Data show that they are the #1 target of religious intolerance worldwide. A seminar and two special journal issues explored the question why.
by Alessandro Amicarelli
Last week, The Journal of CESNUR, the academic journal published by the Center for Studies on New Religions, offered for free download the second of two issues featuring the proceedings of a seminar on “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Opponents: Russia, the West, and Beyond,” organized in Vilnius, Lithuania on September 3, 2020. CESNUR co-sponsored the event with Vytautas Magnus University of Kaunas, Lithuania, and Vilnius’ New Religions Research and Information Center. It should have been held at the University of Vilnius but, days before the event, COVID-related restrictions forced to move it online. The video featuring the whole event is accessible through CESNUR’s YouTube channel.
The Journal of CESNUR published five papers of the Vilnius seminar in its November-December 2020 issue, and another four in the issue for January-February 2021, plus one by University of Naples’ Germana Carobene, who had not been able to attend the event.
The USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom), a bipartisan commission of the U.S. federal government, whose members are designated by the congressional leaders of both political parties, Democrat and Republican, and appointed by the President, published in November 2020 a report evidencing that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the single most persecuted religious organization throughout the world.
Detailed as it was, the USCIRF report barely touched the question discussed in the Vilnius seminar: why are the Jehovah’s Witnesses persecuted? The first of the two Journal of CESNUR issues, which also featured an article by Italian scholar Raffaella Di Marzio evidencing that affiliation to Jehovah’s Witnesses follows paths similar to those scholars have studied with respect to other religious traditions (rather than involving something unique or sinister), mostly discussed the reasons of the persecution in Russia. In the second issue, while continuing the analysis of Russia through the article of Germana Carobene, the scholars study opposition to the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a global phenomenon.
There are good reasons to deal with Russia separately, first of all because of the sheer magnitude of the Witnesses’ persecution there, particularly since their organization was “liquidated” by the Supreme Court in 2017. Former Lithuanian diplomat, and human rights activist, Rosita Šorytė, and Russian scholar Sergey Ivanenko revisited the history of Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, evidencing the deep roots of a mistrust for anything perceived as “foreign” and “Western,” which continues in Putin’s Russia. They also mentioned that the national security concept of Putin’s ideologues includes “spiritual security,” and an attempt to preserve the monopoly of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) from any competition, a theme further explored in the articles of Human Rights Without Frontiers’ co-founder Willy Fautré and well-known American scholar of the relationship between religious movements and legal systems, James T. Richardson. When a religion is perceived as successful in converting Russians away from the ROC and as “coming from abroad,” worse still if it comes from the United States, the spiritual security ideology easily turns into persecution.
As Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, from the French University of Bordeaux, astutely observed, what is happening in Russia is a perfect example of historian René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat. Jehovah’s Witnesses are scapegoated for the failures and anxieties of both the Putin regime and the ROC, whose loss of members and prestige has reasons that are not connected with the comparatively minuscule activities of the Witnesses in Russia.
But why are the Jehovah’s Witnesses also discriminated in countries other than Russia? Similar security concerns may be at work in non-democratic countries such as Eritrea or China, yet, there have been and still are hostility, defamation, and discrimination even where an old democratic tradition prevails. University of Milan’s Silvio Ferrari is preparing an atlas of freedom of religion or belief, and shows how intolerance and discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses is still significant in several democratic countries.
Distinguished American historian J. Gordon Melton studied the case of the United States, where the Jehovah’s Witnesses were originally persecuted for their refusal to serve in the military, salute the flag, or sing the national anthem. Eventually, the court cases they took up to the Supreme Court, and won, were beneficial to freedom of religion in general, and clarified that the Witnesses’ so-called “separateness” from politics and the state is protected by religious liberty.
Yet, an opposition continues in the United States as well as in Western Europe, Australia-New Zealand, and elsewhere. On the one hand, it is fueled by religionists who see the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “heretic.” As argued by both Melton and George Chryssides, a British scholar who has written several books on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, religions liberally trading accusations of heresy and heterodoxy against each other are found throughout all of religious history, yet in the case of the Witnesses their doctrines are often viciously misunderstood and misrepresented. One reason may be, again, the “separateness” of the organization, which some may perceive as threatening, while on the other hand the Witnesses may have often been the victims of their own success, as other religions regard them as unwelcome and dangerous competitors.
Issues such as conscientious objection and the refusal of blood transfusion are less important today than they were decades ago, as most democratic states have passed laws and adopted technical solutions accommodating those who refuse to serve in the military or object to blood transfusions. However, these themes have not totally disappeared.
There is also a second opposition, which is secular rather than sectarian. An anti-cult paradigm accusing a variety of movements labeled as “cults” of brainwashing their followers, violating the human dignity of ex-members, and hiding sexual abuse, is also applied against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne, managing director of CESNUR, examines in particular this secular hostility to the Witnesses, noting that while in non-democratic countries they are the victims of de facto religious monopolies such as the one enjoyed by the ROC in Russia, or of a “sacralization of the state,” in North America, Western Europe, and elsewhere their problem is the “sacralization of the person” studied by German sociologist Hans Joas. It may seem that sacralizing the person and her rights is a welcome development but, as Joas noted, all depends on how human rights are defined, which became a controversial subject in recent years.
As Introvigne observed, individual rights may be used today to deny corporate rights. The freedom of individual religious believers is recognized more easily than the freedom of religious organizations to regulate their own internal activities as they deem fit, although courts of law, including the European Court of Human Rights and the U.S. and Canadian Supreme Courts, still try to protect the latter as well. This is reflected in challenges against the rights of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to discipline their devotees recognized as guilty of wrongdoings through their own internal procedures, and to recommend that those who are not immediate members of their families refrain from further associating with certain categories of apostate ex-members (so-called “ostracism”). While identified as part of the religious and organizational autonomy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in several court cases, “ostracism” continues to be aggressively criticized by anti-cultists and some media.
The issue of sexual abuse is part of the same problem. American scholar of religion Holly Folk examined it in the Vilnius seminar. Although her full paper has not yet been published, a video is available, and she wrote four articles that appeared last week in Bitter Winter on the issue. They show that, although there have been cases of sexual abuse by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the number of perpetrators is not higher, and may actually be significantly lower, when compared to the prevalence of sexual abuse in other religions and in our modern societies in general. It is also not true, Folk said, that Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose reporting of cases of sexual abuse to secular authorities when it is mandated by the laws, nor that they sanction those who report. When governmental documents or media repeat unfounded allegations by anti-cultists, or single out Jehovah’s Witnesses falsely alleging that sexual abuse is more prevailing in their congregations than in other groups or in society in general, they are consciously or unconsciously supporting an agenda that attacks the Witnesses for reasons that have little to do with the protection of the victims of abuse.
Exploring this agenda was the purpose of the Vilnius seminar. While further studies are certainly needed and welcome, the two publications show that, through the event in Lithuania, real progress was made.