A NOTE TO THE CITIZENS OF RUSSIA: With the publication of the following account, tens of millions of people in more than 230 lands will learn of an unwarranted repression of freedom of worship in Russia. The Watchtower magazine is the most widely translated and distributed journal in the world. This article will appear in 188 languages. Over 40 million copies will be published. Some officials may not want the international community to know what is happening to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. But Jesus’ words will prove true: “There is nothing carefully concealed that will not be revealed, and secret that will not become known.”
IN December 2009 and January 2010, two of the highest courts in Russia declared the religious faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be extremist. History seemed to be repeating itself. When the Soviets ruled Russia, thousands of Witnesses were wrongly charged with being enemies of the nation. They were exiled, sent to prisons, and forced into labor camps. After that regime collapsed, Jehovah’s Witnesses were exonerated. The new government officially restored their good name. * Now, once again, some people seem determined to slander the Witnesses.
Early in 2009, the authorities launched an attack on the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In February alone, prosecutors carried out more than 500 investigations across the country. The goal of this campaign? To identify supposed violations of the law by the Witnesses. In the following months, the police raided peaceful religious meetings held in Kingdom Halls and private homes. They confiscated literature and personal possessions. The authorities deported foreign lawyers who were assisting in the Witnesses’ defense and barred them from reentering the country.
On October 5, 2009, customs officials detained a shipment of Bible-based literature at the border near St. Petersburg. The material had been printed in Germany and was intended for a large number of congregations in Russia. A special unit of Russian customs agents who handle dangerous contraband examined the shipment. Why? An official document stated that the shipment “may contain material intended to incite religious discord.”
The wave of harassment soon reached a critical point. The Supreme Courts of the Russian Federation and the Altay Republic (a part of Russia) declared a number of publications used by the Witnesses, including the magazine you are now reading, to be extremist. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed legal appeals, and the international community expressed concern
How would the Witnesses respond to these efforts to sully their reputation and restrict their activity? And what do the Courts’ rulings signify for the religious freedom of all Russian citizens?
An Urgent Response to the Growing Threat
On Friday, February 26, 2010, some 160,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia began distributing 12 million copies of a special tract entitled Could It Happen Again? A Question for the Citizens of Russia. In the Siberian city of Usol’ye-Sibirskoye, for example, hundreds of Witnesses gathered on the streets at 5:30 in the morning. Among them were some who had been exiled to Siberia in 1951 for their faith. They braved temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40°C.) in order to distribute their allotment of 20,000 tracts.
To announce the three-day campaign, Jehovah’s Witnesses held a press conference in Moscow, the capital of Russia. Among those invited to speak was Mr. Lev Levinson, an expert from the Human Rights Institute. He briefly recounted the senseless harassment and persecution experienced by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and spoke of the subsequent official exoneration of the Witnesses. He also said: “All religious confessions that were persecuted during the Soviet period were declared by President Yeltsin’s decree to be rehabilitated. And everything that they lost was to have been returned to them. Jehovah’s Witnesses did not have any particular property under the Soviet Union, but their good name was returned to them.”
That good name is again threatened. “In the same country that expressed its regret,” said Mr. Levinson, “these people are being subjected to utterly groundless persecution.”
The Campaign Strikes a Chord
Did the tract campaign accomplish its goal? Mr. Levinson said: “On the way to the [press] conference I saw people in the metro who were sitting and reading a small pamphlet that Jehovah’s Witnesses are distributing throughout Russia today. . . . People are sitting and reading it, and they are reading it attentively.” * Note, for example, the following experiences.
An elderly woman in a predominantly Muslim region of central Russia accepted a tract and asked what it was about. When told that it discussed human rights and freedoms in Russia, she exclaimed: “Someone is finally directing attention to these issues! In this regard, Russia has been returning to the days of the Soviet Union. Thank you very much. Good job!”
A woman in Chelyabinsk who was offered a tract said: “I have already received a copy of this tract and read it. I am fully on your side. I do not know of any other religion that would defend its faith in such an organized way. I like the way you people dress, and you are always tactful. It is clear that you have strong confidence in your beliefs. It seems to me that God is with you.”
In St. Petersburg, a man who said that he had already received the tract was asked whether he liked what he had read. “Yes,” he replied. “While I was reading it, I got goose bumps, and I even cried. My grandmother was repressed [during Soviet times] and told me much about those who were imprisoned with her. There were many who were criminals, but there were also those who were innocent yet were imprisoned for their faith. I think that everyone should know about what happened, so you are doing the right thing.”
What Does the Future Hold for Russia?
Jehovah’s Witnesses value the measure of freedom they have enjoyed in Russia for the past two decades. Even so, they know only too well how easily freedom can be taken away. Whether the recent wave of slander launched against them indicates that Russia is receding into another dark period of repression, time will tell.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, are firmly resolved to continue carrying out their work of preaching the Bible’s message of peace and hope, come what may. The special tract sums up their resolve: “Repression will never succeed. We will not stop speaking tactfully and respectfully about Jehovah God and his Word, the Bible. (1 Peter 3:15) We did not stop when subjected to the horrors of Nazi Germany, we did not stop in the darkest days of our country’s repression, and we will not stop now.
^ par. 13 Hours before the press conference, congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow began distributing the tract.