The imminent ban on the religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, if sanctioned by the Russian Supreme Court, will be a proscription on the collective psyche of all the religious-minded people of Russia of which Jehovah’s Witnesses are but a paradigmatic example. This will be for Russia and the world only a repeat of history, a vestige of mankind’s recidivism to its barbaric past; for civilisation is not always a progression.
Put briefly, the submission of the Ministry of Justice of Russia to the Russian Supreme Court is a motion for a ban on the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a liquidation of the organisation’s assets on the basis that the organisation is an ‘extremist’ organisation. The enabling law for this charge is the Russian Extremism Law of 2002. If the submission by the Ministry of Justice is upheld, the status of the Witnesses will change from that of respectable citizens to that of criminals – and for those conversant with the religion, ‘incorrigible’ criminals, for as yet no ban on their activities has deterred them from furtive and overt assertion of their religious inclination.
Extremism is a charge for which they have no defence: they are, more than any other group (in Christendom at least) an extremist organisation. While the citizens of the fragmented world bear arms to protect their divide and destroy anyone against their interest, the Witnesses preach universal brotherhood and refuse to shed blood even of an avowed enemy; while God has become a distant phenomenon in many people’s lives, for the Witnesses He remains a constant catalyst; while evangelism has become a neglected pastime for Christendom, it is the label of Jehovah’s Witnesses. O yes, only those who have never been in contact with them will deny them extremism – but in so different a way is their extremism from the Russian definition!
Extremism – the Russian Definition
Extremism, according to Article 1.1 of the Russian Extremism Law 2002 is: ‘[a]ctivity of social and religious associations, or other organizations, whether through the mass media or through individuals’ premeditated organization, preparation and execution of actions directed at the: forceful change of the fundamental constitutional structure and destruction of the integrity of the Russian Federation; undermining the security of the Russian Federation; seizure or appropriation of commanding authority; creation of illegal armed forces; carrying out terrorist activity; incitation of social, racial, nationalistic or religious animosity; debasement of national dignity; creation of massive disorder, hooligan activities, and acts of vandalism motivated by ideological, political, racial, nationalistic or religious hatred or hostility, or otherwise motivated by hatred or hostility directly in relation to a social group; propaganda of exclusivity, advocating either superiority or inferiority of citizens on the basis of religion, social, racial, national, religious or linguistic affiliation.’
A long definition, but for the sake of the subject matter, the specific definition under which the Witnesses are capable of being charged is: ‘propaganda of exclusivity, advocating either superiority or inferiority of citizens on the basis of religion, social, racial, national, RELIGIOUS or linguistic affiliation.’ That is, Jehovah’s Witnesses may be guilty of advocating the ‘superiority’ of their religion and the inferiority of other religions. And what facts support these charges? Without intending to do the prosecutor’s job, a few examples from the affidavit of ban on the organisation’s literature and website will suffice, videlicet: They propagate superiority by maintaining that theirs is the only true religion; and they preach inferiority by inciting to hate the leaders of other religions by, for instance, showing the deprecatory activities of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time in their literature. There is no need at this moment to question the government’s finding of facts or its surmises; let us even suppose – but without conceding – that the government is entirely right in its fact-finding.
The question raised is, ‘How does the preaching of the superiority of one’s religion, or the exposition of the follies of other religious leaders (which its truism is not denied!) amount to extremism capable of undermining the security of the Russian Federation? It is not an easy question for a State which feels threatened from all angles, but it is a question which must be answered as it has a significance not just on the thousands of people professing the religion within the Russian divide, but is also of tremendous significance to the international community of human rights activists, of humanity in general – and the sanity of the Russian government in the international community.
Extremism – The Worldview
That the Extremism Law is a troublesome legislation internationally (for its human rights implications) and internally (for its inconsistencies with the Constitutional proclamations of which we shall consider anon) has been recognised and commented upon by various bodies and commissions. In 2012, the Venice Commission published its opinion on Russian Extremism Law and notes that the Law’s definition of ‘extremism’ is ‘too broad, lack clarity and invite arbitrary application through different interpretations in contravention of international human rights standards.’
Commenting on the definition of ‘extremism’ as ‘propaganda of exclusivity, advocating either superiority or inferiority of citizens on the basis of religion, social, racial, national, religious or linguistic affiliation’, for which the Witnesses are caught, the Commission notes: ‘In the view of the Venice Commission, to proclaim as extremist any religious teaching or proselytizing activity aimed at proving that a certain worldview is a superior explanation of the universe, may affect the freedom of conscience or religion of many persons and could easily be abused in an effort to suppress a certain church thereby affecting not only the freedom of conscience or religion but also the freedom of association. The ECHR protects proselytism and the freedom of the members of any religious community or church to “try to convince” other people through “teachings”. The freedom of conscience and religion is of an intimate nature and is therefore subject to fewer possible limitations in comparison to other human rights: only manifestations of this freedom can be limited, but not the teachings themselves.’
Religion by its very nature is a subjective phenomenon. Being a matter of conviction and opinion, demanding that an adherent hold an opinion of equality in religion, or even an objectivity of it, is demanding the impossible. One in fact wonders the essence of conviction if one holds on to his religion without thinking it the best. The criterion for judging a religious disposition, faith or even non-religion or beliefs is in the conviction, not in the correctness or incorrectness of the belief. And no man or principality is qualified to arrogate to itself the authority to dictate the mode of exercise of a people’s conscience and therefore their religion.
This of course does not remotely imply an unbridled practice of religion. Every state holds it as a duty to protect the rights of its citizens by delimiting the freedoms of others, and no less is expected of Russia.
Russian Extremism Law Vs the Russian Constitution & International Human Rights Standard
Article 2 of the Russian Constitution makes a bold declaration that ‘Man, his rights and freedoms shall be the supreme value. The recognition, observance and protection of human and civil rights and freedoms shall be an obligation of the State.’ In its assertion of religious freedom, Article 28 of the Constitution provides that ‘Everyone shall be guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion, including the right to profess individually or collectively any religion or not to profess any religion, and freely to choose, possess and disseminate religious and other convictions and act in accordance with them.’ By this provision, every Russian citizen is guaranteed religious freedom if in the exercise of this freedom he does not ‘violate the rights and freedom of others’ (Article 17.3)
In proscribing as extremist a religious group for propagating ‘the rightness’ of its religion, the Russian government will be infringing on its supreme law. The tenor of the Extremism Law which contemplates not only activities that pose threat to the security of the State but also innocuous activities carried out in the free expression of the people’s right to religion and conscience fully protected in the Russian Constitution has implications worth determining.
What the Russian Constitution does prohibit is ‘Propaganda or agitation, which arouses social, racial, national or religious hatred and hostility… Propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic supremacy shall also be prohibited.’
Does the religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses arouse religious hatred and hostility? Does the organisation preach supremacy such as is contemplated by the Constitution? These are questions of facts and law to be determined by the Russian Supreme court. In determining these questions, the Court is to rely not only on the Russian Constitution but also on other international human rights instruments, for Article 17.1 of the Constitution states that ‘[i]n the Russian Federation human and civil rights and freedoms shall be recognized and guaranteed according to the universally recognized principles and norms of international law and this Constitution.’
The Venice Commission, in commenting on the human rights implications of the Extremism Law, further notes: ‘International and legal standards mandate that religious minorities be treated fairly and without discrimination in the same way as other religions. Yet, Russia has contravened these standards through misapplication of the Extremism Law to censor religious materials, to arrest and detain believers for reading or disseminating Scriptures and to liquidate and close down places of worship for targeted religious faiths. The arbitrary application of the Extremism Law by Russian authorities against religious literature of, for example, Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, devotees of Hare Krishna, Falun Gong practitioners and readers of the Muslim philosopher Said Nursi amounts to religious censorship and suppression in contravention of Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Articles 18 and 19 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).’
The Commission’s recommendation: ‘[Russia] should revise the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity with a view to making the definition of “extremist activity” more precise so as to exclude any possibility of arbitrary application…Moreover, in determining whether written material constitutes “extremist literature”, the State party should take all measures to ensure the independence of experts upon whose opinion court decisions are based and guarantee the right of the defendant to counter-expertise by an alternative expert. Russia should heed these findings and recommendations and (1) amend the Extremism Law accordingly; and (2) cease and desist filing arbitrary actions to label non-violent materials “Extremist” and subject organizations and individuals to harsh sanctions for possession and distribution of such materials.’
The World is Watching
The obligation before the Russian Supreme Court is not a small one: it is not merely the application of a domestic legislation, nor yet of the Constitution, but a choice between upholding a recognised right or a paranoid ideology of an entity seeking self-protection. One does not pretend to understand the fear which elicited the enactment of the Extremism Law, suffice it to say that the law itself is an extremist one for seeking to control not only acts but conscience as well.
The Supreme Court decision on the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia will have implications also for other religious groups – major or minor. More than this, the Supreme Court of Russia needs to consider that what is before them is not the correctness or incorrectness of the religion’s beliefs but simply the need for its tolerance in recognition of the Constitutional and international protection of human rights. The Russian Supreme Court might do well to heed the advice given centuries ago in a similar situation by a foremost Jewish jurist to the Jewish Supreme Court: ‘Men of Israel, be careful as to what you intend to do with these men…Under the present circumstances, I say to you, do not meddle with these men. Let them alone. For if this scheme or this work is from men, it will be overthrown; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. Otherwise you may even be found fighters against God Himself.’(Acts of Apostles 5:35-39).