A new film about Jehovah's Witnesses will broadcast nationally in the United States on PBS May 22. The documentary is released at a time when Jehovah's Witnesses are being persecuted around the world. The film explains the historical legal struggles of Jehovah's Witnesses and their subsequent contribution to civil liberties in the U.S. and abroad. KNOCKING puts a human face on Jehovah's Witnesses as it tells the stories behind the controversial actions (door-to-door proselytizing, refusal of blood transfusions) that often place the 7-million member group at odds with the governments in the 236 lands where they worship.
Jehovah's Witnesses are among the most frequent targets of government-sanctioned suppression and persecution, according to the U.S. State Department's 2006 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The perpetrators are not just totalitarian governments, but increasingly include emerging and mature democracies. Official repression includes unlawful detention, revolving imprisonment policies, raids on houses of worship, economic discrimination, denial of employment and education, orchestrated smear campaigns, and confiscation of property.
*In France, the government has officially branded Jehovah's Witnesses a "dangerous sect." In 2006 alone, 71 Kingdom Halls of Jehovah's Witnesses were vandalized, firebombed, burned and shot at. Rather than offer protection, French government officials publicly call Jehovah's Witnesses "criminals" and impose a crippling 60-percent tax not levied on any other religion.
*South Korea has imprisoned 1,000 Jehovah's Witness ministers who are conscientious objectors to military service. Men who complete their jail time are re-drafted and given new prison sentences. Singapore only incarcerates Jehovah's Witnesses while other conscientious objectors are allowed to do non-military community service. In Turkey, a Jehovah's Witness was just handed his ninth prison term for refusal to bear arms.
*Moscow has outlawed Jehovah's Witnesses as a religion. They are not allowed to own houses of worship and are banned from practicing their faith anywhere. In other parts of Russia, police have raided services, beaten worshipers and jailed entire congregations. Uzbekistan has stripped its Jehovah's Witness communities of any legal status.
*Mexican authorities confiscated the farmland of 70 Jehovah's Witness families in 2005 and redistributed it to other settlers. Schools in Mexico fire teachers who are Jehovah's Witnesses.
*In India, mobs attacked Jehovah's Witnesses in door-to-door ministry - some beaten with fence posts -- in nine documented cases in 2006. Authorities refused to prosecute the assailants, but filed charges against the Jehovah's Witnesses for inciting the violence.
When releasing the 2006 Religious Freedom report, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice warned, "The entire world is threatened…by religious intolerance." A government that abuses the freedoms of a vulnerable religious minority often signals a weakening commitment to democratic values.
Jehovah's Witnesses are pushing governments to honor their democratic promises of religious freedom. Jehovah's Witnesses are currently litigating more than 400 cases around the world to secure their right to worship, speech, and assembly. From local courtrooms to the European Court of Human Rights, the outcome of these cases will either expand or contract freedom for all. When it comes to the prognosis of a stable democracy, Jehovah's Witnesses are the "canary in the coalmine."
Jehovah's Witnesses are strictly apolitical, but in 29 countries they are banned as a threat to public order. They refuse to fight in war, but they wage legal battles for their right to worship. Their insistence on their right to publicly spread their message has won the same right for groups with whom they disagree. They are moral conservatives, but their numerous court victories have defined and strengthened human rights and freedoms far beyond the bounds of their strict Christian code.
Jehovah's Witnesses began their legal fight in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, where they faced mob violence and government discrimination in more than 40 states. Jehovah's Witnesses have argued a record 62 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court
, of which they have won 50. Legal scholars say that their victories defined and strengthened First-Amendment freedoms for all Americans. Since then Jehovah's Witnesses have often gone to court in emerging democracies from Africa to Asia to secure those same rights. Their legal struggles have continued unabated into the 21st century.
- The right to exist as a legally registered religious entity
- The right to practice their distinct form of worship, including the rights of free assembly and free speech.
- The right to exercise their religiously based conscientious objection to war.
Emerging from decades of official bans, lengthy incarcerations, and underground worship during the Communist era, Witnesses in the former Soviet Union face a new series of roadblocks to freedom. Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow were banned from worshiping in 2004. The powerful Russian Orthodox Church is moving to suppress minority religions that it says are siphoning off members of their flock. With Church backing and government toleration, anti-sect activists are leading a relentless propaganda and political campaign. Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of worship and assembly, Jehovah's Witness meetings and conventions are commonly targeted by officials. In 2006, special forces simultaneously raided religious services of Jehovah's Witnesses on their annual Memorial observance of Jesus' death. More than 50 armed police stormed a Krasnodonskoye congregation. All 200 members, including elderly and children, were jailed. Those who protested were physically assaulted and threatened by police at knifepoint. Police broke up a separate meeting of deaf Jehovah's Witnesses the same night. In Nizhny Novgorod, Orthodox officials held public rallies and pressured local officials to halt the building of a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall. There were at least 51 incidents of police detention of Jehovah's Witnesses during their public ministry in 2006. Dozens of physical assaults on Jehovah's Witnesses took place last year, some resulting in serious injury. One attacker punched and kicked two women and then claimed that he acted in self-defense. The police routinely refuse to investigate such cases. The principal of the Moscow College of Management and New Technologies accused a 16-year-old Jehovah's Witness student of spreading propaganda and demanded that she resign from school or face prosecution. Jehovah's Witnesses are accused of being a "nontraditional" religion that creates religious strife and breaks up families. There are 147,000 Witnesses in Russia.
Nearly 1,000 Jehovah's Witness men are currently imprisoned for their conscientious objection to war. In 2005, Sung-hyun Sohn, 21, served a 10-month sentence for refusing the draft. When he was released from jail, he was immediately drafted again. He refused and was sentenced to two additional years in prison. More than 12,000 Witnesses have been jailed since 1960. Korea's Supreme Court, Constitutional Court and the National Human Rights Committee have recommended an alternative service system, but current Korean law makes no provision for conscientious objectors or for ministerial exemption from military service. Two cases are on appeal with the UN Human Rights Commission.
In 2006 the U.S. State Department reported that Eritrea "singled out Jehovah's Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment." The government revoked their citizenship, denied them jobs, and expelled their children from school. Men were jailed for refusal to do military service. Officials have arrested entire Jehovah's Witness congregations, holding members in metal shipping containers. Conscientious objectors Paulos Eyassu, 35, Negede Teklemariam, 34, and Isaac Mogos, 32, have spent more than 12 years in the remote Sawa prison camp. Tekle Tesfai, a 72-year-old Eritrean-born Dutch citizen, is serving a five-year prison sentence. All diplomatic efforts to win his release have failed.
The 250,000 Witnesses in France have been subject to official religious discrimination and economic persecution, which has spurred vandalism and harassment. The government claims that the Witnesses are anti-social and that their religious stricture against blood transfusions makes them dangerous to society. Members of the French parliament have characterized Jehovah's Witnesses as "delinquents" and "criminals" The government also imposed a discriminatory 60-percent tax on donations made by Jehovah's Witnesses, retroactive for four years. In protest, Witnesses submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights and a supporting national petition of 874,130 signatures. The UN's Freedom of Religion of Belief office has expressed concern about the French government's "hard-line position" toward religious minorities. In 2003, the government seized the funds of the Jehovah's Witness branch in France in partial payment of the tax bill. Then it demanded a payment of 40 million euros in 2006, essentially confiscating their holdings. No other not-for-profit religious group has been similarly targeted. Sensational press coverage contributed to 71 cases of vandalism against Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Halls last year, as well as protests against the construction or rental of new places of worship. A Kingdom Hall in Villefranche sur Saône was burned and destroyed. Jehovah's Witnesses have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.
Feti Demirtis, 25, has received nine prison sentences for being a conscientious objector to military service. Yunus Erçep has been called up 24 times and prosecuted 21 times. Both men have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights. They are among 14 Witnesses who are subject to beatings, verbal abuse and repeated incarceration for their stand of conscience.
Local officials are forcing Rwandan citizens to participate in armed night patrols following reports of cross-border rebel infiltrations. Jehovah's Witnesses are accused of being rebels for refusing to bear arms. Last year, 66 Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested; some were severely beaten. Heightened tensions over the issue have resulted in expulsions of Jehovah's Witness children from school and the break up of religious services.
Nineteen Jehovah's Witnesses are being held in the Singapore Armed Forces Detention Barracks. Even though the country offers nonmilitary national service, the government withholds this option from religious conscientious objectors.
The U.S. State Department lists Jehovah's Witnesses as the fourth largest religious group with 8,750 adherents, and states that they have been the target of "hostile sermons" by some Armenian Apostolic Church clerics. Only the Apostolic Church has full recognition and its clerics warn nontraditional denominations against "stealing souls." At last report, 48 Jehovah's Witness men were in prison for conscientious objection to military service. When Hayk Avetisyan appealed his two-year sentence, it was increased to two-and-a-half years. A prosecutor told one conscientious objector, "People like you should be destroyed. Hitler was right when he tried to exterminate you." Applications for four Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector cases have been filed with the European Court of Human Rights.
Police and national security officials frequently break up Jehovah's Witness worship services, impose heavy fines, and resort to verbal and physical abuse. The 6th Dept. of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which ostensibly fights organized crime and terrorism, has monitored and harassed Jehovah's Witnesses, pressured their employers to fire them, and confiscated passports. The government refuses to register the religion.
The 1998 Religion Law provides for freedom of worship, but the reality is far different. Religious activity, including publishing, education, and assembly, is severely restricted. The U.S. State Department reports a decline in religious freedom in 2006, with Jehovah's Witnesses and other minority religions suffering harassment. They are then denied the right to build or rent places of worship.
Despite being vindicated by the European Court of Human Rights, Jehovah's Witnesses are still harassed by local officials for distributing religious tracts.
Jehovah's Witnesses have experienced dozens of mob actions and beatings. Police have refused to intervene and in some cases have manufactured charges against the Witnesses and have released the assailants. After beating a Witness man and woman with a fence post, a mob dragged the two injured Witnesses to the police station and pressured the police to file a complaint against them and hold them without bail.
School officials suspended five teachers who are Jehovah's Witnesses, claiming that they would not convey the necessary patriotic fervor to their students because of their religion. Francisco Cruz refused to contribute to Catholic feast days. As a result, local officials confiscated his farmland and gave portions to settlers. Cruz also faces eviction from his home.
In 2002, Jehovah's Witnesses brought the first post-9/11 free-speech case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won. In Watch Tower Society v. Stratton Ohio, the high Court affirmed the right to spread an anonymous message door-to-door without obtaining government permission.
Who are Jehovah's Witnesses?
They live and worship in virtually every country of the world. They describe themselves as a Christian community modeled after the early Christian church, including the practice of "witnessing" or publicly spreading their faith. Their secular neighbors may view their efforts with annoyance. Their religious detractors label them as dangerous heretics who twist the Scriptures to suit their unorthodox views. Given such polar views, journalists and scholars find it challenging to sort out the facts.
For more information
on Jehovah's Witnesses and the PBS documentary KNOCKING, visit http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/knocking
- Jehovah's Witnesses originated in the 1870s as a nondenominational Bible study group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. USA. Last year, nearly 7 million members in 236 countries and territories spent more than 1.3 billion hours in their public ministry.
- Jehovah's Witnesses take their trademark house-to-house preaching from the model of first-century Christian practice, and they view public witnessing as an integral part of their worship. .
- Their main message is that God (Jehovah) will destroy evil and evildoers during Armageddon, clearing the way for a 1,000-year reign by Christ over a unified Paradise earth, during which all sickness, pollution, injustice, and war will end. They teach that only 144,000 Christians will spend eternity in heaven as co-rulers with Christ; the rest of worthy mankind will live forever in Paradise on earth, including the resurrected dead. .
- Jehovah's Witnesses consider themselves Christian, but they differ from "mainstream" Christian groups because they reject doctrines such as hellfire, the Trinity and immortal soul, along with traditional holidays with nonbiblical roots. They have no paid clergy. .
- Jehovah's Witnesses are apolitical, or "neutral," a position they say characterized the early Christians. They do not vote for human leaders, serve in the military or join armed rebellions. They believe they should "render to Caesar" by paying their taxes, and they view use of the legal system a permissible exercise of their rights as citizens. .
- Jehovah's Witnesses have had a long history of religious persecution, including prolonged and brutal suppression by the Hitler and Stalin regimes.