Scholars from different countries discussed how Russian influence created serious problems of religious liberty, although there are also signs of improvement.
by Marco Respinti
On December 2, 2022, CESNUR, the Center of Studies on New Religions, organized an international webinar on the theme “In the Shadow of Russia: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Religious Freedom in Central Asia.”
Central Asia is an area once part of the Soviet Union that includes five countries, with a total population of 73 million. Uzbekistan accounts for almost half of the population (33 million). The largest and richest (because of oil and gas) of the five countries, Kazakhstan, is as large as all Western Europe, and has a population of 19 million. Follow Tajikistan, approaching 10 million, and Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, with 6.5 million each.
The five states are different in terms of geography, demographics, and economics. What they have in common is that they were once part of the Soviet Union, and that the majority of their population in four states, and a sizeable minority in Tajikistan (which has a Persian majority), is Turkic by ethnicity and language, although many speak Russian, including at home. In all five countries, Sunni Islam is the dominant religion, and religious minorities experience problems. One of these is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Currently, there are some 17,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan and 5,000 in Kyrgyzstan, with smaller communities present in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, introduced the first session. Rosita Šorytė, a former Lithuanian diplomat and a member of the Scientific Committee of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), discussed cases in Kazakhstan where local “experts” prepared in very few days reports claiming that being exposed to the literature of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which allegedly includes “hidden commands” to obey the elders, may severely damage the mental health of the readers. Based on these reports, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced by Kazakh courts to pay damages to so-called “victims.”
Šorytė described a matryoshka system, where Kazakh and other Central Asian “experts” may write their reports very quickly because they copy documents Russian “experts” had prepared in their country. In turn, these Russian “experts” were also very quick because they copied texts by Russian anti-cultists, who in turn often relied on Western anti-cultists and “apostate” ex-members.
The “expert” reports are just one example, Šorytė said, of how attacks against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Central Asia largely come from Russia. They are based on three main false accusations, that the organization uses “brainwashing” and damages the mental health of its members, that it is “extremist” (a word redefined in Russia to include all religious groups that try to convert others to their beliefs), and that it is anti-patriotic and conspires against the state.
Šorytė concluded by citing journalists who called the Russian campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses “impossible to understand” in its motivations. Without presuming to answer the question herself, she said that possible reasons include the Russian Orthodox Church’s defense of its monopoly, the Russian state’s traditional suspicion against independent religious organizations, which even predates the Soviet times, and a certain tradition among post-Soviet psychiatrists and psychologists (who often serve as “experts”) accustomed to see religion as the source of mental health problems.
Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR, surveyed four main problems of the five Central Asian republics after independence. The first is democracy, since the Communist Party nomenklatura largely remained in power after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second is national identity, a concept that emerged gradually in the passage from Czarist Russia, which had conquered the area through military expeditions and saw it as a single “Turkestan,” to the Soviet Union and then to independence. Introvigne noted that, particularly in Kazakhstan, identity is also connected to a catastrophic event, the famine-genocide of 1930–33 provoked by Stalin, which was the Central Asian parallel to the Holodomor in Ukraine and killed at least two million Central Asians.
The third problem is religion, as the republics have inherited the Czarist and Soviet system of a strict control of religious organizations, including the Islamic ones, by the government.
The fourth is the relationship with powerful neighbors, not only Russia but also China and Turkey. The latter once dreamed to federate all “Turkic” countries, including those of Central Asia (except Tajikistan, which is not Turkic by ethnicity and language). Turkey’s soft power was originally promoted through the schools established in Central Asia by Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen’s movement Hizmet. However, after Gülen broke with President Erdoğan in 2013 and his organization was banned by Turkey as a terrorist movement, the Hizmet schools, which many in Central Asia defended as they had a good experience of them, became a bone of contention and poisoned the relations with the Turkish government. China, Introvigne said, is now trying to replace Russia as the main influence, particularly after the aggression to Ukraine and the influx of Russian refugees who escape conscription made the Putin government unpopular in Central Asia.
All these problems, Introvigne concluded, also complicate the issue of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Governments with a deficit of democracy may not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service, or demand registration of religious organizations, which their rules make difficult, before granting a religious group a full freedom of religion. A fragile identity also fuels hostility against those who are perceived as being outside the national tradition and threatening it, while none of the powerful neighbors is a model of religious liberty and Russia actively promotes the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
James T. Richardson, professor emeritus of sociology and judicial studies at University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the better-known international experts of the relationships between religion and law, discussed the landmark June 7, 2022 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the case “Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia.” The decision concerned twenty different cases about the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which were consolidated, and declared the Russian liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the repression of their religious organization in Russia unlawful.
Richardson then examined cases filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses against the Central Asian states, which are not subject to the jurisdiction of the ECHR, at the Human Rights Committee (HRC) of the United Nations, based on their violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which they are all signatories. The cases mostly relied on Article 18 ICCPR, on freedom of religion or belief, although other provisions were also mentioned.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Richardson explained, won all the 19 cases they have filed with the HRC since 2012 and that have been decided so far: fourteen against Turkmenistan; two against Tajikistan; two against Kyrgyzstan; and one against Kazakhstan. The cases concerned censorship of Jehovah’s Witnesses publications (Kazakhstan), problems with registering the organization (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), arbitrary arrest and deportation (Tajikistan), unfair trials and fabricated charges (Turkmenistan), and arrest of conscientious objectors refusing military service (Turkmenistan). There are no decisions about Uzbekistan, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed several cases with the HRC against this country too, and decisions are pending.
Although Central Asian countries have been reluctant to implement the HRC decisions, some positive developments, Richardson said, should be noted. Some problems concerning registration, and importing religious literature from abroad, have been solved. Several jailed Jehovah’s Witnesses have been released, with no new arrests, particularly of conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan. However, the path towards a full adherence to the ICCPR principles in Central Asia is still long.
Rosita Šorytė chaired the second session, which included shorter reports on national situations. She paid homage to Artur Artemyev, a scholar from Kazakhstan who could not attend the seminar for health reasons, but whose publications on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in his country have been translated into various languages and are highly appreciated by the international community of scholars of religions.
Willy Fautré examined the situation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the three countries of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been present and persecuted since the 1940s and 1950s, while they arrived in Turkmenistan in the late 1980s. In these three states, the communities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are smaller than in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and the treatment by the authorities is harsher.
In Tajikistan, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were originally registered in 1994 and 1997, but in 2007 their registration was cancelled and they were banned in the country. On September 7, 2022, the HRC declared the ban unlawful. It is however unclear, Fautré said, whether and when Tajikistan will implement the HRC decision. Meanwhile, the activities of the organization in Tajikistan remain prohibited and Shamil Khakimov, a 71-year old widower and a Jehovah’s Witness, whose health is deteriorating tremendously, is still serving his imprisonment term under a verdict largely based on the 2007 ban decision, despite appeals to free him, inter alia by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In Turkmenistan, the Jehovah’s Witnesses so far have not achieved legal recognition, and meetings have been declared illegal and raided by the police. A serious problem was conscientious objection, and as of May 2021 sixteen Jehovah’s Witnesses were in jail for their refusal to perform military service. After the decisions rendered against Turkmenistan by the HRC all were released, as Richardson had also mentioned, and there have been no new arrests. However, the law still does not provide a civil service alternative for conscientious objectors.
In Uzbekistan the law, even after a 2021 revision that raised hopes of a more tolerant treatment of minorities, still require registration as a pre-condition for operating in the country. The Jehovah’s Witnesses only managed to register in 1994 two local congregations in Fergana and Chirchiq, but the Fergana registration was cancelled in 2006. The authorities claim that the Jehovah’s Witnesses can legally operate only within their Chirchiq premises, and there have been several instances where they have been harassed and arrested in various other cities. Several cases are currently pending at the HRC.
Serik Beissembayev, from the PaperLab Research Center in Astana, Kazakhstan, presented the results of a survey among Kazakh Jehovah’s Witnesses, based on 1,570 questionnaires filled online. Among the respondents, 75% were women, 50.6% were ethnically Russian, and 77% spoke Russian at home. About 19% of the respondents have a college degree, a percentage higher than among the general Kazakh population. 73.4% reported their lives had “significantly improved” since they joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the fact that 3.5% (a normal percentage for all religions) said it had on the contrary “worsened significantly” confirmed that the question was not a leading one, and respondents felt free to answer sincerely.
The majority of respondents felt hopeful about the future and expressed general satisfaction about their life. Their main concern was health (61.5%), followed by spiritual growth (47.1%), safety (42.5%), the family and the children’s future (31.6%), and the environment (28.8%), the latter a serious issue in Kazakhstan. While the percentage of respondents who regarded God as very important in their lives (96%) was higher than in the general population, on other issues their answers, if compared with stereotypical representations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as fanatics preoccupied only with the end of the world as we know it, were surprisingly “normal.” Kazakh Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned with their health, safety, and the future of their children as much as everybody else.
Oleg Sinyakov, from the Center for the Study of Religions (CENTER) in Astana, Kazakhstan, traced the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in his country. Semyon Kozlitsky, who was the first Bible Student (the predecessor organization to the Jehovah’s Witnesses) in Russia, was exiled to the village of Bukhtarma, now in Eastern Kazakhstan, in 1892. Many more were deported to Kazakhstan in the 1940s and 1950s. They converted a tragic experience, Sinyakov said, into an opportunity for evangelization. Both in the camps and once released, when many of them decided to remain in Kazakhstan, they evangelized others, who became in turn targets of the Soviet repression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They gained their religious liberty with the independence of Kazakhstan, and in 1991, the first regional convention of Central Asia was held in Almaty.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan, Sinyakov explained, enjoyed more tolerance than in the neighboring post-Soviet countries, including Russia. However, new problems arose in the 21st century, mostly because of the influence of Russian anti-cult literature and activism. However, when Russia banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, Kazakhstan resisted Russian pressures to do the same, and local authorities declared that the organization was not “extremist.”
There are still issues and court cases whose verdicts are not favorable to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as the one on mental health mentioned by Šorytė. However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan operate, grow, and maintain a dialogue with the authorities, Sinyakov said, which is not easy but has so far given to them at least the basic religious liberty in the country.
Indira Aslanova, from the Research Center for Religious Studies of the Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, presented a paper on the role of “experts,” focusing on her own country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, registration systems were introduced and the state bodies in charge of registering religions did not know most of them. They thus relied on “experts,” who were asked to tell them what the doctrines and practices of the religious organizations seeking registration were. In Kyrgyzstan, this activity is still performed by the State Body for Religious Affairs, which also examines the religious literature for which an authorization is sought to import it into the country.
The State Forensic Service, a different agency, appoints “experts” in court cases where an organization or its literature are accused of being “extremist” in view of limiting or prohibiting their activities.
Both the State Body of Religious Affairs and the State Forensic Service, Aslanova explained, are influenced by the Soviet heritage and by the Russian anti-cult movement, and adopt distinctions generally not accepted by scholars between “traditional” and “non-traditional” religions, and between “religions” and “cults.” The State Body of Religious Affairs, for example, refused to re-register the peaceful Ahmadiyya Community, with the result that all its public activities are currently prohibited, after it sought the opinion of conservative Muslim theologians that declared it “heretic” and a “destructive cult.”
The “experts” appointed by the State Forensic Service, Aslanova said, mostly parrot Russian anti-cult literature, which was apparent in the “expert report” obtained by the Prosecutor General’s Office when in 2021 it filed a lawsuit, which was eventually dismissed, aimed at having the religious literature of the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned as “extremist.”
Aslanova commented that the “expert report” in the Jehovah’s Witnesses case plagiarized Russian texts, and did not meet the requirements set out in the Law on Forensic Activities of the Kyrgyz Republic for the quality of expert studies. In general, these “expert reports” are “fabricated and unnecessary,” she said, and the laws and administrative regulations allowing prosecutors and judges to rely on them should be reformed.
Eileen Barker, professor emerita of Sociology of Religion at the London School of Economics and one of the founders of the modern discipline of the scientific study of new religious movements, offered the conclusions of the webinar. She started from Aslanova’s paper, stating that she had encountered in Russia “expert reports” on groups labeled as “cults” and was unfavorably surprised with their low quality and biased approach. She had also crossed swords with the main luminaries of the Russian anti-cult movement, such as Alexander Dvorkin, whose attitude and prejudices are at the roots of the slander and persecution against the Jehovah’s Witnesses exported from Russia to other countries.
While these Russian sources can be identified and described, Barker agreed with other speakers that the particular fierceness of the Russian attacks against the Jehovah’s Witnesses remains somewhat unexplained, and calls for further studies. In part, there are common reasons why the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been persecuted throughout the world, particularly by nationalist regimes that feel threatened by their refusal to share in national rituals around the flag or the national anthem or to serve in the military, and in countries where oldest Christian religions disturbed by the success of their missionary efforts exert some influence on the political authorities. On the other hand, there should be special Russian factors explaining the fury against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the resources Russia devotes to export its anti-Jehovah’s-Witnesses campaigns abroad.
The webinar offered some answers, and reinforced the hope that through the efforts of scholars, lawyers, and human rights activists the situation in Central Asia can be improved, Barker concluded. However, she said that the worthy event should be seen as the beginning, rather than the conclusion, of a new season of studies and publications on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in post-Soviet societies, which would hopefully also persuade these state authorities that still rely on false information and a biased approach.