Jehovah’s Witnesses plead for freedom, mercy, in Russia crackdown

March 29, 2017 11:20 PM

Rochester-area Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to mobilize Wednesday night in the face of persecution halfway around the world.

In a stark crackdown, Russia’s justice ministry has asked the country’s Supreme Court to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group.

"It's rather ironic because we’re the farthest from extreme," exclaimed Rochester Elder Daniel Naples. "We are family oriented, focused on law-abiding, peaceful, non-political. We abhor wickedness crime and warfare."

Naples said the situation might seem alien in a country like the United States with its tradition of religious freedom but warned that it's coming to a head in Russia where approaching a crucial point on April 5 when the court is expected to deliver its ruling.

The new wave of persecution was a stark disappointment for Naples. In what looked like a new age of freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially recognized in Russia and Naples and his wife visited Moscow for a convention in 1993. "It was beautiful to see," he recalled. "The stadium was full. There were 24,000 at this one convention."

The new reality meant that more than 170,000 Witnesses in Russia could see their Kingdom Halls seized, or even face arrest. "Our brothers could be criminally prosecuted for meeting together for worship, for sharing their faith with others, or even for reading the Bible together," warned Mark Sanderson of the Jehovah’s Witnesses governing body in a video message on the website.

To confront the crackdown, the eight million Witnesses worldwide were urged to write personal letters to a short list of key Russian leaders including President Vladmir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

"It is puzzling, why Russia would be focusing on Jehovah's Witnesses at this point," Naples said. "Maybe it's just the lack of knowing enough who we are. And that's why there's been this global campaign since this past week to send letters."

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Charles Molineaux

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