Russia pulls trigger on Jehovah's Witnesses and, this time, mainstream media take notice

This will be no surprise to anyone who's paid attention, but President Vladimir Putin's Russia has officially lowered the boom on its Jehovah's Witnesses.

The government's plan is to obliterate the organization's ability to function as a viable religious movement within its borders, treating it as a dangerous, hostile movement from outside Russian culture. The key slur is "Western."

That's a growing trend in Russia, as you've probably noticed.

Here's the meaty top of a New York Times piece that delivered the news last week:

MOSCOW -- Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday declared Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that rejects violence, an extremist organization, banning the group from operating on Russian territory and putting its more than 170,000 Russian worshipers in the same category as Islamic State militants.
The ruling, which confirmed an order last month by the Justice Ministry that the denomination be “liquidated” — essentially eliminated or disbanded — had been widely expected. Russian courts rarely challenge government decisions, no matter what the evidence.
Viktor Zhenkov, a lawyer for the denomination, said Jehovah’s Witnesses would appeal the ruling. He said it had focused on the activities of the organization’s so-called administrative center, a complex of offices outside St. Petersburg, but also branded all of its nearly 400 regional branches as extremist.
“We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissible in contemporary Russia,” Mr. Zhenkov said in a telephone interview. “We will, of course, appeal.”
An initial appeal will be made to the Supreme Court’s appellate division, Mr. Zhenkov said, and if that fails, Jehovah’s Witnesses will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France.
Hard-line followers of Russia’s dominant faith, the Orthodox Church, have lobbied for years to have Jehovah’s Witnesses outlawed or at least curbed as a heretical sect, but the main impetus for the current campaign to crush a Christian group active in Russia for more than a century seems to have come from the country’s increasingly assertive security apparatus.

Two weeks ago I wrote here that, despite Russia being on the verge of this crackdown, the elite media had given the story little play. This, despite what appeared, to me, to be blatant religious persecution at a time when national religious minorities face growing problems around the globe.

You might want to read or reread that piece to be reminded of some pertinent background -- including the important role Jehovah's Witnesses played in America's debate over religious liberty issues.

But as signaled in the headline to this post, this time around the plight of Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses received much more big media attention. Here are just a few of the initial news stories I noticed (their quality varies considerably, of course).

In no particular order, here's National Public Radio's entry. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) posted this piece, really just a melding of basic AP and Reuters wire stories.

Britain's The Guardian gave us this, and The Washington Post published this. And lastly, USA Today gave us this, republished by Religion News Service (RNS).

That's a decent amount of breaking coverage for a religious group that usually flies way below the news media's radar.

But do you know what I've not seen much of since the Russian court ruling last Thursday?

That would be elite secular or religious media editorials and opinion pieces defending the Jehovah's Witnesses' right to its own taste of religious freedom and/or criticizing the Kremlin for its actions.

I realize that the Russian court ruling happened at the tail end of last week, which is relatively little time for expert reaction to surface. Perhaps more will show up in the days ahead. (I'm not talking about second-day news pieces that fall back on extensively quoting critics of the move, such as this Newsweek piece.)

I would expect more commentary on the situation, in particular from those who waste no time complaining about religious persecution, both real and sometimes just imagined, when it's their faith group that's under the gun.

Or perhaps competitive hypocrisy will reign and few offerings of support will surface. That would be disappointing, but not entirely unexpected.

I did spot two quick turn-around opinion/analysis pieces worth noting.

The first was by RNS columnist, Mark Silk, his second piece on the Russian situation in the last few weeks. Silk connected the Jehovah's Witnesses story to current American religious liberty issues.

And I found this piece from Bloomberg View to be particularly useful because of the historical background it includes.

As analysis/editorials/opeds appear, please send along the ones you think excel. We are looking for mainstream reports that do more than only reflect official Jehovah's Witness statements.

Speaking of official views, I received dozens upon dozens of responses to my earlier post on Russia calling me out for referring to Jehovah's Witnesses as members of a "sect," which can have negative connotations in colloquial usage.

Near as I could tell, the bulk of my correspondents were active Jehovah's Witnesses. I appreciate their imput, and for helping push the post into the viral realm.

But having no need to push a similar response this time, I steered clear of using the term in this post. Note that the Times story quoted at the very top of this piece also avoided the label, except in the context of Russian Orthodox antagonism toward Jehovah's Witnesses.

Secular news outlets would do well to follow suit or be very careful to explain, in terms of history and doctrine, why some historians and religious experts insist on using that term in this case. In other words, cover the debate clearly -- if you must.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Before clicking "comment," remember that GetReligion is a journalism site, not a place for pro- or anti-Jehovah's Witness opinion writing. Focus on the news coverage of this group and the religious freedom issues involved in this story.

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