Russia Outlaws Jehovah’s Witnesses

Russia’s Supreme Court declared that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist group” and in violation of Russia’s anti-extremism laws (here). This seems bizarre, almost surrealistic. These are the same pamphlet-bearing people - almost always women - who knock on doors, announce that the world is coming to an end, and tell you to clean up your act and come to Jesus. While nearly everyone finds them annoying, they are hardly dangerous. They are pacifists, and preach non-violence. The usual tactic of pretending no one is at home seems adequate. Why outlaw them?

A lawyer for Russia’s Ministry of Justice said, “They pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security.” That’s about as much as anyone has said in this matter. Even our religious media doesn’t seem terribly concerned. While Russia can now confiscate their offices, this is hardly an attempt to steal assets. I suspect the costs of prosecution exceed the value of any assets that will be recovered. Why persecute them?

It turns out that the United States has attempted similar actions in the past (here). New Haven, Connecticut – which was strongly Catholic – convicted some proselytizing Jehovah’s Witnesses of breaking the peace. The case, Cantwell vs. Connecticut, went to the Supreme Court in 1940. The Jehovah’s Witnesses won. West Virginia also convicted the Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to take the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1943, the Supreme Court reversed the convictions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to have 170,000 members throughout Russia. Even if this is true, it is about 0.1% of Russia’s population. They are unlikely to pose a serious problem. Why go after them? About the only plausible suggestion I saw is that the Russian Orthodox Church got annoyed, much as New Haven’s Catholics had. Putin wants good relations with the Orthodox Church, and may have felt this was a good way to strengthen his ties. He obviously thought he had nothing to lose. He has the power to suppress civil rights, and used it.