The JW.org website is reporting that a court in Russia has convicted and sentenced 7 Jehovah’s Witnesses for practicing their faith.
Four congregation elders were given suspended prison sentences of five to five and a half years, and were ordered to pay fines that were subsequently waived. Nine Witnesses were acquitted.
According to the JW.org article, “the judge relied on the September 2009 ruling of the Rostov Regional Court to liquidate the Local Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog. Although the 2009 ruling targeted only the legal entity, the judge determined that the religious activity of all of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog and surrounding districts was banned.”
What amounts to a show trial by the Taganrog authorities with no justifiable basis in law follows previous attempts in Russia to ban the JW.org website itself, which ultimately failed.
As this website observed at the time…
It would be much better if governments could zero in on material that incites hatred and trespasses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights rather than introducing blanket bans on entire websites or the activities of religious organizations. To censor in this way only stirs the persecution complex among cults, and stokes belief among cult followers that Satan’s system is against them and the end of the world must be imminent.
The simple truth is that religious organizations like Jehovah’s Witnesses thrive on evidence of persecution to validate their teachings. Western democracies tend to exercise proper restraint by upholding an individual’s right to practice a religion so long as doing so does not trespass the rights of others.
Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t far more authorities can and should be doing to limit the harmful impact of organizations like Watchtower, and their use of undue influence to inflict considerable damage.
Watchtower in particular thrives on society’s ignorance of its policies to claim tax exemptions and even charitable status. When a government extends such financial assistance to Watchtower, they are unwittingly endorsing and subsidizing the organization’s abuse (such as shunning, mishandling of child abuse, coercion to refuse medical treatment) and facilitating their continued export of it.
In addition to withholding such handouts and incentives, governments should also play a more active role in educating their citizens about undue influence and how they can identify it from an early age. Steven Hassan’s BITE model provides an excellent starting point for inoculating younger generations against the pervasive influence of cult-like individuals and organizations, whether these are religious, political, or criminal.
But I’m afraid banning religions is not the answer. If you ban a religion, particularly one that teaches that persecution of any kind is evidence of its claims, you give it greater currency in the minds of its followers – the very ones you should be trying to protect. You also weaken democracy, violate a person’s rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and leave the door ajar for totalitarian regimes to impose their unquestionable authority.
It would be far better if governments could take undue influence more seriously rather than holding their hands up in confusion when they reap the consequences of their inaction, such as the radicalization of their citizens or the increasing spread of human trafficking. At the very least, getting organizations that use undue influence to pay their own tax, and not calling them “charities,” would be a good start.