Posts Tagged ‘Koptev’

Russia Persecutes the Jehovah’s Witnesses

December 18, 2015

Religious persecution has returned to Russia again after the collapse of Communism. It was reported a few weeks ago in the I that a judge in a region about 600 miles away from Moscow had decided that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were an illegal sect, and sentenced a small group of mainly elderly believers to jail. The leader of this band of dangerous religious zealots was Koptev, a man in his 70s. Putin’s regime, at least in that part of the Russian Federation, has decided that the JWs are a dangerous and subversive organisation. They have put them on a list of such dangers to the post-Soviet state as ISIS, al-Qaeda, the mafia, and Neo-Nazi organisations.

Really! I never knew the Jehovah’s Witnesses were such a danger to life, liberty and property. There I was thinking the only thing wrong with them was that they turned up on your doorstep trying to interest you in joining them and offering copies of The Watchtower.

Most people probably find their religious proselytizing silly, but it’s absurd and monstrous to put them in the same category as genuine threats to life, limb and freedom like organised crime, Fascists and Islamist terrorists. Their prosecution renewed fears that Russia was returning to the bitter anti-religious campaign it pursued under Communism. Religious believers of all faiths, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and shamanists were rounded up and sent to the gulags. Their places of worship were torn down, and the few that survived the campaign were closely monitored. There was some toleration for believers practising their religion, but if you tried to explain the tenets, you would be arrested and tried. Baptists, Pentecostalists and Seventh Day Adventists in particular were heavily persecuted. If you dared to hold a religious service in your own home, you could be arrested and your house torn down. The state also promoted vicious conspiracy theories about the Pentecostalists to work up public sentiment against them. They were accused of becoming rich through taking money secretly smuggled in by an American ship in the Russian far north every year. All Soviet recruits to the army are viciously bullied under the brutal regime of the grandfathers, but the treatment meted out to Pentecostalists was especially harsh. They were beaten particularly savagely, many having to spend weeks recovering in the hospital afterwards as a result.

This looks like a return to those days, though my guess is that it’s now less about atheism than about Russian nationalism and the alliance Putin has struck with the Russian Orthodox Church. Not that this necessarily rules out a militantly atheist component in the persecution. Some of the judges and attitudes are no doubt left over from the officially atheist regime of the Soviet Union, and may see religious organisations generally as a subversive threat, just as the former Soviet state did.

And my guess is that the JWs are being persecuted not just because they’re a foreign religious denomination, but for the same reason the Nazis threw them into the camps: they don’t accept secular messiahs. They were persecuted by the Nazis as they recognised that Hitler was making a claim to be such a figure. The Nazi oath, to be recited in schools, had children swearing allegiance to ‘my Fuehrer sent by God’, and so treated Hitler as he deserved. They rejected him. This saw believers as young as 17 thrown into the concentration camps as a subversive threat to the Nazi state.

First Hitler, now Putin.

I don’t have a lot of time for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t share their religious views. But they aren’t any kind of political threat or menace to society, except to totalitarian despots. Yeah, it’s irritating when they turn up at your house to promote their religion, but that’s all it is. In genuinely free societies, people are at liberty to have and to promote different philosophical, religious and political views, as long as this does not involve force. That means that they are at liberty to knock on doors asking them if they’d like to join them, just as it also means that everyone else has the right to say ‘No’, or argue with them. Or agree, and join them, if they so wish.

This is part of what it means to live in genuinely pluralist, free society. And that’s why Putin’s persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is also part of an attack on everyone’s liberties in Russia.