The following two articles illustrate the complex issues confronting policy makers addressing concerns about new religious movements. The first article describes a report from Finland, which focuses on harms allegedly associated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The second article addresses the European Court of Human Rights’ concerns about the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Russia.
NGO calls on Ministry to probe closed religious groups; Jehovah’s Witnesses under scrutiny
YLE News (From Finland)
The UUT – the Support group for the Victims of Religions (http://www.uskontojenuhrientuki.fi/in-english) – has asked the Ministry of Justice to study ways in which to intervene in the activities of closed religious communities. The group released a report Saturday on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which UUT claims uses its own internal judicial system with a board that interrogates members and hands down sentences for infractions.
The report authored by UTT, the Support Group for Victims of Religions, and published Saturday claims that the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group uses its own internal tribunal known as a judicial committee, which questions members about alleged wrongdoing and hands down sentences.
The report indicates that persons who are alleged to have sinned are harassed, bullied, publicly reviled and isolated from loved ones. The report is based on the experiences of 18 former church members with the judicial committee and their practice of ostracising errant church members.
The UUT hopes its report will spur Justice Minister Anna-Maija Henriksson to investigate and determine how to intervene in the church’s practices to protect members from the threat of violence.
A closed community
Jehovah’s witnesses in Finland appear to lead a somewhat isolated existence within their own communities. According to the report the church is part of a major global movement about which there has been relatively little academic research.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are described as a religious movement that wields great influence over its members and is said to possess “a rather rigid fundamentalist outlook.”
The report noted that the organisation behind the church is highly hierarchical and tightly regulated from above. Elders in the church are said to possess a handbook known as “Shepherd God’s Flock,” and which ordinary members are not allowed to read.
UUT managed to obtain an English language version of the primer, which lays down strict prescriptions for matters such as the operation of the judicial committee. According to the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, the literature represents God’s teachings and must be treated with a corresponding degree of seriousness.
Committee passes judgment on “grave sins”
The judicial committee itself comprises three elders, all of whom are men. Hearings are conducted behind closed doors and are usually attended only by the accused and the committee members.
The judicial committee convenes when a church member is suspected of having committed a grave sin. Such infractions include disputing the teachings of the church, repeated acceptance of blood transfusions, participating in party politics, celebrating Christmas or birthdays, smoking or murder. Repeated infidelity is also just cause for a sitting of the committee.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also cannot hide behind the shield of individual privacy, according to UUT. Congregation members may be subjected to random home inspections to unearth evidence of sins such as engaging in pre-marital sex. Judicial committee hearings dealing with sexual offences often involve questions about intimate details of alleged sex acts.
Shunning a severe sentence
The report claims the committee may in some cases hand down a sentence of shunning. In such cases the community expels the offender and other congregation members are not allowed to speak to or even greet the individual. Family members and relatives are also encouraged to shun former church members. However shunning may not apply in cases where family members live in the same household.
The aim of shunning is to persuade offenders to return to the flock, but those who do so must then undergo a humiliating repentance exercise which involves attending services twice weekly for a month without being greeted by congregation members.
Suicide a path to freedom?
The UUT report describes the activities of the justice committee and the practice of shunning as exceptionally cruel and a violation of human rights. In some cases offenders have suffered severe health problems or even attempted suicide.
However persons who attempt suicide are not referred to the committee. According to the teachings of the church attempted suicide is adequate expression of regret and does not require intervention by the judicial committee.
According to the UUT report Jehovah’s Witnesses are suspicious of higher education so elders are not well-educated. The organisation said that this may be the reason why elders do not fully understand the consequences of expulsion and shunning.
In spite of the penalty of leaving the church, many members choose this option. A US study involving a random sample showed that just 37 percent of children of Jehovah’s Witnesses grew up to become members of the congregation.
ECHR looks into Russia’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses
MOSCOW, March 25 (RAPSI) – The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) communicated a vast collection of complaints this month to Russia in connection with the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country.
Russia and the applicants were asked earlier this month to consider a plethora of questions related to treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their congregations in light of the European Convention on Human Rights’ (Convention) guarantees of religious freedom and free expression, as well as its prohibition of discrimination.
According to court documents, in 2007, a Russian Deputy Prosecutor General notified the country’s prosecutors’ offices that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other foreign religious and charitable organizations may have constituted a public threat.
The letter stated: “There are various branches of foreign religious and charitable organizations within the territory of Russia whose activities do not formally violate the provisions of Russian legislation but quite often promote the growth of tension in society.”
The letter grouped Jehovah’s Witnesses with the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, “various eastern faiths,” and Satanism, referring to them collectively as “branches that frequently carry out activities that damage the moral, mental, and physical health of their members.”
Prosecutors throughout the country were instructed to look into the threat that extremist material was being produced or disseminated in violation or Russia’s mass communications law.
According to the complaint, the present collection of cases revolves around ten claims, many centering on Jehovah’s Witness literature:
1. The liquidation of a local Jehovah’s Witness organization in Taganrog, Russia, along with the confiscation of its property and a ban on 34 of its publications;
2. Seven other instances of the banning of religious publications in various Russian regions;
3. The revocation of a permit to distribute religious magazines;
4. A series of administrative proceedings launched against nine individuals in eight regions over the distribution of extremist literature;
5. Five cases where administrative proceedings were launched over the distribution of unregistered mass media;
6. Thirteen cases where administrative proceedings were launched for conducting religious events;
7. Three searches carried out in private residences, and the seizure of religious literature;
8. Five cases where searches were conducted in places of worship, with the disruption of religious services;
9. The seizure of a shipment of religious literature;
10. And the detainment of a Jehovah’s Witness for preaching.
The complaint asserts that the Taganrog local religious organization (LRO) was liquidated after a court held that it was an extremist organization, due in part to the fact that one of its founding members succumbed to wounds she received in a motor vehicle accident, after refusing to accept blood transfusions.
According to the website of the international Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization, adherents do not categorically reject all forms of medical treatment. The organization does, however, reject certain specific treatments, including blood transfusions. As explained by the website: “Some treatments conflict with Bible principles… and we reject these. For example, we don’t accept blood transfusions because the Bible forbids taking in blood to sustain the body. (Acts 15:20) Likewise, the Bible prohibits health treatments or procedures that include occult practices.—Galatians 5:19-21.”
The claims present a number of issues under Russian domestic law, including its laws against extremism, the Criminal Code’s provisions against the incitement of hatred or enmity and against associations that infringe upon the rights of citizens.
Parties to the case have been instructed to answer a series of questions pertaining to the treatment of Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses under international law.
The ECHR has considered three applications filed against Russia by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past, finding in each case that there had been violations of the Convention.
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