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Does Putin Know What’s Happening to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia?

Russian-language Jehovah's Witness literature
Russian-language Jehovah's Witness literature
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

President of the Russian Federation

"We should treat the representatives of all religions in the same way - this is true, but still, it is also necessary to take into account the country and the society in which we live. True, this does not mean at all that we should include representatives of religious communities in some destructive, or even in terrorist organizations. Of course, this is complete nonsense, you need to carefully deal with it. Here I agree with you."

Putin has publicly commented on the topic a year ago

(Editor's note: In defending the Jehovah's Witnesses, Ekaterina Shulman passed along a notion that is a popular misconception of members' medical treatment. The quote is accurate, but following correspondence from two readers, we have added additional context that clarifies medical treatment of members of the Christian denomination).

During a meeting with the Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights on December 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the situation facing Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, who have been designated as an “extremist” group in Russia since April 2017.

Ekaterina Shulman, a political scholar and a council member said, "There is a list of organizations, for which there is information that they are involved in terrorism and extremism. There are 489 of them, and 404 out of these are Jehovah's Witnesses."

"Here I will take a sinister pause," Shulman said, then continued, "There could be an abundance of claims against Jehovah's Witnesses -- they don't allow blood transfusion, don't send children to hospitals, but they definitely are not calling for violence or committing it."

(On the question of seeking medical care for children, the denomination's website states, "Yes, Jehovah's Witnesses accept medical treatment. ..and a vast not conflict with Bible principles).

Putin’s answer appeared to indicate that he had no previous knowledge of the issue, but he called the inclusion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in "extremist" list as “complete nonsense,” and suggested that it must be dealt with “carefully.”

The minutes of the December 11 meeting were only published on the Kremlin’s website on December 17. The next day, Russian Presidential Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also commented on the matter.

"Here we need to analyze each particular case," TASS cited Peskov as saying.

"It is impossible here to solve this problem conceptually because there are various pros and cons, but an additional study on this issue will be carried out at least,” said Peskov.

According to the TASS article, Putin told members of the conference that he did not know why Jehovah’s Witnesses were being persecuted in his country.

Putin's claim of having no previous knowledge about the issue is false.

During her summit with Putin in Sochi in May 2017 -- less than a month after the ban of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, standing next to the Russian President, that she asked Putin to "apply his influence" to ensure that Russia restores the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses.

On multiple occasions the U.S. Department of State as well as many international rights organizations condemned the ban and demanded that Russia stopped the persecution against the group.

At least on one other occasion in the past, the Russian President publicly condemned a "foreign religious group," a reference that many in Russia regarded as Jehovah's Witnesses. Putin's comments demonstrated detailed knowledge of the accusations against the group.

The comment came on July 20, 2017 during Putin's press conference in Moscow, when American Journalist Jill Dougherty asked him in Russian, "I have noticed that lately a lot of attention in Russia is given to religion and to moral values. I would like to know, why is it so important for you? And why it is so important for you to criticize Western values?"

Although, Dougherty did not mention the Jehovah's Witnesses in her question, and Vladimir Putin answered without naming the group he was describing, the captions of the videos posted on YouTube read: "Putin about the ban of the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses."

Here is what Putin had to say in the video above: "It is not important to me to criticize Western values, what's important to me is to defend our population from some quasi-values, that are very difficult to perceive for our citizens. The question is that we need to shield ourselves from the quite aggressive behavior of some social groups, which to my opinion not only live as they like, but aggressively impose their viewpoint on other people in foreign countries."

In light of these facts, Putin's claim of ignorance about what is happening to Jehovah’s Witnesses is disingenuous.

In July of 2016 Putin signed legislation that heavily restricted missionary and religious activities within Russia. Groups that fell afoul of the law were mostly Russian Protestants, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court, in agreement with a request from Russia’s Justice Ministry, officially included the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the list of “extremist” organizations. This designation equates the religious group with organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and led to the seizure of the church’s assets in Russia, as well as several criminal cases against church leaders. The church’s literature, including its translation of the Bible, is considered extremist material by Putin’s government. In July 2017, the Russian Supreme Court rejected an appeal aimed at lifting the ban.

While the church was officially labeled an extremist group only in April of 2017, the church has faced persecution from local and regional Russian courts as far back as 2007, when a deputy general prosecutor wrote a letter addressed to other prosecutors, telling them that the Jehovah’s Witnesses constituted a public threat.

In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights informed the Russian government of a number of complaints it had received on behalf of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The 2017 ban on the group also provoked criticism from the U.S. and United Nations. In April 2017, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights put out a statement by three UN experts condemning efforts to enforce the anti-extremism legislation against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The first arrest under the anti-extremism law was of a Danish citizen who was leading a bible study in the central Russian city of Oryol, in May 2017.

Jehovah's Witnesses from Russia look for asylum in Finland
Jehovah's Witnesses from Russia look for asylum in Finland

Twice, the U.S. has listed Russia as a “Country of Particular Concern” regarding religious freedom in its annual report on religious freedom around the globe – in 2017 and 2018.

Putin served as the elected president of the Russian Federation from May 2000 to May 2008, which includes the time of the deputy prosecutor’s letter to colleagues calling the religious group a public threat.

From May 2008 to May 2012, Putin served as prime minister of Russia, while Dmitry Medvedev was president. By May 2012, Putin was again the elected president, serving uninterrupted until the present. It was during that time, that he signed legislation against missionary work, that the Russian Supreme Court labeled the Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremist” and also when European human right court, the UN and the U.S. all acted in one form or another criticizing Russia’s policies toward and persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And yet despite all this, it was just this month that Putin called the inclusion of the group in the extremist list a “complete nonsense.”