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We visited Jehovah's Witnesses to talk

Russia is oppressing Jehovah's Witnesses after courts described them as extremists.

(Source: Sme)

Around 100 believers in Bratislava suburb Petržalka listen to advice on how to talk to people on the street.

“Do not forget the fresh breath,” says the speaker from the podium. “But even the full mouth of the candies won’t help to those who have problem with the sphincer.”

Some people responded with embarrassed whispering but most of them were laughing. An elderly couple on the edge of the room pulls out menthol candies and puts them in their mouths.

Jehovah's Witnesses practice personal contact with people every week. The Slovak Spectator visited one of such meetings. The assembly is not led by one person. It’s program is divided into several blocks that are led by different elders of the church. They recall that through the behavior of individuals the public perceives the entire religious society.

Elders have repeatedly pointed on Russia, where the Supreme Court in June confirmed a ban on Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that they are extremists who threaten society. At the end of June, also Kazakhstan suspended their activities for three months.

Some people in the assembly were worried that the bans will spread further among 240 countries with more than 8,34 million official members of Jehovah's Witnesses around the world. There are almost 11 500 of them in Slovakia.

Although they are described as extremists in Russia, it does not mean that people should be afraid of Jehovah's Witnesses. The ban mirrors rather decreasing religious freedom in Russia than the practices of the Jehovah's Witnesses, according to František Fojtík, a Czech court expert in the field of cults and new religious movements.

Witnesses are willing to respond on The Slovak Spectator’s question but they do not want to speak on record. They suggest to ask their headquarters in Bratislava.

Slovak spokesperson of Jehovah's Witnesses Rastislav Eliaš described the Russian decision as absurd. Jehovah's Witnesses, in his view, are known for imitating Jesus Christ, which means that they do not have political ambitions, do not engage in wars and refuse violence.

"We don’t threaten society, on the contrary, our evangelistic activity is changing people for the better,” Eliaš told The Slovak Spectator. “Witnesses in Russia are in same position as al-Qaeda while they are peaceful religious society that refuses to fight.”

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Dangerous or not?

Witnesses are labeled as dangerous cult but the organization rejects such claims. It usually points to the fact that it does not have one leader who is fanatically followed by believers.

However, from the testimonies of former members stems that this religious society can negatively affect individual's mind. For example, the magazine Rozmer, which is run by The Ecumenical Council of Churches and is dedicated to religious cults interviewed former member of witnesses Helena Mišovičová.

She recalled that when she began to talk about her doubts, elders summoned her and eventually expelled her from the community. The members were forbidden to greet her or pay visit to her. This also limited contact with her own children.

“I know that the one who is in contact with the excluded member is also in the risk of being excluded from the organization therefore I try to understand my son and daughter who continue to be members the Jehovah's Witnesses,” Mišovičova told the Rozmer.

Eliáš claims that Jehovah's Witnesses are respecting all people and respect their decision to leave. They also do not prevent them from returning.

If someone repeatedly violates biblical moral laws and does not penance, he or she is excluded and witnesses avoid him, which is based on the Bible. However, they can still visit worship services, according to Eliaš.

“From a religious point of view, relationships in the family change, but the blood ties remain,” Eliaš said “Marriage continues and the same applies to love and life in the family.”

These practices should not be underestimated and people should be warned sometimes that they can experience it, according to Fojtík.

"But it doesn’t mean that they have to be banned,” Fojtík said. “We should rather prefer education, open debate and critical thinking.”

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They still refuse transfusion

Apart from the question of finding new believers, Jehovah's Witnesses in Petržalka also discuss how to make hospitals to treat them without blood transfusions.

It seems like a class of civil education at high school with high quality technical equipment. Most attendees, including several pensioners use a mobile or tablet with an educational app.

Members read a story from South America, where one of denomination member carried a document that refuses transfusion. Though his family disagreed with it, the trial finally succeeded.

The elder of the church then asks questions to find out what lessons the witnesses have taken from the story. After each question, several of them raise hands to answer.

In Slovakia, the willingness of doctors to carry surgeries without transfusions, according to Jehovah's Witnesses .

In the case of the planned surgery, L. Pasteur University Hospital in Košice respects patients refusal of blood transfusion and send them home or recommend them to visit other facility. However, in case of emergency when life is in stake its doctors use blood transfusion, according to hospital’s spokeswoman Ivana Stašková.

If the parents of operated childrens do not agree with the transfusion, Children's Faculty Hospital in Bratislava submit a motion to the court. The verdict of the court then replaces the parents’ agreement. However, such cases are rare, as the hospital is trying to avoid transfusions, according to Dana Kamenická, spokeswoman for the hospital.

Everyone has the right to decide what kind of treatment he or she will take and modern medicine takes it into account, according to Eliaš.

“We are happy that many doctors are willing to cooperate with patients and respect their wishes,” he said.

Rejecting blood can be considered as a controversial rule, but it is witnesses’ personal decision, according to Fojtík.

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Like a firm

The Jehovah's Witnesses also reminds, also according to the believers, a well-organized multinational firm, run from the US city of Warwick, New York.

All over eight million members in 240 countries learn from the same materials on the same day and answer the same questions. It means that during same week hundreds of thousands of people in the United States or about ten registered members in the Falkland Islands read the same story about their member from South America as witnesses in Petržalka did.

Community rules including their answers to the most controversial questions are on the internet. They also have a Bible translation application which is also widely used by Jehovah's Witnesses.

“It means that Jehovah's Witnesses work very similarly in Russia, just as in Slovakia or anywhere else,” says Fojtik.

During the meeting in Petržalka an older lady plays a fictional scene in which Jehovah's Witnesses visited person who is open to their ideas. She is nervous and speaks too slowly but no one criticizes her. The speaker on the stage rather points on the eye contact of the second “actress” and the fact that she is well dressed.

The fact that Jehovah's Witnesses regularly practice luring of new believers mirrors their attitude towards financial support from the state. As they reject any finances from the state they have to find a way how to pay loans and their activities, according to Dušan Lužný who is also a Czech court expert in the field of cults.

On the next morning, three of the members stand in front of the Main Station in Bratislava. They follow the learned template, they are decently dressed, try not to talk to each other and focus on the passers-by.

They usually take shifts which are two or three hours long, and the number of hours in service is recorded. They claim that they are not bored as many people approach them. Someone just takes a magazine, others stay longer.

People in Bratislava are not aggressive but sometimes they are arrogant, according to witnesses standing in front of Main Station. They however realize that they can be annoying and people do not like their field work.

Even they have a bad reputation Jehovah's Witnesses are becoming less and less radical over time, according to Fojtík says. This is evidenced by the fact that they have put their teachings, training methods and organizational structure on the Internet.

“Thus, this religious society is open for being criticized,” Fojtík says. “There are many new religious groups we do not know much about, because they are hiding.”

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