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Opinion: Russian Jehovah's Witnesses remain devout despite facing bans

Judge Alla Nazarova attends a hearing in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation in Moscow on Nov. 25, 2021.
Dmitry Serebryakov
Judge Alla Nazarova attends a hearing in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation in Moscow on Nov. 25, 2021.

This month, Vladimir Putin secured 87% of the vote in Russia to extend his hold on power. And, another ten Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have been convicted and sentenced to prison.

Jarrod Lopes, spokesperson for the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses, says that since April 2017, when Russia banned the faith, more than 2,000 homes of Witnesses have been raided, and hundreds arrested and charged. One hundred twenty-eight Jehovah's Witnesses are currently in prison. Mr. Lopes says the raids seem to be increasing; there have been 10 in the last 18 days.

"Typically," he told us, "the home raids are conducted by officers in full combat gear. ... Video footage of these raids is all over the internet and social media, because the police and Russian government want to make it look like they are risking their lives fighting dangerous extremists."

Lopes charges that many Witnesses have also been beaten in custody. "But as you can imagine," he adds, "that is never recorded."

Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch, told us, "There is a long string of monstrous prison sentences issued by Russian courts against Jehovah's Witnesses for doing nothing more than exercising their right to worship..."

The Russian government considers Jehovah's Witnesses extremist. Devout may be a truer word. Witnesses do not believe in the authority of the state, any state, above God. They refuse to participate in war, or a draft, or even vote.

Witnesses became special targets of the Nazi regime in Germany because they would not pledge allegiance, offer the Nazi salute, or enroll their children in the Hitler Youth. They continued to defy the government by handing out statements that questioned Nazi rule.

Witnesses were told to renounce their faith or be jailed. Most refused. About 6,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were held in concentration camps, where they were made to wear infamous patches with purple triangles. More than a thousand died.

Their history in that time is both tragic and inspiring.

Jarrod Lopes says many of the charges against Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia today have been based on secret audio recordings made of worship services, where security services may have heard one line in particular to irritate the Russian government as it continues the war in Ukraine: Psalm 34:14, which says, "Seek peace and pursue it."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
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.