In February, a Russian court sentenced a Danish citizen who was a legal resident of Russia to six years in prison for such an extremist offence as organizing other Witnesses to shovel snow from their church’s property.
A month later, Sergei Skrynnikov, a Russian and allegedly a Jehovah’s Witness, was charged with “participating in an extremist organization,” an offence under Russian law that could earn him up to six years in prison. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been fleeing Russia and seeking asylum in Germany and Finland to escape such harsh sentences.
In China, state authorities harass Jehovah’s Witnesses and raid their meetings. Authorities also deport foreign Witness missionaries from countries such as South Korea.
South Korea has only recently dropped a 2003 law prohibiting conscientious objection to fighting in its armed forces, a law that confined young Witness men — as well as other men — to jail.
All these states violate international laws that protect religious freedom, including the freedoms of unpopular minorities. Article 18, 1 of the 1976 United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects everyone’s freedom to “have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice” and “to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
A long history of persecution
Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first groups the Nazis persecuted. There were about 25,000 to 30,000 Witnesses in Germany in 1933. About half of those who did not flee were convicted of various crimes and between 2,000 and 2,500 were sent to concentration camps, where about 1,000 died. About 250 were also executed.
Some years ago I met a Jehovah’s Witness in the city where I live who told me the Nazis had beheaded his grandfather. Germany’s Jehovah’s Witnesses were not merely passive religious group that refused to adopt the Nazi ideology: they also actively tried to expose Nazi atrocities.
In the 1960s and ‘70s in Malawi, entire villages of Jehovah’s Witnesses were burned, and many villagers were raped, tortured or murdered as they tried to flee. Their crime was refusal to participate in rituals of loyalty to the newly independent Malawian state and its president, Hastings Banda.
The Malawi government denied me a visa in the early 1980s when I told its High Commission in Ottawa that I wanted to know what had happened to these Witnesses for research for my book, Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa.
Many Witnesses in Rwanda, both Tutsi and Hutu, lost their lives during the 1994 genocide, many trying to hide people at risk of being murdered. Even now, Rwandan authorities expel some Witness children from school and have fired some Witness teachers because they refuse to sing the national anthem or participate in religious training.
Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada
Here in Canada, Jehovah’s Witnesses have not always enjoyed their rights to freedom of religion and expression.
During the Second World War, Witness children were banned from schools in several locations because they would not salute the flag, sing the national anthem or repeat the pledge of allegiance. A Witness father sued the Hamilton Board of Education on behalf of his two sons, who had been expelled from school in 1940. In 1945, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, saying the Board was required to excuse students from participating in religious exercises to which their parents objected.
In the 1940s and '50s, Premier Maurice Duplessis of Québec persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses, mainly because their public missionary activities offended the province’s Roman Catholics. When almost 1,000 young Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested and fined $40 (a large sum at the time), a Witness restaurant owner named Frank Roncarelli paid their fines so that they could return to the streets and continue trying to make converts.
In response, Duplessis stripped Roncarelli of his liquor licence, ending his business. Roncarelli sued Duplessis and the case eventually went to Canada’s Supreme Court, which in 1959 ruled in favour of Roncarelli (the two judges from Québec dissenting).
Even now, Jehovah’s Witnesses run the risk that they will be attacked while conducting their missionary work, a central obligation of their faith. Many people object to Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to their door trying to convert them. Some go so far as to attack them, set their dogs on them or even pull guns on them.
Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t perfect. Among other things, church elders have been accused of covering up child abuse. But no other religious group is perfect either, especially when it comes to child abuse.
There is no reason to persecute — or tolerate persecution of — Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are equal citizens, and are protected by national and international laws regarding freedom of religion.