What Is the Future of Religion?
THE resurgence of religion has been dramatic in the countries of the former Soviet Union. In Russia alone, 50 percent of the population now declare themselves to be Orthodox, and millions are adherents of other religions. Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism are among the long-established ones, and Jehovah’s Witnesses also have a long history there.
As early as 1891, representatives of the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were known before 1931, visited Kishinev, Russia (now Chisinau, Moldova). There meetings were held with fellow believers. In 1928, George Young, a special representative of the Bible Students, met with Soviet officials in Moscow, Russia, to seek permission to publish Bible literature in the Soviet Union. Later, the Witnesses became well-known as a result of Soviet attempts to eliminate them.
When the Soviet Union was suddenly dissolved nearly ten years ago, people started to wonder, ‘Why did the Soviets try to eliminate religion?’ Many who had been indoctrinated in atheism for decades became curious as to what religion might have to offer. Could the Bible, which had been suppressed as forbidden literature, actually contain answers to the problems facing mankind? Russians began to investigate for themselves.
A Different Religious Problem
The interest of so many in the Bible created a different kind of religious problem in the former Soviet Union. The Guardian newspaper of London, England, observed last year: “The ‘war on God’ may have ended, but just a decade after the humiliating defeat of the world’s first avowedly atheist state, a new religious cold war in Russia may only be beginning.” What is this so-called religious cold war that the newspaper refers to?
As noted in our preceding article, the Russian Orthodox Church worked hand in glove with Soviet leaders in order to survive and receive privileges. The Guardian describes the continuation of such a relationship, explaining: “The last 10 years have also seen the church form an uncomfortably close relationship with the largely unreformed state that once suppressed it, regularly supporting the Russian government (the Patriarch’s endorsement of the war in Chechnya) and wielding in return considerable political influence.”
The Los Angeles Times of February 10, 1999, drew attention to the exercise of the church’s political influence when commenting on the Law of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. The Los Angeles Times said that this law, signed by then President Boris Yeltsin in September 1997, was “promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church.” The law gave the church preferred status as a “traditional” religion, along with Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. Among other things, the law required that religious organizations in Russia reregister.
The New York Times of February 11, 1999, reported that after this law was passed, “the Orthodox Church kept pressures on its rivals.” The Times added: “Last August, Aleksei II, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for a ban on proselytizing faiths, particularly those that try to lure people away from the ‘religions of their ancestors.’” Since then, efforts to ban the so-called proselytizing faiths have continued, resulting in what has been characterized as a “religious cold war.”
One of the Targets
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been one of the chief targets of the attack led by the Russian Orthodox Church. On June 20, 1996, the Moscow prosecutor’s office began to consider a lawsuit initiated by the anticult Committee for the Protection of Youth From False Religions. Although the case was recessed time and again because of absence of evidence of criminal behavior on the part of the Witnesses, each time it was revived.
In the meantime, the Witnesses became the objects of a barrage of propaganda. Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian newspaper with a circulation of 1,200,000, noted in its issue of November 21, 1998: “Over a period of only two years, the Russian Orthodox Church has released more than ten books, brochures, and handbooks ‘dedicated’ to the Jehovist community.” Why has the church focused on trying to discredit the Witnesses?
“Likely,” Komsomolskaya Pravda continued, “it is primarily because just over the last seven years the number of the organization’s members has grown tenfold, and the Russian Orthodox Church, like any hierarchical organization, doesn’t like competitors.”
Early in 1999 when the court case against the Witnesses was again reopened, it received worldwide attention. A New York Times headline of February 11 read: “Moscow Court Weighs Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban.” The article noted: “The case now before a Moscow civil court, heard in a small courtroom, is being closely watched by religious and human rights groups as the first significant attempt to use the [Law of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations] to restrict worship.”
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, president of the International Helsinki Federation, explained why the Witness trial was being closely watched. She said that if those who are trying to suppress Jehovah’s Witnesses “are successful in this case,” then “they will feel free to attack other groups” that are also characterized as nontraditional religions. The trial, however, was suspended yet again on March 12, 1999. But the following month, on April 29, Russia’s Ministry of Justice granted a certification of registration for the “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.”
Despite this recognition by the government, attacks against the Witnesses and other religious minorities have continued in Russia and other former Soviet republics. Lawrence Uzzell, director of the Keston Institute in Oxford, England, noted that “it always pays to watch the Jehovah’s Witnesses” because what happens to them serves “as an early warning signal.” Indeed, vital religious liberties for tens of millions of people are at stake!
The Attack Unjustified
In the first century, the chief priests and other religious leaders persecuted Jesus’ followers. (John 19:15; Acts 5:27-33) As a result, it was said of Christianity: “Truly as regards this sect it is known to us that everywhere it is spoken against.” (Acts 28:22) It should not be surprising, therefore, that true Christians today would also be maligned, as Jehovah’s Witnesses have been.
Yet, after examining evidence against early Christians, Gamaliel, the famous Pharisee and teacher of the Law, advised: “Do not meddle with these men, but let them alone; (because, if this scheme or this work is from men, it will be overthrown; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them;) otherwise, you may perhaps be found fighters actually against God.”—Acts 5:38, 39.
Careful investigations of Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been conducted by critics today. With what results? Sergey Blagodarov, himself a professed Orthodox, noted in Komsomolskaya Pravda: “Over a period of more than a hundred years, not a single country of the world has been able to prove either criminal acts on the part of the community’s members, or the illegality of its existence.”
What Is Religion’s Future?
The Bible speaks of “pure religion,” or “worship that is clean and undefiled.” (James 1:27a; see also King James Version.) As noted in the preceding article, the Bible describes the world empire of false religion as a “great harlot . . . with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication.” This symbolic religious harlot—“Babylon the Great”—is said to be “drunk with the blood of the holy ones and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.”—Revelation 17:1-6.
How aptly this description fits religion that has worked closely with the political leaders of the world to preserve its own position of privilege! Yet, the future of this great symbolic religious harlot is sealed. “In one day,” the Bible says, “her plagues will come, death and mourning and famine, and she will be completely burned with fire, because Jehovah God, who judged her, is strong.” No wonder the angelic warning is urgent: “Get out of her . . . if you do not want to receive part of her plagues”!—Revelation 18:4, 7, 8.
When the disciple James described “pure religion,” he identified it as being “without spot from the world.” (James 1:27b) Moreover, Jesus Christ said of his true followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:16) Can you see, therefore, why Jehovah’s Witnesses keep free from the corrupting influences of this world’s political affairs? They do so because of their complete confidence in the Bible’s promise: “The world is passing away and so is its desire, but he that does the will of God remains forever.”—1 John 2:17.
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The trial held in Moscow in February 1999. The defense (left), the judge (center), and the prosecution (right)
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The Bible describes the future of all religion