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Jehovah’s Witnesses

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NOVEMBER 18, 2016
RUSSIA

PART 2 Supplement

Exclusive Interviews​—Experts Decry Russia’s Threat to Ban the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures

Exclusive Interviews​—Experts Decry Russia’s Threat to Ban the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures

This is Part 2 of a three-part series.

On the heels of President Vladimir Putin’s recent amendment explicitly prohibiting bans of certain sacred texts, Russian authorities are attempting to ban the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, labeling it as “extremist.” While waiting for the case to resume, pending a court-appointed analysis of the New World Translation by the Center for Sociocultural Expert Studies in Moscow, exclusive interviews were conducted with several noted scholars of religion, politics, and sociology, as well as experts in Soviet and post-Soviet studies.

How is the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures viewed among Bible scholars and what reputation do Jehovah’s Witnesses have as translators?

  • Dr. Ringo Ringvee

    “Like all translations that reflect the sincere attempt to grasp and express the meaning of the original as close as possible, so does the New World Translation. All translations that are published by religious organizations reflect certain theological traditions, and the New World Translation is no exception—for example using “Jehovah” throughout—but this does not affect the credibility of the translation. In 2014, the Estonian-language New World Translation was published. It received a lot of attention from other Estonian Bible translators, representing both a variety of Christian denominations as well as academia, and was regarded as being clear and refreshing. Eventually, the Estonian-language New World Translation was awarded third prize in a popular vote for the 2014 Language Deed of the Year Award presented by the Ministry of Research and Education.”—Dr. Ringo Ringvee, advisor, Religious Affairs, Estonian Interior Ministry; professor extraordinarius of comparative religion, Theological Institute of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Estonia

  • Dr. Roman Lunkin

    “Among scholars of religious studies, there is no doubt that Jehovah’s Witnesses confess the fundamental values and principles contained in the Bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses have a good reputation as translators of the Bible.”—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. Ekaterina Elbakyan

    “It is widely known that today there are many Bible translations, beginning with the translation of the Old Testament into the Greek Septuagint and continuing down through translations of the Bible into modern languages, including Russian. Naturally, every translation has its own nuances due to the conceptual framework of each language. The main thing, though, is that the basic meaning of the original remains unchanged in each translation of the Bible, regardless of how it is interpreted. In my opinion, the New World Translation is such a translation.”—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. Gerhard Besier

    “The New World Translation has received high praise worldwide from Bible scholars representing diverse religious communities.”—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. Liudmyla Fylypovych

    “The Bible translation offered by Jehovah’s Witnesses is not the product of an amateur group of believers. It is the enormous work of a large number of professional translators over the course of many years, enlisting well-known linguists, the best experts on ancient languages. Experts—more specifically Bible scholars—who analyze the Witnesses’ new translation come to the conclusion that there is no difference in meaning between the old and new translations and do not find any extremist innovations by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Outdated and no longer understandable words, concepts, and expressions are rendered in modern language. Protestants have tranquilly accepted this translation, considering it part of the worldwide Bible educational activity.”—Dr. Liudmyla Fylypovych, professor, head, History of Religions and Practical Studies Department, Philosophy Institute of the National Academy of Sciences; vice-president, Ukrainian Association of Researchers of Religion, Ukraine

  • Dr. George D. Chryssides

    “It is fair to say that the New World Translation has been criticized by mainstream scholars. Such criticisms, however, are on a limited number of doctrinal matters that turn on the translation of certain key texts. Jehovah’s Witnesses have added nothing to the Bible that provides any momentum for extremism or violent activity. On the contrary, the Witnesses have always used the Bible to support peace and to oppose violence.”—Dr. George D. Chryssides, former head of religious studies, University of Wolverhampton; honorary research fellow in contemporary religion at York St. John University and University of Birmingham, United Kingdom

  • Prof. Frank Ravitch

    “I certainly do not think it is an ‘extremist’ publication, and as translations go, it is a decent one. Since I am multilingual—English, Japanese, and Hebrew—I understand the problems with any translation, but the New World Translation doesn’t have any more of these problems than most other decent translations and less than some others like the original King James.”—Professor Frank Ravitch, professor of law, Walter H. Stowers Chair of Law and Religion, Michigan State University, United States

  • Dr. Ain Riistan

    “Bible translations are never perfect. There are many reasons for that. There are passages in the New World Translation I personally would translate differently. But this applies to all translations. I am not an expert in the Russian language (although I understand it), so I can’t judge the literary qualities of a Russian translation. When the Estonian New World Translation was published in 2014, it was received very well by the general public. It was even called the ‘literary event of the year’ because of the quality and clarity of the Estonian translation. Considering the consistent methodology used to translate the New World Translation worldwide—the end product is essentially the same message with small differences based on the peculiarities of the target language. I don’t see the Russian version as very different from the Estonian. Therefore, I can confidently say that it is a credible translation and definitely not a dangerous or ‘extremist’ publication.”—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

  • Dr. Basilius J. Groen

    “Unfortunately, many of the authorities who decide to confiscate the Bibles of the Witnesses have no idea at all regarding faith and Holy Scripture. Of course, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures is fine, and of course, at the same time, the translation of some passages therein is disputable, but this goes also for other translations (also for my own church, the Roman Catholic).”—Dr. Basilius J. Groen, UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue for South-East Europe; professor of liturgy and sacramental theology, director of the Institute for Liturgy, Christian Art and Hymnology, University of Graz, Austria

  • Dr. Hocine Sadok

    “From my perspective, as an academic, the New World Translation is one that public authorities do not have to review. It is a religious text, and the authorities of a democratic state should not interfere there. Claiming that the New World Translation is dangerous or extremist is nonsense.”—Dr. Hocine Sadok, public law lecturer, director, Social and Legal Economics department, Université de Haute Alsace, France

  • Dr. William Cavanaugh

    “In general, I think that most scholars respect the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation of the Bible, even though some may object to the way certain words and phrases have been translated.”—Dr. William Cavanaugh, professor of Catholic studies, director, Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, United States

What is your opinion of Russian authorities seeking to ban a Bible translated by Jehovah’s Witnesses based on claims that it is “extremist”?

  • “I think a ban on the import of the New World Translation into the Russian Federation would clearly violate the amendment to Article 3 of the Federal Law on Extremism signed by Mr. Putin in the fall of 2015, because that law does not say anything about translations of holy texts. As we know, not one of these sacral books (the Bible, Quran, Torah, and Kangyur) was written in Russian or in Church Slavonic, so in the Russian Federation, these books are used only in the form of translations, of which, I repeat, there are many. The law does not specify which translations of holy books may be used in the Russian Federation and which are banned. Therefore, any translation can be used, and imposing a ban on any particular translation is illegal.”—Dr. Elbakyan, Russia

  • Dr. Derek H. Davis

    “Banning any genuinely religious material is suspect, but especially a Bible that has a long history of sacred use by an established and respected religious group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are dozens of Bible translations used by other Christian groups that are not banned; thus it is obvious that Russia is actually attacking the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not its Bible.”—Dr. Derek H. Davis, attorney at law, former director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, United States

  • Dr. Jeffrey Haynes

    “As an ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] member state, Russia’s attempt to ban such a Bible would be contravening freedom of religion conventions.”—Dr. Jeffrey Haynes, professor of politics, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Conflict and Cooperation, London Metropolitan University; convenor, European Consortium for Political Research’s Standing Group on Religion and Politics, United Kingdom

  • “In Russia, where religious sentiment has always been at the heart of culture and growth, the authorities are beginning to view religion as suspicious and unreliable. Who would have imagined that adopting a law giving immunity to certain holy texts would provoke the banning of other holy texts? Meanwhile, a theological-legal mechanism for sifting out what is holy from what is not has already been set in motion. The first to suffer has been the Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with their translation of the Bible, which is no surprise, since a politically motivated campaign against them has been ongoing since 2009.”—Dr. Lunkin, Russia

  • Prof. William S. B. Bowring

    “I am quite sure that the fact that the New World Translation is published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be more than enough reason for Russia to ban its distribution. Of course, such a position is completely irrational, since the Bible is the Bible, just as the Quran is the Quran. I have no reason to doubt the care with which the New World Translation has been prepared.”—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. William Schmidt

    “I am not convinced that these new amendments do not apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses or other small—including new—religious movements. This situation points to a problem of a political-legal nature—the lack of a general approach to understanding and assessing state-religious relations as a special type of civil-political institution and realm of sociopolitical life. In this country [Russia] there still are no clearly stated principles and approaches at the level of government policy (conventions, strategies, programs) in the realm of state-religious relations. This political-legal ambiguity provokes not only a general criminalization of this realm by prosecution of corporate interests as well as by selective application of legal norms, but also harms the religious realm and interreligious dialogue as a whole, because it leads to political speculation about values of the highest level and their defamation. Holding dear to sacred holy texts is common to each religious tradition. Each tradition not only creates such a corpus but also establishes its canon.”—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

  • “I can think of no good reason why Russian authorities should discriminate against the New World Translation. There is certainly nothing extremist in the Witnesses’ version of the Bible. It is a translation that follows the Hebrew and Greek texts, and its content is substantially the same as that of mainstream translations.”—Dr. Chryssides, United Kingdom

  • Dr. Thomas Bremer

    “It seems to me that once Russian authorities have decided to regard Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization, they do everything in accordance with this decision—which one can and should brand as being wrong.”—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. Jim Beckford

    “This does not surprise me. It is in keeping with policies and practices previously pursued by the Soviet Union against religious minorities. But, instead of a blanket ban on most religious activities, Russia prefers to control minorities by quasi-legal administrative measures that are supposedly justified by the need to protect public order and to prevent dangerous extremism.”—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. Dmitry Uzlaner

    “The idea behind recent legislation in the religious sphere is the following: there are so-called traditional religions (traditional for Russia—first of all Russian Orthodoxy, but also traditional Islam, Judaism, Buddhism) and nontraditional (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses). According to this logic, traditional religions must enjoy state privileges as they have a positive influence on Russian society, nontraditional religions on the contrary must be controlled and limited in their activities as they bring alien values and lifestyles to Russian society. This is the reason why Jehovah’s Witnesses or other religious minorities will hardly profit from new laws defending the feelings of believers or prohibiting banning of the four sacred texts. I believe, though, that Jehovah’s Witnesses together with other peaceful religious minorities should enjoy constitutional religious freedoms throughout the Russian Federation.”—Dr. Dmitry Uzlaner, research fellow, Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences; editor-in-chief of State, Religion and Church, Russia

  • Mr. Eric Rassbach

    “Jehovah’s Witnesses should be accorded full right to access their translation of the Bible. Access to Scripture is a key part of the right to religious liberty, and there are literally hundreds of different versions of the Bible that are associated with various faith traditions. Singling out Jehovah’s Witnesses’ preferred translation as ‘extremist’ is both factually wrong and a grave imposition on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ ability to live out their faith.”—Mr. Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, United States

  • Dr. Emily B. Baran

    “Any legal prohibition on a Bible translation is a clear affront to religious toleration, particularly since it singles out a specific religious minority and targets their interpretation of Scripture. It should not be the business of government to engage in theological debates over the proper translation of the Bible.”—Dr. Emily B. Baran, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European history, Middle Tennessee State University, United States

  • Sir Andrew Wood

    “There is a strong link, at present, between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)—which has, like Russia itself, its differences with other parts of the Orthodox world. I suppose that the ROC would not accept that the Witnesses’ New World Translation of the Bible is to be regarded as a proper text of the sacred book followed by one of Russia’s four recognized traditional religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. The ingrained mind-set of the secular authorities would imply that they too would try to restrict the influence of those who rely on their own texts and beliefs, and their efforts to explain to others their reasoning. The fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been present in Russia since Czarist times would not affect that attitude, as the record of pressure on them over many decades shows all too clearly.”—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

  • “The reason for the ban, not only of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures but also other books, is to monopolize spiritual life in Russia and the translation of the Holy Scriptures as part of that process. In addition to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation, the Russian Orthodox Church does not recognize many other translations, including the Vulgate, the Catholic Latin translation. Catholics, in turn, do not recognize the Lutheran Bible.”—Dr. Fylypovych, Ukraine

  • Dr. Zoe Knox

    “The amendments to the extremism law would, on the surface, appear to protect the Christian Bible from censorship or banning. It would seem that it is not the sacred text that is protected, however, but particular versions of it. The New World Translation may have been seized not because of its content but because of its origins, namely with Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Witnesses are regarded as a challenge to traditional Russian practices in a range of ways, from their day-to-day living to their congregational arrangements and from their spiritual beliefs to their version of the Bible. They are, moreover, regarded as an American import. In sum, they are viewed as outsiders without a legitimate presence in Russia.”—Dr. Zoe Knox, associate professor of modern Russian history, University of Leicester, United Kingdom

  • Ms. Catherine Cosman

    Mass confiscations of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles show that the Russian state only views certain Bible translations as legally ‘acceptable,’ in a further violation of religious freedom. The Russian government should engage in a thorough reform of its extremist legislation, as the European Court for Human Rights, the Venice Commission, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have advocated.”—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

  • “I do not support the banning of translations of sacred texts. The moves to control the expression of faith in Russia have a great deal to do with the close link between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism. Many Russians were concerned that there was a ‘gold rush’ of proselytizing in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many felt that the Russian Orthodox Church needed space to recover from Communist rule.”—Dr. Cavanaugh, United States

  • Dr. John A. Bernbaum

    “I strongly defend the Witnesses’ right to develop their own version of Scripture based on their study of God’s word. No civil authority should be interfering in the translation and/or publication of religious materials. Freedom of religious beliefs is a fundamental human right and just civil authorities should support the free expression of a diversity of religious views.”—Dr. John A. Bernbaum, president, Russian-American Institute (Moscow), United States

  • Mr. Alexander Verkhovsky

    “We do not find any signs of extremism in the New World Translation. We view persecution against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and bans against their literature and communities as religious discrimination.”—Alexander Verkhovsky, director, SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (a Moscow-based Russian nonprofit organization conducting research work regarding nationalism, xenophobia, relations between the churches and the secular society, and political radicalism), Russia

  • Dr. Régis Dericquebourg

    “The Bible translated by Jehovah’s Witnesses is not a book of political combat against Russian society. It is one translation among others. I don’t see how the Bible of Jehovah’s Witnesses is ‘extremist.’ If it were, it would be banned in other democratic countries that are suspicious of political extremism. Yet, it is not banned in democratic countries.”—Dr. Régis Dericquebourg, sociologist, associate professor of new religious movements, Antwerp FVG, Belgium

  • Dr. Mark R. Elliott

    “Sad to say, Russia today frequently disregards the human rights of its ethnic and religious minorities. The simple fact is, given the expansive definition Russian xenophobic officials use for ‘extremist,’ any translation of the Christian Bible could be defined as such, including the 1876 Russian Orthodox Synodal Version.”—Dr. Mark R. Elliott, founding editor, East-West Church and Ministry Report, Asbury University, Kentucky, United States

  • “Russia would be pleased to see Christianity represented solely by the Russian Orthodox Church and its literature. Currently other religious groups, besides Jehovah’s Witnesses, are also encountering significant problems in Russia—which, incidentally, reverts to a czarist perspective. Religious organizations with a large following in the United States are particularly unwelcome in Russia.”—Dr. Besier, Germany

  • Dr. Silvio Ferrari

    “The attempt to outlaw the Jehovah’s Witness’ Russian-language translation of the Bible, labeled as ‘extremist,’ is an unprecedented step in Europe. On the other hand, the prohibition to ban ‘the Bible, the Quran, the Tanakh and the Kangyur, their contents, and quotations from them,’ while in itself is a good thing, implies an evident discrimination between these sacred texts and those of other religions. This dividing line is drawn without any proof that the latter are more ‘extremist’ than the former and therefore is clearly unreasonable.”—Dr. Silvio Ferrari, life honorary president, International Consortium for Law and Religious Studies; co-editor-in-chief, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion; co-founder, European Consortium for Church and State Research; professor of law and religion and canon law, University of Milan, Italy

  • “It is very dangerous when governments begin to decide what the ‘correct’ or permissible version of religious texts is. That is not a role for government but, rather, one for debate and discussion between religious believers. There are many variations and interpretations of sacred texts, including the Bible, and it is a breach of religious freedom principles of international law for a government to seek to impose its own version of religious truth on religious believers.”—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. Javier Martínez-Torrón

    “I cannot find in the European international law any ground to ban the sacred book of any religious community, as long as it does not spread hate or goes against public order. Judging religious or scriptural orthodoxy is not the role of the state.”—Dr. Javier Martínez-Torrón, professor of law, director, Department of Law and Religion, Complutense University School of Law, Spain

  • Prof. Robert C. Blitt

    “As the ICCPR has long maintained, the fact that a religion ‘is established as official or traditional. . . shall not result in any impairment of the enjoyment of any of the rights.’ Thus, for example, doling out privileges to certain ‘traditional’ religious groups while imposing restrictions on the practice of other ‘nontraditional’ faiths would tend to violate the prohibition of discrimination based on religion or belief and the ICCPR’s guarantee of equal protection.”—Professor Robert C. Blitt, professor of law, University of Tennessee; former international law specialist, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), United States

  • “If only the traditional religions are not discriminated against by Russian authorities, the situation appears to be more of a struggle against foreign influences rather than a struggle against religion. The current political context of Russia induces a kind of standoff with all opinions or movements that could fuel dissent whatsoever, political or religious. Russian authorities would prefer to exclude foreign influence in their territory. They believe that newer religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, help promote foreign influence in Russia. From this viewpoint, Jehovah’s Witnesses are first seen by the Russian authorities as a group from the North American continent—considered a source of undesirable influence in Russia. Thus, the legal point of view here, to the Russian authorities, has no real bearing on the matter. The legal action taken against the Witnesses is merely a pretext.”—Dr. Sadok, France

  • Dr. Marco Ventura

    “Governmental interference has heavily affected the indispensable right of religious communities, institutions, and organizations to produce, import, and disseminate religious publications and materials, first of all holy texts, such as the New World Translation of the Bible for Jehovah’s Witnesses. In this regard, restriction has gone as far as to entail the ambition by civil authorities to challenge the fundamental freedom of religious authorities to establish the version of their choice of their Scriptures, with regard in particular to translation and interpretation. In so doing, Russian civil authorities have breached their duty of neutrality and impartiality vis-à-vis religious truth and texts.”—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

  • “In my opinion, this has to do with the questionable state of freedom of religion in Russia. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only religious group that have had trouble in Russia lately. However, I find the banning of a translation of the Bible most troubling. If you ban one translation, then all, in principle, are in danger. The amendment would then apply only to the texts in their original languages (in the case of the Bible—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). Further, what about the manuscript versions? This fact alone shows the arbitrariness of the ban. It must be based on other things than the translation itself.”—Dr. Riistan, Estonia

Media Contacts:

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

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