Witnesses mount campaign against persecution

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Jehovah’s Witnesses may not boast as large a following as more mainstream faiths, but people of the faith are seeking to make a massive global impact. All eight million of them are encouraged to participate in a letter writing campaign to Russia in effort to “express the hope that the Russian authorities will stop the legal action being taken against the branch office and the congregations in Russia so that our brothers and sisters can continue to gather peacefully for Christian meetings without interference.” Locally, Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be found in both Warwick and Cranston.

A press release from Jehovah’s Witness site jw.org details happenings in Russia, saying, “Russia’s Ministry of Justice filed a claim with the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation to label the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia as extremist and liquidate it. The claim also seeks to ban the activities of the Administrative Center.”

The release states the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the claim on April 5th and that if the claim is upheld, the Witnesses’ national headquarters near St. Petersburg will be shut down and about 400 registered Local Religious Organizations liquidated, outlawing the services of over 2,300 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.

“Individual Jehovah’s Witnesses would become subject to criminal prosecution for merely carrying out their worship activities,” the release says. Instructions for the campaign on jw.org provide six different addresses for writers to send their letters, including President Vladimir Putin, Minister of Justice Alexander Vladimirovich Konovalov, Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov, Prosecutor General Yury Yakovlevich Chayka, and Chairman of the Supreme Court Viacheslav Mikhailovich Lebedev.

A report from USA Today also describes the potential extremist designation and says 175,000 total Witnesses could be affected.

Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t often in the news but are also no strangers to controversy – whenever they are seen in any form of media, it’s often under a critical eye. They’re known for their door-to-door evangelizing, but also for their rather unconventional views that closely follow the Bible. They don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays and abstain from political activities, including voting and running for public office. The latter is due to their belief that they are part of a Kingdom of God rather than of any governments established by humans.

“We don’t have confidence that there is any human government that is capable of dealing with… all the complex issues we have as humans,” said Tyrie Jones, a media representative for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “That’s one thing we hold true to, even in Russia, and that’s one complication that’s viewed as being extremist; that we have a government that we feel is superior to any human government and that’s one set up in Heaven.”

However, Jones also notes that Witnesses aren’t out to usurp or deny the legitimacy of authorities – their views may be “extremely different,” but not “extremist,” he said.

“I think our history is crystal clear on that, that we have the utmost respect, and we’re commanded even scripturally to respect, the superior authorities in place,” Jones said.

Johnston Witness Jerry Shearer said efforts, like the letter writing campaign, Witnesses have made to protect themselves and their right to practice their religion stand to benefit many other groups as well.

“The freedom that all of us enjoy in this country right now has a lot to do with what the Jehovah’s Witnesses have done,” he said. “Even groups that theologically we wouldn’t agree with, what we have done has protected everyone’s civil rights and everyone’s freedom of expression.”

As for their current campaign, Shearer and Jones hope their letters will be successful in making an impact on the Russian officials who read them and help them to understand that their population of Jehovah’s Witnesses are good citizens.

“We don’t believe we should sit back and do nothing. We have all been praying about this for some time,” Shearer said. “We know it’s going to have an impact if all 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses… write six letters. That’s going to have a huge impact on the postal service in Moscow. They’re going to see that they’re coming from all over the world.”

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