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Opinion: Jehovah's Witnesses Cling To Faith Despite Arrests In Russia

Dennis Christensen, a Danish Jehovah's Witness accused of extremism, is escorted into a courtroom to hear his verdict in the town of Oryol on Feb. 6.
Mladen Antonov
AFP/Getty Images
Dennis Christensen, a Danish Jehovah's Witness accused of extremism, is escorted into a courtroom to hear his verdict in the town of Oryol on Feb. 6.

Away from daily deadlines and breaking news, there seems to be a campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.

Russia's Supreme Court branded the church "an extremist organization" in 2017. Witnesses do not recognize any authority but God, governments especially. That puts them into conflict with Vladimir Putin's Russia, where there are an estimated 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses.

Last month, Dennis Christensen, a Danish Witness who lived in the western city of Oryol until his arrest at a prayer service in 2017, was sentenced to six years in prison for "religious extremism." The Independent newspaper and human rights groups say "dozens" of Witnesses have been arrested in more raids that began last week in Siberia. The Jehovah's Witnesses told The Moscow Times at least seven of their members were beaten, suffocated and jolted by electric shocks.

A representative of Russia's Investigative Committee told Tass, Russia's official news agency, security officials acted entirely "within the realm of the law." More than 120 Jehovah's Witnesses now reportedly face criminal investigation.

Some Witnesses have left Russia; many take their faith underground. Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch says, "It's shocking that in post-Soviet Russia authorities are putting people through the ordeal of a criminal investigation and prison for nothing more than peacefully practicing their faith."

Jehovah's Witnesses are used to challenging and confounding governments — all governments. They refuse to serve in any military, salute any flag, or swear allegiance to a country.

During the Second World War, many Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany and occupied countries gave the world an extraordinary display of courage.

Jehovah's Witnesses refused to give allegiance to the Nazi regime or say, "Heil Hitler." They refused to join the military, Hitler Youth, or work in war industries. Thousands of Witnesses were sent to concentration camps, where their clothing was marked with purple triangles. And they continued to meet, and pray, in secret.

Holocaust scholars have noted Jehovah's Witnesses could have saved their lives, or escaped torture by signing a card to renounce their faith and pledge allegiance to the Nazi regime. Most refused. Many Witnesses died in those camps.

When many other people found ways to just go along with an immoral and murderous regime, Jehovah's Witnesses refused. They honored their faith. Will nations that honor religious freedom now dare to speak up to Vladimir Putin's Russia about the imprisonment of Jehovah's Witnesses for following their faith?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.