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Jehovah’s Witnesses

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NOVEMBER 18, 2016
RUSSIA

PART 1 Supplement

Exclusive Interviews—Experts Explain: Russia Uses Anti-Extremism Law as Ploy to Criminalize Jehovah’s Witnesses

Exclusive Interviews—Experts Explain: Russia Uses Anti-Extremism Law as Ploy to Criminalize Jehovah’s Witnesses

This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

Russian authorities are seeking to liquidate the national legal entity of Jehovah’s Witnesses for alleged “extremist activity,” effectively banning the Witnesses throughout the federation. The Witnesses’ are appealing the charges against them as well as the legality of the warning against their national Administrative Center.

Regarding the Witnesses’ case, as well as Russia’s general approach to combating “extremism”, exclusive interviews were held with several noted scholars of religion, politics, and sociology, as well as experts in Soviet and post-Soviet studies.

Do you think nonviolent religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, should be declared “extremist” and banned throughout the federation?

  • Prof. William S. B. Bowring

    “No. In my opinion, it is absurd and unintelligible to regard Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremist.’”—Professor William S. B. Bowring, professor of law, director LLM/MA Human Rights, Birkbeck School of Law, University of London; barrister of Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn, United Kingdom

  • Dr. Ekaterina Elbakyan

    “Based on my personal experience studying the life of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, I am convinced that this is an absolutely peaceful religious organization with a long history of existence in the Russian Federation (more than 100 years). These believers have nothing to do with extremism. Yet, for reasons passing understanding, the court declares believers to be extremists, just like captured criminal terrorists, merely because they gather together and hold religious services, discuss the Bible and sing hymns of praise to God.”—Dr. Ekaterina Elbakyan, professor of sociology and management of social processes, Moscow Academy of Labor and Social Relations; member of European Association for the Study of Religion; chief editor of Russian edition of Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Study of Religion, and Encyclopedia of Religions, Russia

  • Dr. Roman Lunkin

    “Judicial proceedings against the Witnesses have revealed two primary characteristics of a new religious policy in the 2000s: first, the policy is xenophobic and tied to a rejection of Western influence; second, the charges against the Witnesses are based on anti-religious stereotypes and arguments borrowed from the Soviet past. All of these shortcomings and methods of dealing with ‘nontraditional’ communities are characteristic of the court cases being conducted against Jehovah’s Witnesses.”—Dr. Roman Lunkin, head of the Center for Religion and Society at the Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow; president of the Union of Experts on Religion and Law, Russia

  • Dr. Dmitry Uzlaner

    “The most problematic thing about Russian religious policy is a gradual creation of anti-religious repressive state apparatus aimed at regulating and limiting activities of believers. I mean not only new laws against extremism or proselytism, but also the practice of power misuse on executive and local levels. This apparatus is often used against peaceful and law-abiding groups.”—Dr. Dmitry Uzlaner, research fellow, Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences; editor-in-chief of State, Religion and Church, Russia

  • Dr. Liudmyla Fylypovych

    “Simply because Jehovah’s Witnesses recognize God’s authority as supreme, the authorities do not like Witnesses—so they ban them. The decision about Jehovah’s Witnesses has already been made: They must not exist in Russia. The courts are only giving a legal face to this decision.”—Dr. Liudmyla Fylypovych, professor, head, History of Religions and Practical Religious Studies Department, Philosophy Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, vice-president, Ukrainian Association of Researchers of Religion (UARR), Ukraine

  • Dr. Ringo Ringvee

    “To use the same approach and methods that are used against groups promoting violence and religious hatred with terrorist intentions on a nonviolent religious movement that does not have a violent past and is committed to pacifist ideas is not only extreme but does not have any rational justification. There are more serious challenges for every government in the world today than to combat apolitical Jehovah’s Witnesses who are waiting in a nonviolent manner for God’s Kingdom to come.”—Dr. Ringo Ringvee, advisor, Religious Affairs, Estonian Interior Ministry; professor extraordinarius of comparative religion, Theological Institute of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Estonia

  • Sir Andrew Wood

    “Russia is not the only country to have its laws against extremism. The term is inherently vague and subjective. I am not a lawyer, but I would prefer it if such laws were clear as to the link between extremism and what U.K. law has regarded as the crime of incitement to violence. Russian laws come close in practice to being laws against opinions unwelcome, for whatever reasons, to the current powers that be. Their use against Jehovah’s Witnesses falls clearly into that category. There is no record that I am aware of, of Jehovah’s Witnesses inciting others to violence. Quite to the contrary.”—Sir Andrew Wood, associate fellow of Russia and Eurasia program, Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs; former British ambassador to Russia (1995-2000), United Kingdom

  • Dr. James Christie

    “Nothing I know of nor anything from personal knowledge of individual Witnesses would lead me to believe that there is anything extremist about the tradition.”—Dr. James Christie, professor of dialogue theology, director, Ridd Institute for Religion and Global Policy, chair, Master of Divinity Programme, United Centre for Theological Studies, University of Winnipeg; chair, Project Ploughshares, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, Canada

  • Dr. George D. Chryssides

    “There are several problems with the legislation affecting Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a serious curtailment of freedom of religion, in violation of the United Nation’s [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Article 18, which specifies the right to manifest one’s religion in practice, privately or collectively. The word ‘extremist’ is vague. Initially it connoted organizations that committed acts of terror and violence. In no way does this description fit Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are firmly opposed to war and violence of any kind. I understand that the term is partially defined in the Russian legislation as ‘arousing racial, ethnic, or religious strife,’ which again does not accurately describe Jehovah’s Witnesses in any way. They are an international, multiracial organization, committed to including people of all races and languages.”—Dr. George D. Chryssides, former head of religious studies, University of Wolverhampton; honorary research fellow in contemporary religion, York St. John University and University of Birmingham, United Kingdom

  • Dr. Silvio Ferrari

    “In my opinion, Russia’s legal provisions on religious extremism and its implementation concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups are the worst example of the process of securitization of religion and religious freedom that, in milder form, can be observed also in other European countries. Their most worrying features are two—they allow a high degree of State interference with the internal doctrine and organization of religious communities and they create discrimination between religious communities.”—Dr. Silvio Ferrari, life honorary president, International Consortium for Law and Religious Studies; co-editor-in-chief of Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, co-founder of European Consortium for Church and State Research, professor of law and religion and canon law, University of Milan, Italy

  • Prof. Elizabeth Clark

    “The use of anti-extremist legislation to ban nonviolent groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a clear abuse of a vague law. Under the broad approach prosecutors and courts have taken to define ‘extremism,’ any religion could be successfully prosecuted. Absent any significant threat of imminent harm, which no one has alleged that the Jehovah’s Witnesses present, banning them violates the Russian Constitution and international law.”—Professor Elizabeth A. Clark, associate director, regional advisor for Central and Eastern Europe, International Center for Law and Religious Studies, Brigham Young University, United States

  • Dr. Zoe Knox

    “If ‘extremism’ is loosely defined as the nontraditional or the unorthodox, the malleability of the term lends to it being harnessed to particular ends. Casting the net so wide as to include the Jehovah’s Witnesses would seem to be about what is viewed as traditional rather than what is truly threatening. There is a significant degree of continuity between the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet and the post-Soviet periods, from media discourse to political attitudes.”—Dr. Zoe Knox, associate professor of modern Russian history, University of Leicester, United Kingdom

  • Dr. Eric D. Patterson

    “The problem with this so-called extremist law is that it is clearly designed to target religious minorities, not terrorists.”—Dr. Eric D. Patterson, professor and dean, Robertson School of Government, Regent University, United States

  • Prof. Frank Ravitch

    “Unless one defines ‘extremist’ as anything outside the norm, it is ridiculous to call Jehovah’s Witnesses extremist. It goes against everything I understand about the Witnesses’ theology and ideology.”—Professor Frank Ravitch, professor of law, Walter H. Stowers Chair of Law and Religion, Michigan State University, United States

  • Dr. Alar Kilp

    “Political crises and conflicts tend to spill over to the field of religion. The reasons for a more intensive fight against extremism in Russia are political, not religious in nature. At present, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have become victims without their being at fault.”—Dr. Alar Kilp, lecturer of comparative politics, Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu; co-organizer of “Religion and Politics in Russia and Eastern Europe,” Centre for EU-Russia Studies, Estonia

  • Dr. Emily B. Baran

    “State opposition to Jehovah’s Witnesses has a long history in Russia that extends back to the Soviet period. Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to vote, serve in the military, buy state bonds, join the Communist Party, or endorse the official ideology. Even under incredible pressure to abandon their faith, they continued to meet in private homes and evangelize their faith to others. Their refusal to endorse Soviet power resulted in decades of harsh persecution, including their mass exile to remote areas in Siberia. The Soviet state arrested and imprisoned Witnesses for decades, even removing children from families. Moreover, it published sensationalized propaganda that depicted Witnesses as criminals, traitors, and deviants. Not surprisingly, even though the Soviet Union collapsed over twenty years ago, the legacy of this sustained hostility and persecution continues today.”—Dr. Emily B. Baran, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European history, Middle Tennessee State University, United States

  • Dr. Giampiero Leo

    “Russia’s actions seem quite extreme to me, especially in such a dramatic time like this, in which who and what the real ‘extremists’ are should be evident. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a peace producing movement; their thought and nature are absolutely nonviolent.”—Dr. Giampiero Leo, vice-president, Human Rights Committee, Piedmont Region, Italy

  • Ms. Melissa Hooper

    “Basically, the law is overbroad. The language of the law can be used by law enforcement to arrest or threaten individuals with religious views that are unpopular or the government simply doesn’t like. Common examples include arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses, other minority groups, and even atheists. The law has essentially been used to protect the Orthodox viewpoints that are supported by the government, and to punish viewpoints that are perceived as alternative to or threatening to this Orthodoxy.”—Ms. Melissa Hooper, lawyer, director, International Law Scholarship Project/Pillar Project, Human Rights First; formerly regional director for American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative in Moscow, United States

  • Dr. Basilius J. Groen

    “Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination and ground themselves in the Bible, many Russians consider them ‘non-Christian,’ ‘not patriotic,’ (because the Witnesses decline military service), a ‘threat’ and the like. No, I think the label of ‘extremists’ is not correct.”—Dr. Basilius J. Groen, UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue for South-East Europe, The Karl-Franzens University; professor of liturgy and sacramental theology, director of the Institute for Liturgy, Christian Art and Hymnology, University of Graz, Austria

  • Mr. Eric Rassbach

    “Jehovah’s Witnesses should be able to live out their faith in Russia just as they can in other countries. The basic human right to believe in a religion and act on in it within the public sphere is protected by many human rights treaties and national laws, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Russian Constitution. Jehovah’s Witnesses should be accorded that right in full.”—Mr. Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, United States

  • Dr. Shawn F. Peters

    “I’m surprised and dismayed to see the Jehovah’s Witnesses labeled as ‘extremist’ in this manner, which seems calculated to misrepresent the sincere religious aims of members of the faith. The Witnesses’ deep commitment to practicing and spreading their religion hardly represents a threat to the Russian state, and a ban on them, while contributing nothing to security and public order in Russia, would stand as a serious blow to religious liberty and human rights.”—Dr. Shawn F. Peters, senior lecturer of religion and law, University of Wisconsin, United States

  • Prof. Robert C. Blitt

    “The short answer here is no. In the first instance, reaching such a determination is premised on an overbroad definition of extremism that fails to clearly specify violence or certain high-threshold forms of hatred as required elements of the offense, and instead potentially encompasses all forms of expression. Second, outright organizational bans would signal that the government was incapable of identifying other potential measures that could effectively curtail the relevant extremist practices. Pushing its response to the outermost end of the spectrum with respect to punitive government action must give rise to independent judicial scrutiny to ascertain whether the government’s action is indeed proportionate and necessary for addressing the perceived threat. Although religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not warrant being branded extremist or being banned, the faulty legal framework just described would enable such action to transpire.”—Professor Robert C. Blitt, professor of law, University of Tennessee, former international law specialist for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), United States

  • “Not at all. I think it is a mistake, and it does not fit in a policy in favor of freedom of religion.”—Professor Pasquale Ferrara, adjunct professor, Chair in Diplomacy, Department of Political Science, Libera Università internazionale degli Studi Sociali Guido Carli (LUISS); Chair in International Relations and Integration, University Institute “Sophia,” Figline e Incisa Valdarno, Italy

  • Dr. Javier Martínez-Torrón

    “I do not share some of their beliefs, but I think it is inaccurate and disproportionate to call Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘extremist’ with the meaning intended by Russian authorities.”—Dr. Javier Martínez-Torrón, professor of law, director, Department of Law and Religion, Complutense University School of Law, Spain

  • Dr. Jim Beckford

    “Elements within the Russian Orthodox Church connive with the forces of order to promote their own interests and to suppress any perceived competition.”—Dr. Jim Beckford, fellow of the British Academy; professor emeritus of sociology, University of Warwick; former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (USA), United Kingdom

  • Dr. Gerhard Besier

    “A true Russian, if Christian, is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russians belonging to the ‘wrong’ religious organization are isolated and excluded from society. Therefore, the civil rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses are being grossly violated.”—Dr. Gerhard Besier, professor emeritus, European studies, Technische Universität Dresden; lecturer, Stanford University; director, Sigmund Neumann Institute for the Research on Freedom and Democracy, Germany

  • Dr. Mark R. Elliott

    “My sense is that much of the hostility toward Jehovah’s Witnesses is not due to their doctrines and scriptures as much as it is due to their successful proselytizing. Their numbers, paradoxically, have increased in part because they ‘thrive on persecution.’ Additionally, in the Soviet era, deportations backfired. In 1951-52 an estimated 7,000 Witnesses were banished to Central Asia and Siberia, which only served to further spread their message. Thus, their presence across the country was as much the inadvertent work of the Kremlin as of the Witnesses’ proselytizing. As they previously survived Soviet repression, it should be expected that Jehovah’s Witnesses will survive their present legal ban.”—Dr. Mark R. Elliott, founding editor, East-West Church and Ministry Report, Asbury University, Kentucky, United States

  • Dr. Régis Dericquebourg

    “To my knowledge, there is no sociological definition for the concept of extremism. Extremism is a political concept used in democracies where there is a center, a right, and a left. But it is difficult to apply the extremist qualifier to a religion. There are religious groups that have practices that are more intense than other groups (i.e., practices which call for their followers to pray more than others or to submit to particular dietary rituals or fasts) or which require their followers to have morals that are stricter than for others. Jehovah’s Witnesses have practices that are rather intense; they meet more often than the members of large denominations, but such frequent meeting attendance can also be found among pious Jews. The Witnesses feel compelled to spread their doctrine by proselytizing on the street or from door to door. They have more demanding morals than the typical member of a major church, and they feel compelled to be honest in their work, in their relationships with their neighbors, in being loyal in their marriages, polite to others, and not harming others. They refuse to perform military service so that they do not have to kill another human being in combat. All this reflects some religiousness that is more intense than the mainline churches, but this does not present any danger for society. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not fundamentalists, for they do not want to seize power to institute a theocracy (for them, the theocracy will only come according to God’s will). They do not want to establish a society governed by their principles, like radical Islamists. The Witnesses are simply Biblicists, for they base their personal lives on their interpretation of the Bible. That is their choice. The only problem for society is to know if they are dangerous or not. I answer, ‘No.’ The Witnesses are neutral, and do not get involved in state politics. More important, they do not commit attacks.”—Dr. Régis Dericquebourg, sociologist, associate professor of new religious movements, Antwerp FVG, Belgium

  • Dr. Thomas Bremer

    “No, I do not think so. I am not a member or a supporter of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I even disagree with some points of their doctrine, but I do not think they are extremist (of course, it depends what one understands to be ‘extremism’), and all the more so I think that they should, as everyone else, have the right to express their convictions.”—Dr. Thomas Bremer, former research fellow, Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, New York University; professor of ecumenical theology, eastern churches studies and peace studies, Münster University, Germany

  • Dr. Marco Ventura

    “The application of Russian legislation to Jehovah’s Witnesses results in an unjustified restriction of fundamental freedoms, and thus contradicts international human rights law protecting individual and collective freedom of religion or belief, and prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion. This statement relies on the methodology established in international human rights law, according to which claims of violation of freedom of religion or belief need to be assessed based on: 1) whether a restriction of the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief occurred, and 2) whether the relevant restriction was proportionate and warranted by a legitimate justification.”—Dr. Marco Ventura, professor of law and religion, University of Siena; director, Center for Religious Studies at the Bruno Kessler Foundation; associate researcher, Centre for Droit, Religion, Entreprise et Société (DRES), University of Strasbourg (France), Italy

  • Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer

    “The curtailment of religious freedom in the name of combating extremism is a regrettable ploy. It is disturbing that such attempts at thought control continue to be forced on societies in the 21st century. We all deserve better.”—Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer, director, Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, professor of sociology, affiliate professor of religious studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, United States

How would you describe Russia’s approach to the legitimate challenge of combating “extremism”?

  • “In the fight against extremism, Russia itself is using extremist methods. It is acting in a rigid, forceful, and radical way, imposing bans. The discriminatory actions of the authorities cannot be explained, justified, or understood. These decisions and actions can only be feared.”—Dr. Fylypovych, Ukraine

  • “Nobody is against any form of terrorism and appreciates the need to grant security more than I am. However, making use of the extremism legal provisions against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, i.e. against a religious community that always refrained from any appeal to violence, shows the danger of constructing security as a meta-right that trumps any other right, freedom of religion included. This is why I think that it is everybody’s responsibility, academics included, to be clear in condemning these legal provisions and their implementation that threaten so openly religious freedom and equality.”—Dr. Ferrari, Italy

  • Dr. Derek H. Davis

    “The kinds of extremism that should be combated are those that endanger the physical lives of persons. Combating anything else is itself a form of extremism; thus Russia’s aggressive persecution of a peaceful group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses is patently ‘extreme.’”—Dr. Derek H. Davis, attorney at law, former director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, United States

  • “As I mentioned above, the word ‘extremist’ is vague and its application can be subjective. I would certainly describe the Russian measures as excessive and inappropriate, and the Russian authorities have been judged by the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights] as violators of religious freedom. So-called extremist groups such as ISIS are of course a serious threat, and measures need to be taken to curtail their activities. However, in no way do the Jehovah’s Witnesses present any similar threats, and the threat of terrorist organizations is inappropriate to cite as a justification for curtailing their work.”—Dr. Chryssides, United Kingdom

  • “The recent amendments to Russia’s anti-extremist legislation signal the shutdown of religious markets in Russia, and as the recent example concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses indicates, the amendments are used to end activities of religious minorities. From a historical perspective, the current limitations on religious missionary activities resemble the ones of the Soviet period.”—Dr. Ringvee, Estonia

  • Dr. William Schmidt

    “Extremist tendencies may be manifested, as is well-known, not only by groups, but also by individuals; extremism is a form of political activity, not of religious activity as such. In the Russian Federation, there are legal restrictions on this type of activity by religious organizations. And if incidents (of extremist activity) are established, naturally, a penalty should be imposed on the offender—this is a norm consistent with the rule of law. Is there a danger of criminalizing the religious realm on the grounds of extremist activity? Yes, due specifically to selective application and arbitrary interpretation of legal norms, as well as to the use in judicial practice of unprofessional (false) expert studies.”—Dr. William Schmidt, chief editor, Eurasia: the spiritual traditions of the peoples; professor, National and Federative Relations, The Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), Russia

  • “To use laws against extremism—in order to protect the defenseless—is acceptable when balance is used. On the other hand, using such laws to limit the freedoms of nonviolent religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, is absolutely unacceptable.”—Dr. Leo, Italy

  • “There is a general conservative—almost reactionary—turn of Russian state policy since at least 2012. Laws are becoming more severe, they are limiting different political and even civil rights. Russian anti-extremism legislation today is so broad and vague that anyone can be actually accused of being an extremist; you don’t need to plan some terrorist attack in order to be accused of extremism, criticism of some local bureaucrat in social media or participation in political meetings is enough. Legislation in the religious sphere is just one example of this broader trend.”—Dr. Uzlaner, Russia

  • “Russian practice of regulating religion seems to be quite extreme (together with Azerbaijan), because not many European countries publish lists of banned religious books or deal politically and legally with the extremist nature of religious texts.”—Dr. Kilp, Estonia

  • “An unlawful fight against extremism based on religion started developing gradually after the Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity was adopted in 2002. Anti-extremist policy has since become a weapon for fighting ‘nontraditional’ religiousness. The broad term ‘extremism’ gives judges grounds for making decisions to declare religious literature extremist for reasons which often contradict common sense. Since the mid-2000s, the Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity has been applied to non-Orthodox and non-Muslims in Russia in a rather tragicomic way.”—Dr. Lunkin, Russia

  • “Russia wishes to prevent the spread of any religious groups or ideas except the official varieties of the four traditional religions. Groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and any evangelical or proselytizing Protestants also come in for persecution.”—Prof. Bowring, United Kingdom

  • “Russia’s fight against minorities like Jehovah’s Witnesses is, above all, discriminatory. It is enshrined in a long-standing tradition of social, political, and religious hostility against non-Orthodox minorities, who are scapegoats. France is also on top of the ratings in the ‘hunt for sects.’ France wanted to ruin Jehovah’s Witnesses by taxing them but the Witnesses took the case to the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg and finally won their case. That ECtHR court sentenced France to pay enormous damages and interest to the Witnesses’ branch office in France because the state had discriminated against them by denying them legal religious recognition and, thus, tax exemption for the donations made by their members.”—Dr. Dericquebourg, Belgium

  • “Russia should fight against true extremism—that which incites or resorts to violence—but the rules in question are draconian when applied to most faith groups. What makes them draconian is the penalty as compared to the offense. The second reason they are draconian is because of what or who they target. An example is a $15,000 fine that could be devastating to a small church group or a small nonprofit. One of the rules requires having been registered in the country for 15 years before bringing a foreign person such as a religious leader or missionary into Russia.”—Dr. Patterson, United States

  • “The challenges of fighting against crime—including terrorism and extremism if used in reference to antisocial and inhumane acts—are becoming more relevant every day. It is one thing, though, to fight against real crime, and something totally different to use concepts in the Criminal Code to openly discriminate against people’s right to freedom of conscience, including freedom of worship. Many experts in Russia, scholars and jurists, consider the application of the term ‘extremism’ to select religious minorities to be unconstitutional and illegal. However, when, for various reasons, principles of law are supplanted by corruption, then, as we know, rights, including human rights and freedoms, are disregarded.”—Dr. Elbakyan, Russia

  • Dr. Hocine Sadok

    “The most debatable point in the Russian law on the fight against extremism is the concept of extremism itself. This is not a legal concept but rather a political concept. For example, from the viewpoint of the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights], States may impose restrictions on the freedoms guaranteed by the Convention, such as religious freedom or freedom of expression, when the measure is necessary for ‘national security, public safety, well-being of the country, the defense of order and the prevention of crime, for the protection of health or morals, or the protection of rights and freedoms of others, to maintain public order,’ etc. Thus, states are already empowered by international law to restrict public freedoms if they identify a legitimate threat. It is therefore not necessary to enact specific legislation against extremism to achieve the objectives considered legitimate by the ECHR. Especially problematic is the Russian legislation lacks clear definition. What does being ‘extremist’ mean under Russian law? Again, it is actually a political concept, which allows authorities to restrict the freedoms of all those that they consider as undesirable. From this perspective, it is clear that Russia’s legislation is contrary to both the spirit and text of the ECHR.”—Dr. Hocine Sadok, public law lecturer, director, Social and Legal Economics department, Université de Haute Alsace, France

  • “The task of combating extremism demands a complex balancing of government interests and individual freedoms rather than a wholesale discarding of the latter. It is here, in this necessary balancing, that Russia’s anti-extremism efforts fall flat. Above all, the government’s approach to defining and prosecuting extremism serves its narrow interests. While the legislation may protect Russia’s citizens against certain genuine threats, it also affords the government an easy means for hindering or altogether silencing individuals and groups it may, for one reason or another, deem undesirable or a threat to Russia’s traditional spiritual values. At least part of the reason for Russia’s ability to maintain and expand this legislation stems from the breakdown of meaningful democratic processes within the state as well as the failure of various external actors—including states and international bodies—to effectively identify and respond to this troubling reality.”—Prof. Blitt, United States

  • “Russia sadly appears to be on the verge of making the same sort of mistake regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses that the United States made back in the 1940s. Back then, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were wrongly seen by many Americans as ‘extreme’ because their religious consciences did not allow them to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance ceremony. Initially government officials—including even the United States Supreme Court—penalized Jehovah’s Witnesses for their nonconforming behavior. This initially led to horrifying physical violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses, but later a rethinking of the question of conscience. Eventually, most Americans, and American courts, came to accept that religious diversity—including Jehovah’s Witnesses—is a good thing for society.”—Mr. Rassbach, United States

  • “Large discretion is inherent in the reliance of Russian legal sources on broad categories such as ‘extremism/t’ and ‘extremist activity,’ ‘sharing belief,’ and ‘missionary activity,’ and claims of ‘truth’ or ‘superiority’ of one’s own religion or belief system. Since the official documents do not provide narrow and clear definitions, and rules on submission and assessment of evidence are extremely loose—to such an extent that extremism in a religious context is defined as not requiring the threat or use of violence—security officers, administrative staff, judges and experts are allowed a huge margin of appreciation. Significantly, Russian authorities have disregarded the request from the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations (concluding observations of April 28, 2015) to clarify ‘the vague and open-ended definition of “extremist activity,” ensuring that the definition requires an element of violence or hatred and establishing clear’ to precise criteria ‘on how materials may be classified as extremist’ and take ‘all measures necessary to prevent the arbitrary use of the law and revise the Federal List of Extremist Materials.’”—Dr. Ventura, Italy

  • Ms. Catherine Cosman

    “Russia’s anti-extremism law was first passed in 2002; by 2007, it was expanded to include nonviolent activities or advocacy of views, including in the religious sphere. Russian officials, if and when they cast the punitive net too far and wide, run the danger of ensnaring peaceful people who merely want to explore religious or other ideas not favored by the State. For example, Muslims who choose to practice their faith outside of officially approved structures, are most often sentenced by Russian courts for allegedly falling afoul of the overly broad Russian anti-extremism law. Genuine official tolerance combined with a new judicial approach would apply reformed religion and extremism laws to help encourage Russia’s dazzling religious and ethnic diversity. Russia should leave behind its strong-armed methods of trying to squeeze diversity into a grey government overcoat of enforced conformity.”—Ms. Catherine Cosman, senior policy analyst (Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union), United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), United States

  • “The majority of religious policies relating to anti-extremism stems from the cultural centralization that is being vigorously pursued by the Russian Orthodox State Church.”—Dr. Besier, Germany

  • “Although Russia has certainly been facing violence fueled by religious extremism, it has increasingly turned to anti-extremism legal measures to also limit unpopular religious groups rather than to merely address groups associated with violent behaviors.”—Prof. Clark, United States

  • “Russia’s legal system is deeply flawed in two major respects. Russia’s lengthy written constitution, which provides, among other things, freedom of worship, is declared to be supreme, with the country’s Constitutional Court being responsible for ruling on whether or not particular actions or legal provisions accord with Russia’s Supreme Law. These terms are not in practice fully respected. Russia’s courts are subject in practice to executive direction, whether from the federal or regional authorities, who are ultimately not accountable before the Law. Russia’s laws, second, are open to wide and shifting interpretation. Russia’s laws on extremism contain no clear definition of what extremism may be. The laws can therefore be interpreted more or less at the will of the Executive authorities at every level.”—Sir Andrew Wood, United Kingdom

  • “Russia has every right and in fact has a duty to its people to combat real extremism, but labeling unpopular religious groups as extreme when they do not threaten the physical security of others is itself pretty extreme. I think the current Russian government is less concerned about real extremists as long as they can control them. I think they are far more afraid of any group that they feel they cannot control. Given the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ loyalty to God first and foremost, I think the current government is using the ‘extremist’ label to keep Witnesses out. I also think there is some influence from the Russian Orthodox Church to keep Christian minorities that proselytize out.”—Prof. Ravitch, United States

  • “The Russian law and the practice applied by the authorities deny many individuals and organizations elementary rights, like the one to express one’s opinion. Even if an opinion is objectively wrong, there must be the right to utter it. A prohibition can be justified only in a very few cases that would imply risks to other peoples’ life, or a disturbance of the social order. This is not the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses.”—Dr. Bremer, Germany

Russian law dictates that believers can be declared “extremist” for proclaiming the truthfulness and superiority of their religion. Should that be a legal basis for determining extremism?

  • “No. This is irrational, unreasonable, and a violation of human rights standards to which Russia has binding treaty obligations, including Article 9 of the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] and Article 18 of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].”—Prof. Bowring, United Kingdom

  • Prof. Garrett Epps

    “No, I know of no principle of international law that allows anyone to be designated as an extremist for believing in the truth of his or her religion.”—Professor Garrett Epps, professor of law, University of Baltimore School of Law; Supreme Court correspondent, The Atlantic, United States

  • “First, this idea is patently absurd. If it were enforced fairly, it would result in all religions being banned under Russian law. All religions claim ownership of the truth and all religious believers trust that their faith is true. Otherwise, what is the value of religion at all? This law is a legal pretense to allow the Russian state to discriminate against religious minorities, in particular Jehovah’s Witnesses.”—Dr. Baran, United States

  • “I thought everyone believed in the superiority of their own religion. If they did not do so, they would change to some other. Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly believe that they are the unique claimants to possess ‘the truth,’ but other forms of Christianity and other religions have been prone to make similar claims about uniqueness. Belief in the superiority and uniqueness of one’s own religion should surely be acknowledged in the name of freedom of religion, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”—Dr. Chryssides, United Kingdom

  • “It is shocking that experts can label ‘extremism’ that which is the very essence of religious activity, the basis of the life of any community of believers who live with the belief in their truth, which belongs only to them. Believers in one community have their own interpretation of the truth and, based on that, of the holy texts. Naturally, then, they are ‘irreconcilable with other religious groups.’”—Dr. Lunkin, Russia

  • “This perspective is outrageous, of course. Religious persons select and live by the tenets of their chosen religions because they believe them to be true and superior to the tenets of other religions. The Russian position makes a mockery of all religions.”—Dr. Davis, United States

  • “With a very few exceptions, all religions are convinced that their beliefs about God are true. No one says, ‘Another religion is better and more true than ours.’”—Dr. Bremer, Germany

  • Dr. Aidar Sultanov

    “I consider that question to be rhetorical, not needing an answer. Of course, every believer wishes that others too be saved instead of wandering in the darkness of erroneous ideas; it is for this very reason that believers are inclined to insist on the rightness of their religion.”—Dr. Aidar Sultanov, Russian legal scholar and human rights activist, Russia

  • “As I said, extremism is not a concept of religious sociology. In order to assess the potential risk that a religious group may pose to public order or to the security of the country, one must look at what it does and not what it believes. If it does not commit an illegal act, it cannot be condemned. A religious group has the right to say what it feels is the best position. By the way, all politicians also say that they are the best and no one says they are extremists for saying that. I have never seen a politician say that he lies and that his political party is inferior to that of other politicians. Each religious group thinks that it has the best interpretation of the Holy Writings. What should matter to the governments are the illegal or violent acts that the groups commit or may commit.”—Dr. Dericquebourg, Belgium

  • “The recent amendments that restrict the sharing of beliefs are clearly unreasonable. They severely limit freedom of religion when the faithful of a religion are prevented from believing and declaring, in a peaceful and considerate way, that their religion is the true one.”—Dr. Ferrari, Italy

  • “Merely proclaiming the truthfulness of one’s religious views or the superiority of a particular faith should not, by itself, be sufficient to constitute extremism. Most religions are grounded in their own set of specific truth claims which, oftentimes on their face, conflict directly with the foundational claims of other religions. Despite this conflict, such claims may be asserted in a peaceful manner that does not disrupt the rights and freedoms of others or threaten public order. Indeed, provided these competing views are expressed in a manner devoid of threats or calls for violence or the active propagation of extreme forms of hatred, they constitute a core component of vibrant democratic society. Although the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] obligates governments to prohibit ‘advocacy of . . . religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence,’ such advocacy must meet a high threshold before the obligation is triggered. Furthermore, any government decision to act on this basis must still satisfy the requirements of proportionality and necessity before its actions can be justified. Much of the evidence surrounding the Russian government’s use of its anti-extremism laws demonstrates precious little thought given to concerns of proportionality or necessity, let alone actually seeking to understand the religious views being deemed ‘extremist.’”—Prof. Blitt, United States

  • “The issue here is not only about religious freedom but also freedom of speech. This law means that these sanctions could be used against any religious groups that are considered not welcome by the political establishment or by other religious groups who have influence on political decision makers to eliminate unwanted competition on religious ideas.”—Dr. Ringvee, Estonia

  • “The argument that proclaiming the truth and superiority of a person’s religion is proof of extremism is a good instance of the confusion at the heart of Russia’s Extremism legislation. At least one of Russia’s approved traditional religions is based on precisely such a claim.”—Sir Andrew Wood, United Kingdom

  • “Russian law says that simply advocating for one religion, saying that it is true, is labeled as hate or violent speech. The real boundary, from a national security perspective, should be when a religious person or group advocates for the hurt of others—in other words, when people say that their religion compels them to kill people of another faith. Governments do have a security interest in establishing limits. Incitement to violence: It is like yelling fire in a movie theater or a religious authority directing murder. But, those primarily targeted by Russia’s law do not seem to meet this standard.”—Dr. Patterson, United States

  • “Russian law is violating a key international precept of freedom of religion or belief by including nonviolent advocacy of the superiority of a religion as an alleged aspect of extremism; this provision is a major reason why USCIRF [United States Commission on International Religious Freedom] views that law as a ‘major threat to religious freedom.’ Another provision of that law that bars ‘inciting religious discord’ is used to ban proselytizing activity, particularly by religious groups not favored by the state, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”—Ms. Cosman, United States

  • “Insofar as the restriction is put on the religious claim to truth and superiority, which means on the internal forum (forum internum) and the very core freedom to hold a belief, by no means can such restriction be justifiable.”—Dr. Ventura, Italy

  • Dr. Brian Grim

    “All religious groups have some exclusive claims to truth, which are not dangerous in themselves. In fact, exclusive truth claims are part of the nature of most religions.”—Dr. Brian Grim, president, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation; visiting professor, St. Mary’s University in London; advisor, Tony Blair Faith Foundation; associate scholar, Religious Liberty Project, Georgetown University; affiliated scholar, Institute on Culture, Religion & World Affairs, Boston University, United States

  • “Religious freedom encompasses the right of believers to proclaim that their religion is true and is the best or only version of the truth. While this can be uncomfortable for others, so long as believers do not seek to impose their views or coerce others, then they have the right to proclaim the truth of their own beliefs.”—Dr. Carolyn Evans, dean, Harrison Moore Chair of Law, Melbourne Law School, co-editor, Religion and International Law; co-editor, Law and Religion in Historical and Theoretical Perspectives, Australia

  • Dr. William Cavanaugh

    “If proclaiming the truthfulness of one’s religion is ‘extremist,’ then most believers would be guilty.”—Dr. William Cavanaugh, professor of Catholic studies, director, Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, United States

  • Dr. John A. Bernbaum

    “Advocating the truthfulness of one’s beliefs is not a sign of ‘religious extremism,’ but rather a commitment to one’s core values. Unless these core values are intolerant of other beliefs or religions, they should be supported by civil authorities as a basic human right.”—Dr. John A. Bernbaum, president, Russian-American Institute (Moscow), United States

Among experts and scholars, what reputation do Jehovah’s Witnesses have as citizens?

  • “My research on Jehovah’s Witnesses in several country contexts has brought me into contact with peaceful, law-abiding, and engaged citizens who expressed a keen awareness of and respect for majority religious identity and simultaneously worked diligently to ensure their own right to believe and to manifest their religious beliefs freely. Their efforts, particularly through legal channels, have significantly enhanced the freedom of religion or belief for individuals and communities of many other minority but also majority religions.”—Dr. Effie Fokas, founding director (2008-2012), Forum on Religion, research associate, Hellenic Observatory, London School of Economics; former Marie Curie fellow, “Pluralism and Religious Freedom in Orthodox Countries in Europe” (PLUREL), Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, Greece

  • “I know Jehovah’s Witnesses, not only as a scholar who studies their history, teachings, and practice, but also as a common person, that is, in everyday life. They are my neighbors, acquaintances and colleagues. In my circle, their reputation is rather good. They are law-abiding. They get along well with others, whatever their political views or religious affiliation. They do not limit themselves just to the interests and needs of their own religious community. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not participate in the political life of the country, are reserved in their expressions and evaluations of the authorities but are not indifferent to the events in their country as citizens. I believe that they make a very significant contribution to the progress of society, increase its welfare and promote its stability, because they advocate traditional universal Christian values. They are good family people, faithful to their wives and husbands; they love their parents and have a sense of responsibility in raising their children.”—Dr. Fylypovych, Ukraine

  • “The Jehovah’s Witnesses whom I know in Britain contribute to society by pursuing honest employment and paying their taxes without evasion. They regard obedience to the law as a religious obligation, except in a limited number of situations where they might regard it as conflicting with their understanding of God’s law.”—Dr. Chryssides, United Kingdom

  • “Having studied various religions as a religious scholar, I know that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not an aggressive, but rather a pacifist, religious organization whose members as a matter of principle do not discuss or participate in politics and never interfere in the affairs of the State. These believers do, however, contribute to society by working honestly at various businesses and organizations, honestly paying their taxes to support the government, and assisting fellow citizens in times of need, such as after natural or social disasters.”—Dr. Elbakyan, Russia

  • “I have encountered many Jehovah’s Witnesses over the years, and one of my best students on my Human Rights Master’s degree was a young Witness woman who wrote an excellent dissertation on religious freedom in Russia. In my experience, Jehovah’s Witnesses are models of courtesy and good behavior and do not take offense at the fact that I do not agree with their beliefs.”—Prof. Bowring, United Kingdom

  • Mr. Bruno Segre

    “Personally speaking, after defending many Jehovah’s Witnesses for the last 60 years, I can say that—despite not sharing their opinions on the Bible—I have always considered them people marked by extremely high morals, rigorous faith, and peaceful activism.”—Mr. Bruno Segre, lawyer; journalist, editor-in-chief, L’INCONTRO; honorary president, Turin Council for Institutional Laity; honorary president, National Association of Free Thought “Giordano Bruno,” Italy

  • “I spent several years as an observer in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in order to write my doctoral thesis about them, and then to write articles in scientific journals about them. I can say that the Witnesses are good, honest citizens in the countries where they live. They do not get involved in the political affairs of their country, but they pay their taxes; they participate sometimes in local life as volunteer firefighters; they help people who are victims of disasters like the floods in Orange and Bollène in France—without making new disciples among the people that they helped. They do it just to help people. The Witnesses are supporting research on alternatives to blood transfusions that benefits non-Witnesses.”—Dr. Dericquebourg, Belgium

  • “Jehovah’s Witnesses have a reputation as being conscientious, law-abiding citizens.”—Dr. Knox, United Kingdom

  • “I have the deepest respect for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are committed, peaceful, serious about their desire to honor God, and faithful servants of others. I know employers who actually seek out Jehovah’s Witnesses as prospective employees because of their honesty and solid work ethic.”—Dr. Davis, United States

  • “When I look at the situation concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses in Estonia, clearly public perception has changed over the decades, as the negative stereotypes no longer exist. In a secular multi-religious society, Jehovah’s Witnesses are perceived as one religious group among others.”—Dr. Ringvee, Estonia

  • “Jehovah’s Witnesses function peacefully as part of society.”—Prof. Clark, United States

  • “Sadly, the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is based on very primitive, basic logic: They are not liked by a particular sector of society that often knows nothing about the teachings and practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet, against the background of searches and inspections and having their books and magazines seized and declared extremist, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia stay within the bounds of the law.”—Dr. Lunkin, Russia

  • “Those who have not interacted extensively with Jehovah’s Witnesses may know them only for their door to door evangelism, which admittedly is sometimes perceived as an annoyance. That said, I am always quick to remind folks that the Witnesses’ right to knock on your door is part of living in a democratic society. We owe a debt of gratitude to Witnesses for legally defending their rights in our courts, which has extended further protections on free speech.”—Dr. Baran, United States

  • “I am primarily familiar with Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S., and they have contributed a lot to society and in fact have contributed greatly to understanding of the First Amendment through standing up for civil liberties in famous cases like Barnette. Ironically, it may be this very history of promoting civil liberties that Russia fears.”—Prof. Ravitch, United States

  • “From my research in American legal history, I’ve come to appreciate the significant contributions made by Jehovah’s Witnesses in ensuring constitutional protections for civil liberties. Their determination to freely exercise their religious faith has led to an expansion of safeguards for the First Amendment rights of all Americans. They’ve made similarly important contributions in other nations as well, benefiting not only themselves but also members of myriads of other religious faiths.”—Dr. Peters, United States

  • Dr. Ain Riistan

    “In my country, Estonia, the reputation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as citizens is good. They contribute to society and pay their taxes. They belong to the law abiding main segment of society. They don’t participate in military service, but as there is a system of alternative service (work in schools, hospitals, etc.), they contribute there.”—Dr. Ain Riistan, lecturer of the New Testament, School of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Tartu; associate professor of theology of free churches and history of religions, Tartu Theological Seminary, Estonia

  • “Personally, I have friendly relations with several Greek Witnesses. My former neighbors in Thessalonica (where I used to live) are Witnesses. Wherever I am, I protest against unjust persecution of Witnesses, because of principle and because as a rule they are sincere Christians, hard-working and loyal people.”—Dr. Groen, Austria

  • “My limited experience with Jehovah’s Witnesses, mostly in Spain, indicates that they are good, committed and honest people, intransigent in their doctrines—which is not necessarily something negative, provided you can engage in rational discussion about them.”—Dr. Martínez-Torrón, Spain

  • “People of faith, such as Jehovah Witnesses, are constructive citizens in the countries where they live. There is nothing to fear from this religious community. Discrimination against them is clearly unwarranted.”—Dr. Bernbaum, United States

  • “What I admire about the Jehovah’s Witnesses is their nonviolence and their resistance to idolatry in the form of nationalism and flag worship.”—Dr. Cavanaugh, United States

  • “I can say for the German society that I never perceived them differently than as being normal, loyal, and inconspicuous citizens, as most other people are.”—Dr. Bremer, Germany

  • “Unjustified and disproportionate interference with the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is spectacularly ill-founded in the face of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ record in Europe and worldwide as a peaceful community, struggling for the common good. As certified by independent research in history and social science, Jehovah’s Witnesses enjoy a well-deserved, solid reputation for educating law-abiding, nonviolent, loyal citizens, and for contributing in many different ways to the growth, cohesion, and prosperity of society. Their freedom is a precious resource in the fight on extremism, in Russia and beyond.”—Dr. Ventura, Italy

Media Contacts:

International: David A. Semonian, Office of Public Information, 1-718-560-5000

Russia: Yaroslav Sivulskiy, 7-812-702-2691