The growing public rift between Washington and Moscow following our missile attack on a Syrian military airport couldn't come at a worse time for Russia's relatively small community of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Why? Because President Vladimir Putin's Russia appears ready to outlaw the sect for engaging in "extremist activities," a catch all legalism in Russia used to ensnare any group or individual the Kremlin is politically unhappy with.
What? You didn't know this?
Of course the wires, including the Associated Press and Reuters, pumped out bare-bone versions of the story. But from my limited search it appears to me that the wire stories were largely relegated to media web pages.
Why's that? Perhaps because the few newsrooms with the ability to do their own story out of Russia view the plight of the Jehovah's Witnesses as a mere sidebar to the far more globally engrossing story of U.S.-Russia friction.
Not to mention that the sect never gets much media attention anyway. I'm guessing that's because the only familiarity the preponderance of American journalists have with the group is when it's members knock on their door to hand out tracts -- something they seemingly always manage to do at an inopportune time.
(Jehovah's Witnesses consider themselves Christians. But almost all mainstream Christians reject that claim, because of conflicts over the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Because this post is about journalism, not theology, I'm making no judgement here about that. Click here for more information.)
Here's some important background on the issue from the Times piece.
Extremism, as defined by a [Russian] law passed in 2002 but amended and expanded several times since, has become a catchall charge that can be deployed against just about anybody, as it has been against some of those involved in recent anti-corruption protests in Moscow and scores of other cities.
Several students who took part in demonstrations in the Siberian city of Tomsk are now being investigated by a special anti-extremism unit, while Leonid Volkov, the senior aide to the jailed protest leader Aleksei A. Navalny, said he himself was detained last week under the extremism law.
In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the putative extremism seems to derive mostly from the group’s absolute opposition to violence, a stand that infuriated Soviet and now Russian authorities whose legitimacy rests in large part on the celebration of martial triumphs, most notably over Nazi Germany in World War II but also over rebels in Syria.
Further down in the story, there's this.
“From the Russian state’s perspective, Jehovah’s Witnesses are completely separate,” said Geraldine Fagan, the author of “Believing in Russia -- Religious Policy After Communism.” She added, “They don’t get involved in politics, but this is itself seen as a suspicious political deviation.”
“The idea of independent and public religious activity that is completely outside the control of -- and also indifferent to -- the state sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing in the Orthodox Church and the security services,” she said.
That the worldwide headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses is in the United States and that its publications are mostly prepared there, Ms. Fagan added, “all adds up to a big conspiracy theory” for the increasingly assertive F.S.B. [the Federal Security Service, Russia's FBI].
Much is made of the Russian Orthodox Church's close political relationship with Putin's regime. But as the Times piece makes clear, in this case the Jehovah's Witnesses have run afoul of the Kremlin almost entirely because of their pacifist theology, ties to the modern West and preference for remaining on the fringe of mainstream Russian political culture. Plus, Russia tends to cooperate more with faiths -- including Judaism and Islam -- that have historic ties to the land.
Because of the dearth of coverage, I'm unable to tell as of this writing whether a final decision -- which the Times said was expected at any time -- has been handed down by Russia's top court. I'll update this post once I spot something definitive.
In the meantime, I have one more rhetorical question to ask.
Why get worked up over the fate of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia?
First, because of the case's religious freedom aspect. It's addressed in this press release from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
USCIRF calls on the Russian government and judiciary to respect the freedom of religion or belief and halt their harassment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups.
GetReligion readers generally show great concern for religious freedom issues. You working journalists among our readership might consider writing about what's going on with Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, even if your paltry expense account won't let you travel to Russia and forces you to rely on local sources.
If you do decide to tackle the issue, be sure not to forget the critical role that Jehovah's Witnesses have played in U.S. Supreme Court decisions linked to America's own struggle with religious freedom. See this HistoryNet.com piece -- "What We Owe Jehovah's Witnesses" -- on that. This short analysis from Religion News Service, written by Mark Silk, also offers more background that you'll need to get started.