There are some 8.7 million JWs worldwide, with the largest concentrations in America, Mexico, and Brazil. Some of my distant relatives were JWs, and a “kingdom hall” was located just a few blocks away from my parents’ California home, which I passed when jogging. They are a Christian offshoot, non‐trinitarian and thus not orthodox. They are mostly known for their opposition to military service and blood transfusions, and reliance on door‐to‐door proselytism.
JWs are not politically active but tend to irritate governments by refusing to respect symbols of state authority, including flags. They are serious about their faith: thousands ended up in Nazi concentration camps. They also were plaintiffs in two U.S. Supreme Court cases challenging the Pledge of Allegiance (the first upheld the practice; a few years later the high court reversed the earlier decision and blocked the requirement).
In Russia’s case the main issue appears to be the fact that JWs are guilty of “social hostility” in Moscow’s view. The faith is doctrinally odd and poorly understood, while believers form a distinct, even insular community. To some Russians, at least, JWs don’t fit in. Which appears to be the basis for the campaign against JWs and some other groups.
Reported the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: “During 2019, religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated. The government continued to target ‘nontraditional’ religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism. Russian legislation criminalizes ‘extremism’ without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent religious activity.”
JWs obviously pose no threat to the state. Indeed, a couple years ago Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the campaign against them. He treated the church dismissively, opining that “our society does not consist solely of religious sects. Ninety percent of citizens of the Russian Federation or so consider themselves Orthodox Christians…. It is also necessary to take into account the country and the society in which we live.” Yet he admitted the state should not “label representatives of religious communities as member of destructive, much less terrorist organizations” and he did not “quite understand why they are persecuted.” Although he allowed “this should be looked into, this must be done,” nothing has changed.
Even if originating more from a bureaucratic than presidential imperative, the attack on JWs has been sustained and severe. Observed USCIRF: