Legal registration is not essential for Jehovah’s Witnesses to carry out religious activity. However, registration allows us to own or lease property for meetings and to import our religious literature.
In 2004, Russian courts liquidated the legal entity used by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow. As a result, our brothers in Moscow faced increased hostility. Police officers harassed them, people attacked some of them in the public ministry, and owners of meeting places canceled rental contracts, leaving our brothers with no place to meet for worship. A 2010 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) confirmed that Russia had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and ordered the restoration of the legal entity. We are pleased to report that on May 27, 2015, the Moscow Department of the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice registered a new Local Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow.
The legal entities used by Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide are generally tax-exempt, as are most religious and charitable organizations. At times, however, governments refuse to recognize our tax-exempt status.
In Sweden, the authorities assert that Bethel is a commercial business “employing” Bethelites and not a religious community of special full-time ministers. The state has assessed tens of thousands of euros in employer/
employee taxes against Bethel and individual Bethelites. To address this issue, Witnesses in Sweden have filed claims in domestic courts and have submitted six separate applications to the ECHR.
Neutrality and Conscientious Objection to Military Service
Jehovah’s people take seriously the Bible’s command to “beat their swords into plowshares” and not “learn war anymore.” (Isa. 2:4) They maintain their neutrality even though some governments make no provision for alternative civilian service.
Current legislation in South Korea does not recognize the right of conscientious objection. Over the past 60 years, more than 18,000 Witness men have been imprisoned for refusing military service. Almost every Witness in the country has experienced the imprisonment of a friend or a family member. In 2004 and 2011, the Constitutional Court of South Korea held that such imprisonment is constitutional. In July 2015, however, the Court conducted a public hearing to examine the matter again. Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide pray for a resolution to this long-standing issue so that young brothers in South Korea will no longer face imprisonment for their faith.
Three of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea have begun their 22nd year in confinement for conscientious objection to military service. Paulos Eyassu, Negede Teklemariam, and Isaac Mogos have never been formally charged or had the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law. Along with over 50 other brothers and sisters, they continue to maintain their integrity despite harsh treatment and deplorable prison conditions. We are confident that Jehovah ‘hears the sighing’ of those imprisoned for their faith and will act in their behalf.
In Ukraine, Vitaliy Shalaiko was summoned in August 2014 to report for military service during mobilization. As a conscientious objector, he refused military service but expressed his willingness to perform alternative civilian service. The prosecutor charged Brother Shalaiko with evading military mobilization, but both the trial and appellate courts found him not guilty. The appeal court reasoned that concern for State security is not a justification for limiting guaranteed rights and that “the right to conscientious objection cannot be restricted in the interests of national security.” The prosecutor appealed again. On June 23, 2015, the High Specialized Court of Ukraine for Civil and Criminal Cases upheld the decisions of the lower courts. It thus confirmed that the right to conscientious objection and alternative service applies even during national emergencies.
Regarding the positive outcome of the case, Brother Shalaiko says: “I was strengthened by the words of Jeremiah 1:19. I was prepared for any outcome
Neutrality and Patriotic Ceremonies
Patriotic ceremonies present another challenge to Christian neutrality. Young ones in particular may be pressured to compromise their integrity to Jehovah, as school authorities may try to force students to sing the national anthem or salute the flag.
In the Karongi District of Rwanda, school officials charged several Witness students with disrespecting the national anthem because they refused to sing it. The students were expelled from school and even jailed. On November 28, 2014, the Intermediate Court of Karongi exonerated the students and ruled that their refusal to sing the national anthem was not an act of disrespect. In other African countries, such as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Malawi, young Witnesses have faced the same issue and in some cases have also been expelled from school. Our brothers in these countries are making efforts to inform government officials and school authorities regarding the neutral position of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In December 2013, a public school in Lepaera, Honduras, denied high school diplomas to two Witness students because they refused to sing the national anthem and pledge allegiance to the flag. In order to resolve this problem, two lawyers who are Jehovah’s Witnesses met with a representative of the Ministry of Education and shared with him legal precedents from other countries that support the stance of Witness students. The official was kind and agreed to allow the students and their parents to present the facts in writing before the legal director of the Secretariat of Education in Honduras. After examining their complaint, he issued a directive on July 29, 2014, stating that education “should be available to [all in] society without discrimination of any nature” and ordered that diplomas be issued to the Witness students.
In every nation, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, we obey Jesus’ command to share the Kingdom good news with our neighbors, to gather together with fellow believers for worship, and to study God’s Word regularly. We also take seriously the Bible’s command to inculcate Jehovah’s laws into the hearts of our children and to “abstain . . . from blood.” (Acts 15:20; Deut. 6: 5-7) At times, our obedience to these commands brings us into conflict with governmental authorities who may misunderstand our position.
In the state of Florida, U.S.A., a trial judge awarded a non-Witness mother the sole right to direct the religious education of her three children. The Witness father was ordered not to provide any religious training that conflicted with the Catholic faith. The father appealed the trial court’s order, and on August 18, 2014, the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s restrictions. Relying on well-settled precedent, the court wrote: “Restrictions upon a noncustodial parent’s right to expose his or her child to his or her religious beliefs have consistently been overturned in the absence of a clear, affirmative showing that the religious activities at issue will be harmful to the child.”
The ruling gives the children the right to unrestricted access to Jehovah God’s beneficial instruction and guidance. They are all making fine spiritual progress as they associate with the local congregation. The father said: “Enduring this situation is definitely refining me. I have had some tests of my faith lately, but Jehovah has helped me stand firm! I know that persecution is part of what we choose when we decide to serve Jehovah.”
Sister Efigenia Semente, a mother of three children in Namibia, faced a serious challenge to her integrity. While she was in the hospital giving birth to her third child, complications arose, and some of the medical staff as well as her non-Witness family obtained a court order to force a blood transfusion. Sister Semente vigorously resisted the transfusion and took legal action to defend her right to choose her own treatment. On June 24, 2015, the Supreme Court of Namibia upheld Sister Semente’s claims, stating that “the right to choose what can and cannot be done to one’s body, whether one is a parent or not, is an inalienable human right.” Sister Semente said: “We felt Jehovah’s hand like never before. It is so wonderful to be part of this brotherhood. Jehovah really cares.”
Witnesses in Switzerland have enjoyed public witnessing on the streets of major cities. However, the city of Geneva issued an order prohibiting the use of “stands that directly or indirectly spread information of a religious nature in the public domain.” The Witnesses filed a complaint in court, emphasizing that a general ban on spreading religious information using a stand “significantly infringes on the freedom of religion and opinion.” The court agreed, and the Witnesses have been successful in working with local authorities to establish an appropriate location and time for public witnessing using an information stand.
Government officials in Azerbaijan have increased their efforts to suppress the religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Ministry of National Security regularly summons individual Witnesses for questioning. This agency also searches Witnesses’ homes for religious literature not approved by the State for import. The international community expressed shock when in February 2015, agents of the Ministry of National Security detained two Witnesses, Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova, for simply sharing Bible teachings with their neighbors. Although we are saddened by such mistreatment, we rejoice that the publishers in Azerbaijan have maintained their zeal and are courageous in sharing the “good news of the Kingdom” with their neighbors.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia face unrelenting governmental interference in their religious activity. To date, 80 religious publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been declared “extremist” by the Russian Federation. This means that distributing or possessing copies of any of these “extremist” publications, such as My Book of Bible Stories, is illegal. Additionally, in December 2014, the Russian Federation Supreme Court declared our website, jw.org, to be “extremist.” Internet providers throughout Russia have blocked access to jw.org, and promoting the site is considered illegal. Since March 2015, customs officials have not allowed any shipments of Witness literature to enter the country, even Bibles and literature that Russian courts had previously examined and declared free of any signs of extremism.
Legal action continues in the city of Taganrog, where authorities have charged 16 publishers with the “crime” of organizing and attending religious meetings. In the city of Samara, authorities obtained a court order to liquidate our legal entity on the grounds that it is “extremist.” Despite these many challenges, our brothers and sisters in Russia are determined to render “God’s things to God,” not giving in to such interference.