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Throughout the history of Jehovah's Witnesses, their beliefs, doctrines, and practices have engendered controversy and opposition from local governments, communities, and religious groups. Many Christian denominations consider the interpretations and doctrines of Jehovah's Witnesses to be heretical, and some professors of religion have described the group as a cult.
According to law professor Archibald Cox, in the United States, Jehovah's Witnesses were "the principal victims of religious persecution … they began to attract attention and provoke repression in the 1930s, when their proselytizing and numbers rapidly increased." Political and religious animosity against Jehovah's Witnesses has at times led to mob action and government oppression in various countries, including Cuba, the United States, Canada, Singapore, and Nazi Germany. The denomination's doctrine of political neutrality has led to imprisonment of members who refused conscription (for example in Britain during World War II and afterwards during the period of compulsory national service).
During the World Wars, Jehovah's Witnesses were targeted in the United States, Canada, and many other countries for their refusal to serve in the military or help with war efforts. In Canada, Jehovah's Witnesses were interned in camps along with political dissidents and people of Japanese and Chinese descent. Activities of Jehovah's Witnesses have previously been banned in the Soviet Union and in Spain, partly due to their refusal to perform military service. Their religious activities are currently banned or restricted in some countries, for example in Singapore, China, Vietnam, Russia and many Muslim-majority countries.
In Bulgaria, Jehovah's Witnesses have been targets of violence by right wing nationalist groups such as the IMRO – Bulgarian National Movement. On April 17, 2011, a group of about sixty hooded men carrying BMPO flags besieged a Kingdom Hall in Burgas, during the annual memorial of Christ's death. Attackers threw stones, damaged furniture, and injured at least five of the people gathered inside. The incident was recorded by a local television station. Jehovah's Witnesses in Bulgaria have been fined for proselytizing without proper government permits, and some municipalities have legislation prohibiting or restricting their rights to preach.
In 1984, Canada released a number of previously classified documents which revealed that in the 1940s, "able bodied young Jehovah's Witnesses" were sent to "camps", and "entire families who practiced the religion were imprisoned." The 1984 report stated, "Recently declassified wartime documents suggest [World War II] was also a time of officially sanctioned religious bigotry, political intolerance and the suppression of ideas. The federal government described Jehovah's Witnesses as subversive and offensive 'religious zealots' … in secret reports given to special parliamentarian committees in 1942." It concluded that, "probably no other organization is so offensive in its methods, working as it does under the guise of Christianity. The documents prepared by the justice department were presented to a special House of Commons committee by the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King in an attempt to justify the outlawing of the organizations during the second world war."
According to Bitter Winter, an online magazine discussing religious freedom and human rights in China, Jehovah's Witnesses' activities in China are considerded illegal. It also reports that foreign missionaries are deported, members' homes are raided, and members express concern about being followed by police. Bitter Winter also reported that China's official anti-cult website openly supported Russia's ban of the denomination, stating that the group should be strictly controlled or even banned.[better source needed]
Former Canadian-American Jehovah's Witness missionary Amber Scorah recounted the lengths that she and her husband went through to preach illegally in China. She reports needing to falsify their visa application to enter the country and lying to co-workers about why they immigrated there. She describes how local Jehovah's Witnesses were forced to meet secretly in a different location every week, with invites by word-of-mouth only. She also describes how they would vet potential converts to make sure they had no communist ties or leanings.
Under Fidel Castro's communist regime, Jehovah's Witnesses were considered "social deviants", along with homosexuals, vagrants, and other groups, and were sent to forced labor concentration camps to be "reeducated". On July 1, 1974 the group was officially banned and their "churches" closed. Following the ban members who refused military service were imprisoned for sentences of three years and it was reported that members were also imprisoned because of their children's refusal to salute the flag.
In Eritrea, the government stripped Jehovah's Witnesses of their civil and political rights in 1994 after their refusal to engage in voting and military service. Members of all ages have been arrested for participating in religious meetings. On 24 September 1994, Paulos Eyassu, Negede Teklemariam, and Isaac Mogos were arrested, imprisoned without trial, and remain imprisoned. As of January 2019, 53 Witnesses were imprisoned, one since 2001. International rights groups are aware of the situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Eritrea and have repeatedly called for Eritrean authorities to end the persecution. Four are reported to have died in prison due to maltreatment.
Prior to World War II, the French government banned the Association of Jehovah's Witnesses in France, and ordered that the French offices of the Watch Tower Society be vacated.[Note 1] After the war, Jehovah's Witnesses in France renewed their operations. In December 1952, France's Minister of the Interior banned The Watchtower magazine, citing its position on military service. The ban was lifted on November 26, 1974.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the French government included Jehovah's Witnesses on its list of "cults", and governmental ministers made derogatory public statements about Jehovah's Witnesses.[Note 2] Despite its century of activity in the country, France's Ministry of Finance opposed official recognition of the denomination; it was not until June 23, 2000 that France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses qualify as a religion under French law. France's Ministry of the Interior sought to collect 60% of donations made to the denomination's entities; Witnesses called the taxation "confiscatory" and appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.[Note 3][Note 4] On June 30, 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that France's actions violated the religious freedom of Jehovah's Witnesses by demanding 58 million euros in taxes.
Jehovah's Witnesses in France have reported hundreds of criminal attacks against their adherents and places of worship.[Note 5]
During the ban of The Watchtower in France, publication of the magazine continued in various French territories. In French Polynesia, the magazine was covertly published under the name, La Sentinelle, though it was later learned that The Watchtower had not been banned locally. In Réunion, the magazine was published under the name, Bulletin intérieur.
In 1996, one year after Georgia adopted its post-USSR Constitution, the country's Ministry of Internal Affairs began a campaign to detain tons of religious literature belonging to Jehovah's Witnesses. Government officials refused permits for Jehovah's Witnesses to organize assemblies, and law enforcement officials dispersed legal assemblies. In September 2000, "Georgian police and security officials fired blank anti-tank shells and used force to disperse an outdoor gathering of some 700 Jehovah's Witnesses in the town of Natuliki in northwestern Georgia on 8 September, AP and Caucasus Press reported."
In cases when the instigators were formally charged, prosecution was impeded by a lack of cooperation by government and law enforcement.[Note 6] In 2004, Forum 18 News Service referred to the period since 1999 as a "five-year reign of terror" against Jehovah's Witnesses and certain other religious minorities. Amnesty International noted: "Jehovah's Witnesses have frequently been a target for violence … in Georgia … In many of the incidents police are said to have failed to protect the believers, or even to have participated in physical and verbal abuse." Individual Witnesses have fled Georgia seeking religious refugee status in other nations.[Note 7]
On May 3, 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the government of Georgia for its toleration of religious violence toward Jehovah's Witnesses and ordered the victims be compensated for moral damages and legal costs.
On October 7, 2014, The European Court of Human Rights, giving its judgement concerning violence against Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia in the years 2000-2001, unanimously held that Georgia's state officials, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, Articles 3, 9 & 14, had either directly participated in those attacks or had tolerated violence by private individuals against members of this religious group.
During 1931 and 1932, more than 2000 legal actions were instigated against Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany and members of the group were dismissed from employment. Persecution intensified following Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor in 1933 and continued until 1945. A "Declaration of Facts" was issued at a Jehovah's Witness convention in Berlin on June 25, 1933, asserting the group's political neutrality and calling for an end to government opposition. More than 2.1 million copies of the statement were distributed throughout Germany, but its distribution prompted a new wave of persecution against German Witnesses, whose refusal to give the Hitler salute, join Nazi organizations or perform military service demonstrated their opposition to the totalitarian ideology of National Socialism.
On October 4, 1934, congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany sent telegrams of protest and warning to Hitler. According to one eyewitness account Hitler was shown a number of telegrams protesting against the Third Reich's persecution of the Bible Students. The eyewitness, Karl Wittig, reported: "Hitler jumped to his feet and with clenched fists hysterically screamed: 'This brood will be exterminated in Germany!' Four years after this discussion I was able, by my own observations, to convince myself … that Hitler's outburst of anger was not just an idle threat. No other group of prisoners of the named concentration-camps was exposed to the sadism of the SS-soldiery in such a fashion as the Bible Students were. It was a sadism marked by an unending chain of physical and mental tortures, the likes of which no language in the world can express."
About 10,000 Witnesses were imprisoned, including 2000 sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by purple triangles; as many as 1200 died, including 250 who were executed. From 1935 Gestapo officers offered members a document to sign indicating renouncement of their faith, submission to state authority, and support of the German military. Historian Detlef Garbe says a "relatively high number" of people signed the statement before the war, but "extremely low numbers" of Bible Student prisoners did so in concentration camps in later years.
Despite more than a century of conspicuous activity in the country, Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany were not granted legal recognition until March 25, 2005, in Berlin;[Note 8] in 2006 Germany's Federal Administrative Court (BVerwG) in Leipzig extended the local decision to apply nationwide.
Jehovah's Witnesses' Office of Public Information has documented a number of mob attacks in India. It states that these instances of violence "reveal the country's hostility toward its own citizens who are Christians."[failed verification] There have been reports that police assist mob attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses or lay charges against the Witnesses while failing to charge other participants involved. In the city of Davangere on December 20, 2010 a mob confronted two female Witnesses. The mob broke into the home of one of the Witnesses where they had taken refuge. Property was damaged and one of the Witnesses was assaulted. When the police arrived, the Witnesses were arrested and charged with blasphemy.
In another incident, on December 6, 2011, three Witnesses were attacked by a mob in Madikeri, in the state of Karnataka. The male Witness "was kicked and pummeled by the mob" and then the mob dragged them towards a nearby temple; while making lewd remarks, the mob "tried to tear the clothes off of the female Witnesses." According to the report, the police came and "took the three Witnesses to the police station and filed charges against them rather than the mob."[failed verification] During a July 2012 incident, a group of fifteen men assaulted four Witnesses in Madikeri. The group was taken to a police station and charged with "insulting the religion or religious beliefs of another class" before being released on bail.
In 1967, thousands of Witnesses in Malawi were beaten and killed by police and citizens for refusing to purchase political party cards and become members of the Malawi Congress Party. While their stand of not involving themselves in politics during the time of the old Colonial government was seen as an act of resistance their continued non-involvement with the new independent government was viewed as treasonous. The organization was declared illegal in the penal code and the foreign members in the country were expelled. Persecution, both economic and physical, was intensified after a September 1972 Malawi Congress Party meeting which stated, in part, that "all Witnesses should be dismissed from their employment; any firm that failed to comply would have its license cancelled." By November 1973 some 21,000 Jehovah's Witnesses had fled to the neighboring country of Zambia. In 1993, during the transition to a multiparty system and a change in leadership, the government's ban on the organization was lifted in the country.
Russian anti-extremism laws were extended to non-violent groups in 2007 and Jehovah's Witnesses have been officially banned from the port city of Taganrog since 2009, after a local court ruled the organization guilty of inciting religious hatred by "propagating the exclusivity and supremacy" of their religious beliefs.
On December 8, 2009 the Supreme Court of Russia upheld the ruling of the lower courts which pronounced 34 pieces of Jehovah's Witness literature extremist, including their magazine The Watchtower, in the Russian language. Jehovah's Witnesses claim that this ruling affirms a misapplication of a federal law on anti-extremism. The ruling upheld the confiscation of property of Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog, and may set a precedent for similar cases in other areas of Russia, as well as placing literature of Jehovah's Witnesses on a list of literature unacceptable throughout Russia. The chairman of the presiding committee of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, Vasily Kalin, said: "I am very concerned that this decision will open a new era of opposition against Jehovah's Witnesses, whose right to meet in peace, to access religious literature and to share the Christian hope contained in the Gospels, is more and more limited." On December 1, 2015 a Rostov Regional Court convicted 16 Jehovah's Witnesses of practising extremism in Taganrog, with five given 5 1⁄2-year suspended sentences and the remainder issued fines they were not required to pay.
On May 5, 2015, customs authorities in Russia seized a shipment of religious literature containing Ossetian-language Bibles published by Jehovah's Witnesses. Russian customs officials in the city of Vyborg held up a shipment of 2,013 Russian-language copies of Bibles on July 13, 2015. Customs authorities confiscated three of the Bibles, sent them to an "expert" to study the Bibles to determine whether they contained "extremist" language, and impounded the rest of the shipment.
On July 21, 2015, the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice added Jehovah's Witnesses' official website to the Federal List of Extremist Materials thereby making it a criminal offense to promote the website from within the country and requiring internet providers throughout Russia to block access to the site.
On March 23, 2017, the Russian News Agency TASS reported that Russia's Justice Ministry had suspended the activities of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia due to extremist activities. On April 4, 2017 UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association Maina Kiai, and UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief Ahmed Shaheed condemned Russia's desire to ban Jehovah's Witnesses.
On April 20, 2017, The Supreme Court of Russia issued a verdict upholding the claim from the country's Justice Ministry that Jehovah's Witnesses' activity violated laws on "extremism." The ruling liquidates the group's Russian headquarters in St. Petersburg and all of its 395 local religious organizations. Thus banning their activity, and ordering their property to be seized by the state. This is the first time that a court has ruled that a registered national centralized religious organisation is "extremist" and banned. Many countries and international organizations have spoken out against Russia's religious abuses of Jehovah's Witnesses. Leaders of various denominations have also spoken out against Russia's decision to ban Jehovah's Witnesses. An article in Newsweek stated, "Russia's decision to ban Jehovah's Witnesses in the country shows the 'paranoia' of Vladimir Putin's government, according to the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)." The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also expressed deep concern over Russia's treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses.
On May 2017, armed Federal Security Services (FSB) officers arrested Dennis Christensen, a 46 year old Danish citizen, at a hall in Oryol on charges related to extremism. On February 6, 2019, he was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.
In 1972 the Singapore government de-registered and banned the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that its members refuse to perform military service (which is obligatory for all male citizens), salute the flag, or swear oaths of allegiance to the state. Singapore has banned all written materials (including Bibles) published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, both publishing arms of the Jehovah's Witnesses. A person in possession of banned literature can be fined up to S$2,000 (US$1,333) and jailed up to 12 months for a first conviction.
In February 1995, Singapore police raided private homes where group members were holding religious meetings, in an operation codenamed "Operation Hope". Officers seized Bibles, religious literature, documents and computers, and eventually brought charges against 69 Jehovah's Witnesses, many of whom went to jail. In March 1995, 74-year-old Yu Nguk Ding was arrested for carrying two "undesirable publications"—one of them a Bible printed by the Watch Tower Society.
In 1996, eighteen Jehovah's Witnesses were convicted for unlawfully meeting in a Singapore apartment and were given sentences from one to four weeks in jail. Canadian Queen's Counsel Glen How flew to Singapore to defend the Jehovah's Witnesses and argued that the restrictions against the Jehovah's Witnesses violated their constitutional rights. Then-Chief Justice Yong Pung How questioned How's sanity, accused him of "living in a cartoon world" and referred to "funny, cranky religious groups" before denying the appeal. In 1998, two Jehovah's Witnesses were charged in a Singapore court for possessing and distributing banned religious publications.
In 1998 a Jehovah's Witness lost a lawsuit against a government school for wrongful dismissal for refusing to sing the national anthem or salute the flag. In March 1999, the Court of Appeals denied his appeal. In 2000, public secondary schools indefinitely suspended at least fifteen Jehovah's Witness students for refusing to sing the national anthem or participate in the flag ceremony. In April 2001, one public school teacher, also a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, resigned after being threatened with dismissal for refusing to participate in singing the national anthem.
Singapore authorities have seized Jehovah's Witnesses' literature on various occasions from individuals attempting to cross the Malaysia–Singapore border. In thirteen cases, authorities warned the Jehovah's Witnesses, but did not press charges.
As of January 2019, there were 9 members of Jehovah's Witnesses incarcerated for refusal to carry out mandatory military service. The initial sentence for failure to comply is 15 months' imprisonment, with an additional 24 months for a second refusal. Failure to perform annual military reserve duty, which is required of all those who have completed their initial two-year obligation, results in a 40-day sentence, with a 12-month sentence after four refusals. There is no alternative civilian service for Jehovah's Witnesses.
Beginning on June 7, 1967, the South African government passed the Defense Amendment Bill, making it compulsory for all white males of eligible age to participate in the armed forces. The background to this change in the law was the rapid escalation of the Border War in Southern African, with Communist-bloc countries increasingly sending men and material to Africa, and covert support from America and Israel to assist South Africa in stemming Communism and African Nationalism. Beyond this proxy war, South Africa's security situation internally was also changing drastically, as there was increasing resistance to the Apartheid government activity in the form of protest, riots, bombings, and assaults on remote locations such as farms in the isolated North of the country.
Conscription brought Jehovah's Witnesses into conflict with the government, and young men of eligible age who refused were punished by being sentenced to military detention barracks. Sentences lasted for no less than 12 months, with repeat convictions in some cases.
According to the Survey of Race Relations in South Africa of 1974, during 1973, 158 Jehovah's Witnesses (and one sun worshiper) were sentenced "for refusing on religious grounds to render service or undergo training." In the first half of 1974, 120 Jehovah's Witnesses and two Christadelphians were sentenced.
Conscription was officially ended in late August 1993. By this time, the Constitution of South Africa had been adjusted to allow for alternative civilian service instead of military service.
In July 2017 the Supreme Court of the Republic of South Ossetia ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses were an extreme organization. The court declared a penalty of ten years imprisonment for "any religious activities such as assembly and distributing literature."
Jehovah's Witnesses did not have a significant presence in the Soviet Union prior to 1939 when the Soviet Union forcibly incorporated eastern Poland, Moldavia, and Lithuania, each of which had a Jehovah's Witness movement. Although never large in number (estimated by the KGB to be 20,000 in 1968), the Jehovah's Witnesses became one of the most persecuted religious groups in the Soviet Union during the post-World War II era. Members were arrested or deported; some were put in Soviet concentration camps. Witnesses in Moldavian SSR were deported to Tomsk Oblast; members from other regions of the Soviet Union were deported to Irkutsk Oblast. KGB officials, who were tasked with dissolving the Jehovah's Witness movement, were disturbed to discover that the Witnesses continued to practice their faith even within the labor camps.
The Minister of Internal Affairs, Viktor Semyonovich Abakumov proposed the deportation of the Jehovah's Witnesses to Stalin in October 1950. A resolution was voted by the Council of Minister and an order was issued by the Ministry for State Security in March 1951. The Moldavian SSR passed a decree "on the confiscation and selling of the property of individuals banished from the territory of the Moldavian SSR", which included the Jehovah's Witnesses.
In April 1951, over 9,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were deported to Siberia under a plan called "Operation North". The Soviet government was so disturbed by the Jehovah's Witnesses who continued to receive religious literature smuggled from Brooklyn that the KGB was authorized to send agents to infiltrate the Brooklyn headquarters.
In September 1965, a decree of the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers canceled the "special settlement" restriction of Jehovah's Witnesses, though the decree, signed by Anastas Mikoyan, stated that there would be no compensation for confiscated property. However, Jehovah's Witnesses remained the subject of state persecution due to their ideology being classified as anti-Soviet.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has indicated that Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenistan have been prosecuted and imprisoned for refusing to perform compulsory military service, despite Turkmenistan's constitution guaranteeing the right to "practice any religion alone or in association with others" and the right to "freedom of conviction and the free expression of those convictions". The UN committee noted, "The State party should take all necessary measures to review its legislation with a view to providing for alternative military service. The State party should also ensure that the law clearly stipulates that individuals have the right to conscientious objection to military service. Furthermore, the State party should halt all prosecutions of individuals who refuse to perform military service on grounds of conscience and release those individuals who are currently serving prison sentences."
According to the US Department of State, Turkmenistan's Ministry of Justice described Jehovah's Witnesses as foreign and dangerous. The US State Department also stated that the Turkmenistan government imposes restrictions on the freedom of Jehovah's Witness parents (and members of various other religious groups) to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs. In 2003, Witnesses' religious literature was confiscated, members of Jehovah's Witnesses were denied exit visas, and others were stopped after crossing a border and forced to return. In 2004, five Jehovah's Witnesses were stopped and prevented from boarding a flight to another country because their names where included on a "black list" of citizens prohibited from leaving the country. In 2015, a Jehovah's Witness in Turkmenistan was sentenced to four years in prison for allegedly inciting hatred at a religious meeting held in a private home, and other attendees were fined. As of January 2019, members were imprisoned.
During the 1930s and 1940s, some US states passed laws that made it illegal for Jehovah's Witnesses to distribute their literature, and children of Jehovah's Witnesses in some states were banned from attending state schools.
The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses for their refusal to salute the flag became known as the "Flag-Salute Cases". Their refusal to salute the flag became considered as a test of the liberties for which the flag stands, namely the freedom to worship according to the dictates of one's own conscience. The Supreme Court found that the United States, by making the flag salute compulsory in Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), was impinging upon the individual's right to worship as one chooses — a violation of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause in the constitution. Justice Frankfurter, speaking on behalf of the 8-to-1 majority view against the Witnesses, stated that the interests of "inculcating patriotism was of sufficient importance to justify a relatively minor infringement on religious belief." The result of the ruling was a wave of persecution. Lillian Gobitas, the mother of the schoolchildren involved in the decision said, "It was like open season on Jehovah's Witnesses."
The American Civil Liberties Union reported that by the end of 1940, "more than 1,500 Witnesses in the United States had been victimized in 335 separate attacks". Such attacks included beatings, being tarred and feathered, hanged, shot, maimed, and even castrated, as well as other acts of violence. As reports of these attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses continued, "several justices changed their minds, and in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the Court declared that the state could not impinge on the First Amendment by compelling the observance of rituals."
In 1943, after a drawn-out litigation process by Watch Tower Society lawyers in state courts and lower federal courts, the Supreme Court ruled that public school officials could not force Jehovah's Witnesses and other students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1946 and 1953 Supreme Court decisions were handed down establishing their right to be exempted from military service.