Lev Ponomarev: Body of Faith. How to Organize an Extremist Society by Simply Reading the Bible

31 May 2020

Lev Ponomarev, chair of the national civil society organization “For Human Rights,” member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

I have always felt myself outside of religion.  And although I do not hold, and have never held, any religious beliefs, people truly devoted to their faith have always made a strong impression on me.  It is possible that they are bearers of a kind of truth that is simply inaccessible to me.  I understood that one needed to treat them with care.  And, in any event, that it was wrong to allow a crude invasion into their world. At the beginning of the 1990s, it seemed to us, deputies of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, extraordinarily important to pass a law on the freedom of religion.  And it was one of the first laws passed.

Where there is respect for a person, there is respect for his or her religion. But Russia, as is well-known, has its own path and, as has become clear recently, a separate civilization. Here religious believers can be equated with extremists. In the past three years, hundreds of members of the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses (an organization declared extremist and forbidden on the territory of the RF–ed.) have been so labelled. Criminal cases have been brought, and many people have been given long jail sentences. 

What are they put on trial for? Perhaps they are planning terrorist acts? Perhaps they pose a danger to the people around them?


Jehovah’s Witnesses is an international religious organization (Jehovah is one way of transcribing the name of God in the Old Testament).  It was founded as the ‘Bible Students Association’ in the USA in 1872, legally exists in 240 countries, and has more than 8 million followers — in Russia there are more than 150,000. Up until 1931, the followers of this faith called themselves Bible Students, and in their interpretation of biblical texts there are several dogmatic differences from the main Christian confessions. 

The teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses contain a total prohibition on taking part in any military actions or military conscription. They do not vote or become members of political parties; they do not encourage interaction with members of other faiths; they are confirmed opponents of shedding blood. 

The community of Jehovah’s Witnesses is banned in North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, and several other Asian and African countries that are equally distant from observing the principles of human rights. Now Russia has joined them.

It is useful to remember that Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted in fascist Germany — for refusing to recognize Hitler as the Führer, pronounce the Nazi greeting, serve in the Nazi army, or to take part in weapons production. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses were also subjected to repression in the USSR. In 1949 and 1951 they were deported en masse to Siberia, and later began to be imprisoned under the famous Article 58 (propaganda calling for the overthrow of the Soviet government) for refusing to serve in the Soviet army.

In 1993, Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially registered after the new Russian government established religious freedom in the country. Fifteen years later their persecution resumed. The offensive began with local communities. In 2008-2009, several regional courts ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ texts incited religious hatred and, on this basis, began to prohibit the activities of local associations,, classifying them as extremist.

The famous religious scholar Sergei Ivanenko, reviewing one of the indictments, noted: “Initially, some of the Jehovah’s Witnesses publications were considered extremist. Experts argued that the publications contained text which claimed that that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was the only true religion and that other religions were false. This statement was interpreted as propaganda of religious superiority. The position that one’s religion is the absolute truth, and other religions are either absolutely false or substantially false is a position held by all believers, regardless of their faith.”

Until 2016,  punishments were limited to fines and suspended sentences. At the beginning of April 2016, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Centre received a warning from the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation about the unacceptability of extremist activities. It was ordered to remove all identified violations within two months. The Ministry of Justice then launched an unscheduled investigation. I know first-hand what these investigations entail, the Movement for Human Rights recently went through one. Officials issue endless bureaucratic demands which are often impossible to fulfil with the intention of destroying an organisation. As was to be expected, the Ministry of Justice found ‘violations of the organization’s statutory objectives and the current legislation of the Russian Federation’ at the Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Centre and recommended that the Centre be closed down along with 395 local organizations and excluded from the State Register of Legal Entities. The Centre liquidated its legal entity, but this did not save the believers from persecution. On 20 April 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld a claim filed by the Ministry of Justice, recognising Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia as an extremist organisation.

Following their traditions, Jehovah’s Witnesses began to gather in apartments for joint prayer. A dead end of sorts has appeared, there is no organisation as such but religious practice continues. The collection of ‘evidence’ claiming individuals who do not renounce their faith are organisers of and participants in this banned organisation has begun. Law enforcement agents have started to come to the houses of believers during religious meetings and record their sermons and discussions of biblical texts, collecting material for prosecution.

On 17 August 2017, Vyborg City Court decided to recognise a Bible, translated into modern Russian, that had been seized from Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist material. Thus, Russia became the first European country to officially ban a translation of the Bible. No matter that the representatives from the prosecutor’s office failed to cite a single quote that, in their opinion, could be considered extremist. And no matter that, during hours of meetings, recognised specialists in the fields of linguistics and religious studies presented exhaustive evidence that the text of this Bible was identical to other editions. According to the logic of the experts, this Bible is extremist because it is used by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It has come full circle: Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremists because they read an extremist bible. Their bible is extremist because it is read by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

President V. V. Putin’s reaction to the issue of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is widely known, as it was raised at his meeting with the Human Rights Council on 11 December 2018.  ‘Of course, this is complete nonsense,’ Putin said, ‘and we must deal with this carefully. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also Christians. What it is that they are persecuted for, I don’t really understand either. So, we must simply dissect this. We must do that.  I will talk to Vyacheslav Mikhailovich [Lebedev, chairman of the Supreme Court] and try to do that.’

They spoke, dealt with it, and did that.

Soon after this meeting, the first long-term prison sentence of a Jehovah’s Witness in modern Russia was pronounced: Dennis Christensen was sentenced to six years in prison in Orel for organising an extremist community. In a later interview with Medusa, Peskov gave the following comment: ‘We have no right to comment on the decision of the court that recognised this organisation as extremist.’

And so it began. To date, the homes of 909 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been searched, 335 followers are under criminal prosecution, 32 are in custody and another 18 are under house arrest. They are being prosecuted under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation : up to ten years’ deprivation of liberty for creation of an extremist organisation; up to six years’ for participation in an extremist organisation. However, all their ‘criminal activity’ amounts to is following their teachings.

In September 2019, a court in Saratov sentenced six of the city’s residents to imprisonment for between 2 years and 3.5 years for participation in an extremist community. In the 30 volumes of the criminal case there isn’t a single victim or a single negative consequence of the so-called ‘extremist activity’ of the defendants. Having ‘proven’ their religion – which they had never concealed – the investigation then suggested that this fact should be automatically interpreted as the activity of a prohibited legal entity.

In November 2019, the Tomsk court sent Sergei Klimov to prison for six years. According to the prosecutor, his speeches on biblical themes and his singing of songs amount to an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order of the State.

In March 2020, Dzhankoisky court sentenced Sergei Filatov to six years in prison for shared bible reading with family and friends in his own home.

To gather evidence of this ‘crime,’ the law enforcement agencies installed hidden audio equipment which recorded the believers discussing biblical verses and singing Christian hymns.

Even more fantastic are the accusations made at the trial of Vladimir Alushkin in Penza for  promoting ‘the  renunciation of the world, the media and television’ as well as ‘the benefits of the teachings and of the lifestyle of Jehovah’s Witnesses over others.’

Isn’t that extremism?

I will cite some more absurd accusations made in the courtrooms against Jehovah’s Witnesses:

  1. ‘Criminal collusion’ in order to ‘explore and discuss religious material on the subject of Jehovah.’
  2. ‘Conducting services, introducing people to the scriptures, biblical teachings, principles, and standards.’
  3. ‘Active participation in a religious group and performing activities consistent with that including worship, religious rites and ceremonies, religious instruction and religious education.’
  4. ‘Committing a wilful crime against the foundations of the constitutional order and the security of the state.’
  5. ‘After the Supreme Court’s decision to prohibit their activities… they have not given up their religious views.’

And how do you like this accusation?

‘… they deliberately talked about their faith with the residents of Chelyabinsk, sang hymns, prayed to the God Jehovah and studied religious literature.’ The defendants committed all these acts ‘anticipating… and, indeed, looking forward to the socially dangerous consequences of their violating the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of the individual and the citizen.’

In order to obtain an honest confession from those arrested to prove that they do not just pray, but belong to an extremist organization, the law enforcement agencies do not draw the line at torture: as happened, for example, in Surgut. There, as the forensic examination showed, seven believers were tortured, including with electric shocks.

I know a lot of these people. I didn’t notice any horns or hooves. On the contrary, they possess a solid benevolence. You can see that yourself by looking at the pictures of the accused. They are persecuted, and yet they smile.

In a public statement on 10 July 2018 human rights defenders made clear their position on the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses: ‘150,000 of our fellow citizens, peaceful and sincere people, have been outlawed today. At any time, any of them could be arrested and sentenced to imprisonment. These people did not kill, rape, steal or act with wild fanaticism. They, like more than eight million of their fellow human beings around the world, study and preach the Bible and try to live by it. Now they’re being thrown into prison. Their crime is that they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.’

Such repression of believers has further tarnished the image of modern Russia in the eyes of the world.

Translated by John Tokolish, Matthew Quigley, Verity Hemp and Graham Jones

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