Prosecutors call zealous group a `totalitarian sect’
Russia’s 133,000 believers brace for more restrictions
MOSCOW—Often while growing up in the Soviet Union, Oleg Marchenko would sneak out of the house with his parents for late-night meetings.
The family knew it was being watched by the dreaded KGB and lived in constant fear.
Secret police agents would sometimes raid Marchenko’s home, seizing forbidden literature and threatening his parents with imprisonment.
They were not a family of political dissidents. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And today, Marchenko, a 39-year-old husband and father, is again living in fear.
“I remember well the Soviet times, the feeling that some day the police would come and take my parents away forever,” says the third-generation Jehovah’s Witness.
“I have a feeling now that those times are coming back, that the freedom we had in the beginning of the 1990s is coming to an end.”
There is no doubt that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, zealous evangelizers who preach strict adherence to the Bible, are a controversial organization.
Officials in many countries, including Canada, have tried to control the group’s activities.
But few have gone as far as the city of Moscow, which on March 26 won a court case to ban the religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Russian capital.
Prosecutors in the case argued that the group is “breaking up families, inciting its members to suicide and harming their life and health” because it forbids blood transfusions.
The ban will deny Jehovah’s Witnesses the right to any form of religious activity, including the holding of meetings or services in private homes.
It also will make it illegal for the group to import or distribute its literature and to carry out missionary work.
The ban will not take effect until an appeal is decided in late May or early June, but observers here seriously doubt that appeal will be successful.
“Our track record with the Moscow courts does not give us much hope,” said John Burns, a Toronto lawyer who is representing the group here, after the ruling.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a long history of persecution in Russia.
Founded in the United States in the late 19th century, the group appeared in Russia several years later. It now has about 133,000 members across the country, including an estimated 10,000 in Moscow.
Under Stalin’s state atheism campaign, thousands of Witnesses were exiled to Siberian labour camps in the early 1950s, including Marchenko’s grandparents and their five children, who spent eight years in a Siberian camp before being released.
The group remained illegal until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, its members subject to official harassment and occasional imprisonment.
In the heady days that followed the end of Soviet rule, Jehovah’s Witnesses registered congregations across the country and built dozens of places of worship, called Kingdom Halls.
“Everyone was so happy in those times, it was a like a festival,” Marchenko recalls.
The atmosphere started to change when Russia adopted a new law on religious worship in 1997 that enshrines Orthodox Christianity as the country’s predominant religion.
The law also pledges respect for Russia’s three other “traditional” faiths — Buddhism, Islam and Judaism — and gives federal and local authorities the right to impose restrictions on other religions’ activities.
The law has also been used against the Salvation Army, which has been denied registration in Moscow and is currently in court.
Outside the courtroom, Jehovah’s Witness spokesperson Vasiliy Kalin told reporters: “In the Soviet time, a Russian had to be an atheist. The situation has changed and a Russian must be Orthodox now.”
Proceedings were first launched to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow in 1998.
In 2001, a Moscow court ruled against the ban, but a higher court subsequently ordered a new hearing in the case and the second trial began in November, 2002.
The prosecution offered testimony from religious experts describing the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “a totalitarian sect” that “tries to control people’s consciousness.”
It also provided testimony from medical experts about the dangers of refusing blood transfusions. Two Witnesses are known to have died in Russia in the last decade for refusing transfusions on religious grounds.
Defence lawyers offered testimony from doctors who described alternative treatments to blood transfusions available in Moscow.
The defence also pointed to a wealth of international precedence supporting the group’s right to exist.
“This is a known religious minority whose rights have been protected by courts around the world,” Burns said.
The group has submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights for a ruling. Russia signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998.
Though the ban has yet to take effect, the ruling is already having consequences.
Marchenko says his congregation, which has about 100 members, has been thrown out of the theatre where it had been holding its services.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have accused Russia’s Orthodox Church, to which the great majority of Russians at least nominally belong, of pushing hard for the ban behind the scenes.
Burns says a Church representative was present during the trial to advise the prosecution.
Church officials deny any involvement in the case but say they do believe the Witnesses’ activities should be restricted.
“We are very much against the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, especially their aggressive missionary activities,” said Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy.
“The Church has never officially supported or condemned the case against them …. We are not rallying for state repression, but the majority of our believers would say that their activities should be limited.”
Prominent Russian rabbi Berl Lazar responded to the ban with careful comments, saying that in “the relationship of a person with the Almighty, there cannot and should not be any restrictions of freedom. But as regards relationships among people, the law has the right to say its piece.”
The head of the Central Spiritual Directorate of Russian Muslims, Talgat Tadzhuddin, wholeheartedly welcomed the ban, telling the Interfax news agency that the ruling was “a milestone and positive event.”
Said Tadzhuddin: “The people of Russia have already suffered enough. They are fed up with ideologies alien to Russian beliefs.”
The ruling drew stern rebukes from groups supporting religious freedom and human rights.
The U.S. State Department weighed in, with public-affairs assistant secretary Richard Boucher urging “local authorities and the Russian government to honour their commitments to respect the right of all faiths to religious freedom.”
Lawrence Uzzell, president of the U.S.-based International Religious Freedom Watch and an authority on the former Soviet Union, said the ruling is worrying because Jehovah’s Witnesses are often a litmus test for religious freedom.
“There are religions that are very well liked and respected; the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not one of them. But they are perfectly legal in every country that meets the minimum standards for religious freedom.
“They are pushy, they are obnoxious, but they test whether you really believe in freedom of religion.”
Uzzell called the ruling part of a “slow and steady decline” in religious tolerance in Russia that could serve as a precedent for attacks against other religious minorities.
“There have been other problems for religious organizations in the past, such as getting registration,” he said. “But this is the first time one has actually been banned.”
Burns worries that other Russian communities will follow the capital’s lead.
“Moscow is the model for the rest of the country, so we’re anticipating problems in other communities,” he says.
“Other religious minorities should really be watching this case, because they may be next.”
Michael Mainville is a Canadian journalist based in Russia.