in Soviet concentration camps. Witnesses in Moldavian SSR were deported to Tomsk Oblast; members from other regions of the Soviet Union were deported to Irkutsk Oblast.[65] KGB officials, who were tasked with dissolving the Jehovah's Witness movement, were disturbed to discover that the Witnesses continued to practice their faith even within the labor camps.[66]

The Minister of Internal Affairs, Viktor Semyonovich Abakumov proposed the deportation of the Jehovah's Witnesses to Stalin in October 1950. A resolution was voted by the Council of Minister and an order was issued by the Ministry for State Security in March 1951. The Moldavian SSR passed a decree "on the confiscation and selling of the property of individuals banished from the territory of the Moldavian SSR", which included the Jehovah's Witnesses.[65]

In April 1951, over 9,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were deported to Siberia under a plan called "Operation North".[67][68]

Importation of Jehovah's Witnesses' literature into the Soviet Union was strictly forbidden, and Soviet Jehovah's Witnesses received their religious literature from Brooklyn illegally. Literature from Brooklyn arrived regularly, through well-organized unofficial channels, not only in many cities, but also in Siberia, and even in the penal camps of Potma.[citation needed] The Soviet government was so disturbed by the Jehovah's Witnesses that the KGB was authorized to send agents to infiltrate the Brooklyn headquarters.[69]

In September 1965, a decree of the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers canceled the "special settlement" restriction of Jehovah's Witnesses, though the decree, signed by Anastas Mikoyan, stated that there would be no compensation for confiscated property. However, Jehovah's Witnesses remained the subject of state persecution due to their ideology being classified as anti-Soviet.[70]

Russian Federation[edit]

On December 8, 2009 the Supreme Court of Russia upheld the ruling of the lower courts which pronounced 34 pieces of Jehovah's Witness literature extremist, including their magazine The Watchtower, in the Russian language, and the book for children, My Book of Bible Stories. Jehovah's Witnesses claim that this ruling affirms a misapplication of the Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity to Jehovah's Witnesses. The ruling upheld the confiscation of property of Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog (Rostov Region) in Russia, and might set a precedent for similar cases in other areas of Russia, as well as placing literature of Jehovah's Witnesses on a list of literature unacceptable throughout Russia. The Chairman of the Presiding Committee of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, Vasily Kalin, said: "I am very concerned that this decision will open a new era of opposition against Jehovah's Witnesses, whose right to meet in peace, to access religious literature and to share the Christian hope contained in the Gospels, is more and more limited." Kalin also stated, "When I was young I was sent to Siberia for being one of Jehovah's Witnesses and because my parents were reading The Watchtower, the same journal being unjustly declared 'extremist' in these proceedings."[71]

On August 7, 2013, the Tsentralniy District Court of the city of Tver, located 100 mi (approx. 160 km) north of Moscow, ruled that the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, jw.org, should be banned throughout the Russian Federation. Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision to the Tver Regional Court, which on January 22, 2014, concluded that the decision of the Tsentralniy District Court was unjustified, since there was no legal reason to ban the site.[72]

United States[edit]

During the 1930s and 1940s, some US states passed laws that made it illegal for Jehovah's Witnesses to distribute their literature, and children of Jehovah's Witnesses in some states were banned from attending state schools. Mob violence against Jehovah's Witnesses was not uncommon, and some were murdered for their beliefs. Those responsible for these attacks were seldom prosecuted.[need quotation to verify][73]

After a drawn-out litigation process in state courts and lower federal courts, lawyers for Jehovah's Witnesses convinced the Supreme Court to issue a series of landmark First Amendment rulings that confirmed their right to be excused from military service and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.[citation needed][when?]

The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses for their refusal to salute the flag became known as the "Flag-Salute Cases".[74] Their refusal to salute the flag became considered as a test of the liberties for which the flag stands, namely the freedom to worship according to the dictates of one's own conscience. It was found that the United States, by making the flag salute compulsory in Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), was impinging upon the individual's right to worship as one chooses — a violation of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause in the constitution. Justice Frankfurter, speaking in behalf of the 8-to-1 majority view against the Witnesses, stated that the interests of "inculcating patriotism was of sufficient importance to justify a relatively minor infringement on religious belief."[75] The result of the ruling was a wave of persecution. Lillian Gobitas, the mother of the schoolchildren involved in the decision said, "It was like open season on Jehovah's Witnesses."[76]

The American Civil Liberties Union reported that by the end of 1940, "more than 1,500 Witnesses in the United States had been victimized in 335 separate attacks."[77] Such attacks included beatings, being tarred and feathered, hanged, shot, maimed, and even castrated, as well as other acts of violence.[78] As reports of these attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses continued, "several justices changed their minds, and in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the Court declared that the state could not impinge on the First Amendment by compelling the observance of rituals."[79]

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  68. ^ Валерий Пасат ."Трудные страницы истории Молдовы (1940–1950)". Москва: Изд. Terra, 1994 (Russian)
  69. ^ Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, New York: Basic Books, 1999, ISBN 0-465-00310-9, p.506.
  70. ^ "Christan Believers Were Persecuted by All Tolatitarian Regimes" Prava Lyudini ("Rights of a Person"), the newspaper of a Ukrainian human rights organization, Kharkiv, December 2001 (Russian)
  71. ^ "Russian Supreme Court rules against Jehovah's Witnesses and religious freedom" December 8, 2009
  72. ^ "Attempt to Ban JW.ORG Fails"
  73. ^ cf. Peters, Shawn Francis. Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution p.11. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2000.
  74. ^ Hall, Kermit L. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States p394. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  75. ^ ibid p.395
  76. ^ Irons, Peter. A People's History of the Supreme Courtp. 341. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999.
  77. ^ Peters, Shawn Francis. Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution p10. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.
  78. ^ Peters, ibid p. 8.
  79. ^ Hall. ibid. p.395.

Additional reading[edit]