CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Social and Cultural Context of Contemporary Latvia

by Nikandrs Gills, (University of Latvia). A paper presented at CESNUR’s 14th international conference, Riga, Latvia, August 29-31, 2000. Preliminary version. © Nikandrs Gills, 2000. Please do not reproduce without the consent of the author.

In my paper, I will discuss a few facts on Jehovah’s Witnesses situation in Latvia without attempting, however, to come to any categorical conclusions about them; I am not going to generalise either, because a more representative study and a broader basis for comparison would be needed for that purpose.

One can discern three periods in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Latvia.

The first period

1. The first representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses arrived in Latvia in early 1920ies; the local office of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was established here in 1926.

The main concern of the Jehovah’s Witnesses during that period was to acquire legal status in Latvia; which they only succeeded to do on March 14, 1933; the Jehovah's Witnesses were registered under the name of the International Bible Students Association (IBSA). I would like to point it out here that this period of Latvia’s democratisation coincided with a rise of religious pluralism (in mid-1930ies more than 300 small denominations were active in the country), the public opinion, however, tended to ignore religious minorities and their problems or was explicitly negative towards them, as one can ascertain reading the press of that time. For the majority of

citizens of Latvia the main incentives for activity was bringing into existence independent national state, cherished for several decades, evolvement of culture and many-sided education of the population; it was related to the reforms carried out by the largest Christian denominations, i.e. the Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and aimed at becoming closer to the national culture, education and national interests as such. Most often, foreign religious minorities were perceived with distrust, as disseminators of alien ideas or as agents recruiting labour for work abroad.

In 1934 the organisation International Bible Students Association had to be dissolved because of the protests triggered by state authorities and the largest Christian churches in Latvia; they could not renew their legal status either; officially it was motivated by referring to the "Law on termination, liquidation and registration of societies, associations and political organisations during the period of exceptional state" [1]. The books by Rutherford were labelled as Communist ones, allegedly posing danger to the state and the largest Christian communities. [2]

The second period

2. The second period of the Jehovah’s Witnesses history in Latvia falls within the 50 year period of the Soviet occupation of Latvia; one has to include here also the four years of Nazis occupation during the World War 2 when the Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted as enemies of the state. In 1951, political cases were brought against the Jehovah's Witnesses, and many of them were deported to Northern and Eastern regions of the USSR.

From the very beginning, the sermons of the Jehovah's Witnesses were eschatological in their intonation, presented a poignant critique of the existing order of things, opposed social injustice that governed in many countries, the colonial politics of the great powers, racism, war, the existing Christian churches’ close connections with political circles of the state. No wonder that many a government in different countries took a dislike of the Jehovah's Witnesses; they were defamed as Communist agents in one type of countries, as agents of imperialism in others, yet in both cases were they banned and persecuted. The archives of some countries contain documentary evidences and materials of judicial examination showing that, for example, in the Soviet Union, people were being accused of anti-Soviet activities and tried by the state as criminals for the mere fact of belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses. [3]

In the western regions of the Ukraine and Byelorussia, in Moldavia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, for example, 1048 the Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested and sentenced in the period from 1947 through 1950. They did not stop pursuing their activities, though, and another 8 576 Jehovah's Witnesses and members of their families — 3 048 families altogether -- were deported to Siberia in 1951. [4]

In the Hitler’s Germany, the President of the State issued a decree "About the protection of the German people and state" on 28 February 1933 by the same putting a ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses; the arguments presented for the ban were analogous to those in the USSR. The article "The German Crisis" in journal "The Golden Age" on January 4, 1933, gave analysis of Hitlerism:

"Unrestrained emotions, pernicious plotting, and overt acts of violence are creating a turbulence of grave potentialities....Against this panorama of national turbulence there looms forth the menacing promontory of National Socialist movement. It seems incredulous that a political party so insignificant in its origin, so heterodox in its policies, can, in the space of a few years, develop into proportions that overshadow the structure of national government. Yet Adolph Hitler and his national socialist party (the Nazis) have accomplished this rare feat." [5]

The Jehovah's Witnesses were accused in high treason because they refused to give "Heil Hitler" salute; they wrote: " 'Heil Hitler' ... means 'Salvation is by Hitler'. But all people who have faith in God know that neither Hitler, Mussolini... nor any other scheme nor any creature can bring salvation to the people..." [6]; thus thousands of them were sent to concentration camps. [7] "On June 26, 1933, a band of SA and local police stormed the Watch Tower office, seized its printing facilities, and officially banned the activity of the Witnesses. On August 21-24, twenty-five truckloads of Watch Tower literature were confiscated and burned." [8] The persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany lasted until the end of the World War II; a total of 10, 000 Witnesses in Germany in one way or another became victims of Nazi regime [9], 6 262 of their members were arrested and sentenced to imprisonment of various length; 2 074 people were sent to concentration camps from where many never returned. [10] The Jehovah's Witnesses were banned and persecuted also in the territories of Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, the Baltic states occupied by the Hitler’s Germany.

Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to serve in the army and other military units or structures under the command of the military is based on their religious conviction, it has encountered ambiguous responses on the part of state authorities. In each particular country the reaction has been shaped by its legislation, ideology and local traditions. In the Soviet Union, according to the provisions of the criminal law, those who refused to serve in the Soviet Army had to be punished by imprisonment in forced labour camps still in late 1980s. No alternative service existed.

Now, let me draw on two cases from mid 1980s, the so called period of perestoika, when Latvia still was a part of the USSR.

A charge of avoiding the conscription in the military service was brought against Jury Kaptola [11] (a Ukrainian, born in the Transcarpathian region) on 1 July, 1986; he was accused of a criminal offence according to the paragraph 75, part 2, of the Criminal Code of the Latvian SSR. Kaptola had been sentenced to 3 years of imprisonment already in 1981, according to the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR (paragraph 72, part 1). In both cases he explained to the interrogators and the court that the only reason why he refused to serve in the standing army was his religious conviction and his "Jehovah’s Witnesses membership". He insisted that his "avoidance to serve in the army causes no harm to other people". The representative of the Riga Military Registration and Enlistment Office, giving his testimony informed that normally the persons who had been tried were not conscripted to the standing army; however, in accordance with the order issued by the Minister of Defence of the USSR in 1967, the persons who had been sentenced to imprisonment for relatively harmless offences and proven reliable by their work performance and behaviour, as well as worked in one and the same position for a longer period of time, are nevertheless subject to military conscription. After his discharge from the prison, Kaptola had had one job for more than a year and had good references, so he fitted in with these regulations. Consequently, it was decided by the Military Registration and Enlistment Office that J. Kaptola could be recruited into military service which he soon afterwards really was.

Let us consider for a while the references given to Kaptola by his work mates. Kaptola was employed in construction work. His foreman pointed out that Kaptola had performed his tasks well and that he had not even known Kaptola was a believer. Kaptola was said to have not taken part in social life of the work collective; in the presence of the foreman, he had not discussed his stance on the military service. Other co-workers too referred to the accused in highly positive terms: "he is conscientiously performing his work, is co-operative, industrious, shows initiative and independence; he is calm and composed, a little reserved, and simple". According to his roommate, in the evenings Kaptola had been reading the Bible and had showed no interest in social and political life. Kaptola was tried and accused of an offence in aggravating circumstances for [quote] "…having been sentenced to 3 years of imprisonment in a corrective labour camp of general kind for his avoidance of the conscription into the military service, he has, however, neither reconsidered nor corrected his behaviour, but instead has committed an identical offence again." [12] This time Kaptola was sentenced to 4 years of imprisonment in corrective labour camp of strict regime. [13]It has to be remarked that at the same time another prosecution was conducted against Kaptola, for ‘consciously spreading lies that discredit the Soviet state and social order’; this prosecution, however, was cancelled because of the lack of corpus delicti. The prosecutor’s file contains a notice that "while searching Kaptola’s place, religious items were found".

In December of the same year (1986), in Jelgava an action was brought also against the resident Andrey Andrishak [14] (a Ukrainian, born in Bratsk, the Irkutsk region); he was accused of avoidance of the usual military conscription. Andrishak had refused to serve in army on conscientious grounds, as well as because of his family’s state of material need, therefore he pleaded not guilty. During the interrogation, he admitted that he "wants to serve in no military units, for all of them are parts of the army; the army is involved in politics, his stance, however, is neutral to any kind of politics." [15] His position was steadfast which is not so typical for such procedures of prosecution; he even was referred to a psychiatric examination; commission of experts proclaimed him mentally sound. During the interrogation his mother admitted that her son had been involved in religion since childhood; he joined neither pioneers, nor Komsomol; his decision not to serve in army was based on his conviction. All the references (from the schools he had attended, from the construction company he had worked for), were exclusively positive.

He was sentenced to one year imprisonment according to the paragraph 75, part 1, of the Criminal Code of the Latvian SSR.

The third period

The third period began in 1991 when Latvia regained its national independence. Around that time the freedom of speech, the press, religion and conscience was restored. During the period of national awakening in the second half of 1980s, the Christian churches, especially the Lutheran, the Roman Catholic and the Baptist ones as well as some pastors soon came to exercise a considerable authority among the population, because of their unanimous support to the people’s endeavour to restore national independence and to find spiritual regeneration in Christianity, juxtaposing it to Soviet Communist ideology. Other religious communities also became active, Pentecostals, Mormons, Scientologists, Christian Science among them. The Jehovah’s Witnesses resumed their struggle for legal recognition but it proved quite difficult again. Local population’s prejudice against the Jehovah’s Witnesses was deep-seated still under the impact of Soviet ideology. Also some additional factors influenced that attitude, namely those related to honouring the recovered national symbols (which had been forbidden for fifty years), the flag and national anthem. Such being the general mood, the majority of population, lacking objective information and explanations could not understand and accept the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ negative attitude towards glorification of these symbols sacred for so many people. Unusual seemed also the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses were distributing their brochures offering them on the street or knocking on others’ door, as well as their refusal to celebrate national and traditional family holidays, etc. Overall, the mass media and the public opinion labelled the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a dangerous sect. Such dominating attitude cultivated by the press notwithstanding, the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses was growing (see Table 1). Thus in 1993 there were 423 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1215 attendants at the Memorial attendace and 5 congregations in Latvia, but in 1996 the respective numbers were 1320, 3580 and 13, in 2000 - 2064, 4276 and 28 (10 of which were officially registered). [16]

The Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in a long correspondence with the Ministry of Justice requesting registration; eventually the state authorities denied them registration on the basis of a paragraph of the Law on Religion. As the main reason of the refusal to register congregations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was indicated: the reference in paragraph 11 of the Law on Religious Organisations that "a religious organisation is not registered if its activities pose a threat to the state security, public peace and order, as well as the health and morality of other persons, if it propagates the ideas of religious intolerance and hatred". [17] On 19 July 1996 M. Krumins, the representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Riga Centre congregation, brought in to the Court of the Riga Centre Municipality an action against the Ministry of Justice: "(1) to reverse the decision of the LR Ministry of Justice No. 1-5.9/131 of 11 July 1996, about the refusal to register the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Riga congregation; (2) to demand that the Ministry of Justice attends its duty and registers the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Riga congregation as a religious organisation". [18]

The situation was even more aggravated by the death of a young girl Yelena Godlevska, a minor from a Jehovah’s Witnesses family. Yelena had lost a considerable amount of blood after being injured in an accident, but both she and her parents refused the blood transfusion that was needed to perform a surgery, as Yelena’s doctor explained. The information in the press was pretty contradictory. Initially, the newspapers reported:

"The doctors warned that the outcome would be lethal without blood transfusion, for several litres of blood had been lost as a result of hip fracture. According to the criminal law, it qualifies as a crime, if a person whose life is in danger is not given the necessary help. Thus, whatever the situation, the doctor’s duty would have been to save the girl’s life. JW, in their turn, suppose that it would be a violation of the law, for the Medical Treatment Regulations make provision that the patient, or the closest relative has the right to refuse the offered diagnostic examination or treatment." [19]

Five days later, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opinion was published:

"…the doctors did not ensure Yelena the treatment; they did not explain how critical the girl’s condition was; only after three days had passed did they announce that the haemoglobin level had dropped. JW reacted by supplying the doctors with an expensive medication, erythroprotein, that stimulates the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow. The doctors promised to treat the girl with this medicament, therefore JW did not proceed with their idea to invite specially prepared doctors. However, the girl only received the first dosage two days later." [20]

Also a number of doctors expressed their thoughts in the press; majority of them conceded that the law was contradictory, and that the Ministry of Welfare had no definite stance on such matters either; they agreed that the situation was further complicated by the fact that the patient was a legal minor; and the information on alternative means of treatment was scarce for they were not included in the official list of medicaments used in the country. Only two weeks after the event the official standpoint of the State Minister of Health was published. It was emphasised that the emergency doctors had acted in accordance with the law and condemned the doctors who had argued for enforced treatment in the cases like that. The alternative methods of treatment were to be elaborated. [21]

At present, a communication network comprises practically all territory of Latvia bringing into contact doctors who are familiar with and use alternative treatment methods: blood substitutes and cell saver apparatus which the Jehovah’s Witnesses have donated to several hospitals as well as surgeons.

Several times the court hearings had been postponed, for various reasons of legal procedure, until the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation withdrew its claims in summer 1997. The reason to do so was the changes that had taken place in the LR Ministry of Justice, namely, new persons had been appointed to the leading positions of the Religious Affairs Department. As representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses suppose [22], thus preconditions were created, to forget the prejudices, errors and misunderstandings which the former leadership of the Ministry of Justice’s Religious Affairs Department had demonstrated in respect to the nature of the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations. After the Department of the Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Justice had changed its position, the Jehovah’s Witnesses withdrew their claims. Both sides could cease arguing and enter into negotiations now.

Thus, Latvia remained virtually the only country in Europe where Jehovah's Witnesses had not been officially registered for such a long time. Meanwhile, the Jehovah's Witnesses had been registered, however, in Russia - in March 1991 [23], in Estonia in October 1991 [24], and in Lithuania in July 1993 [25]. The attitude of the Department of Public and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Justice, so far as it can be judged from announcements, has changed in 1998, and it was likely that congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses would be registered for a year's period according to the legal procedure. In 1998 Latvian Ministry of Justice registered for the period of one year two Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in Riga: the Riga Centre congregation and the Tornakalns congregation on 12 October and a congregation in Jelgava on 28 December. Another three congregations were registered in May 1998: one in Riga, the Daugava congregation, another in Valmiera, and the third one in Ventspils on condition that they must be reregistered every year for the next ten years. [26] Latvian State Bureau of Human Rights sees it as a mechanism of state to control JW activities more tightly. There are 28 congregations and 30 smaller groups of JW in Latvia now; however, only 10 congregations have been granted registration by the Ministry of Justice so far.

If we now turn to the data about the educational level of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (see chart No. 4), we can see that the biggest percentage, 35 per cent of them have acquired professional secondary education, 26 percent have graduated from secondary schools, 24 per cent have completed only primary education (here belong also those who have attended secondary school but have not graduated from it), 12 per cent have a university degree and 4 per cent have studied but have not completed the course. For the time being it is difficult to compare these numbers with the educational level of the population of Latvia in general because the data of the 2000 Census have not been systematized yet.

Let me say a few words about the structure of the JW organisation. The JW congregations are clustered in regional groups headed by a regional supervisor and two deputy supervisors. There are three such regional JW groups in Latvia. The regional groups, in their turn, form districts; there is one Russian and one Latvian JW district in Latvia. The JW activities in the country are co-ordinated by the national committee consisting of four members (the number of the members differs across the countries depending on local needs).

Jehovah’s Witnesses and military service in Latvia

When the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Latvia issued the declaration of independence on 4 May 1990 and took actions to regain national independence de facto, also the Law On Alternative Service was adopted. At that time, such a step of democratization was also motivated by attempts to protect Latvian youths from the service in the USSR army. After Latvia regained its national independence and acquired its own army, the Law on Alternative Service secured the citizens of a democratic country the freedom to act according to their views and conscience.

On 27 February 1997 a new law, the Law On Compulsory Military Service, came into force; it did not provided for any alternative service. The Jehovah’s Witnesses youths who had reached the age of conscription, faced difficulties. I have elsewhere described the fate of two of them, Roman Nemiro and Valdimir Gamayunov who were conscripted into the standing army. Both of them lodged complaints to the Court of the Vidzeme municipality of Riga, against the officials’ unlawful action, namely the decision of the Commission of the Military Conscription Office to recruit them into the military service despite of the fact that the Commission was informed about their religious conviction that forbids them to perform any military service. Moreover, V. Gamayunov based his claims to be exempted from military service on the fact that he was a clergyman. The court rejected both complaints. An appeal was lodged to the Riga Regional Court.

An appeal was lodged to the Riga Regional Court. In the meantime, on 20 December 1999, the Saeima of the Republic of Latvia adopted the Amendment To the Law On Compulsory Military Service; it was announced on 5 January 2000.

One can read in paragraph 21, item 7 of this Law, that these regulations apply to the "ordained clerics who belong to a religious organization registered by the Ministry of Justice, and to the persons who are being trained in educational institutions of these organizations to become members of their clerical staff." This paragraph broadens the category of the ordained clerics beyond the denominations which are represented in the army chaplaincy, namely, the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Baptist pastors.. In accordance with this paragraph, the above mentioned Vladimir Gamayunov as well as one more Jehovah’s Witnesses youth were exempted from the compulsory military service on 19 January 2000.

The question of the alternative service has not yet been resolved by the parliament of Latvia although there is an evidence that a draft law on this issue could win the support of the MPs. It has to be pointed out that the problems of the alternative, or civilian service have recently been studied by a working group set up at the Non-governmental Organisations Centre of Latvia; they prepare their recommendations and documents, are active in explaining the topic to the Cabinet and the MPs and are discussing it in mass media. Their activities have won the appreciation of the Minister of Defence, Mr Kristovkis.

Let me refer to the chart (see figure 8) for which I am grateful to the NGO centre (particularly to Mr Uldis Berzins). It can be seen that in Latvia 50.000 youths aged 19 to 27 are subject to the compulsory military service. 42.000 of them (those who have embarked on specialized bachelor or master’s courses, as well as ordained clerics, etc.) are exempted from the recruitment in accordance with the law. The remaining 7 to 8 thousand are subject to medical check-up, and 4.000 released because of their ill health. The remainder comprises 3 to 4 thousand who are subject to recruitment. Approximately 220 of them, those who have minor health problems, are assigned the work service within military units. Finally, there are 10 youths who fall within the category of persons subject to the service within military structures but have conscientious objections to that. As a consequence, these youths can be sentenced to imprisonment since the law provides for no alternative service.

On 10 August 2000, the Minister of Defence, Mr Kristovskis issued an announcement, Concerning the position of the Ministry of Defence on the question of the alternative service [27] inviting the Saeima, the government, the ministries, the governmental and non-governmental organizations to come forth with their suggestions and comments on this matter. It has been emphasized in this announcement that "the present renewal of the alternative service is not intended for purpose of avoiding a person’s duty - compulsory military service - to the state, but it is to give individuals the possibility to realise their constitutional rights." The announcement also explains the nature of the alternative service as well as indicates the steps to be taken to settle this matter: the operation and composition of a special commission, necessary changes in regulations;

1. The Cabinet initiates an interdepartmental team, to work out the necessary regulations for introducing alternative service.

2. The Ministry will continue to discuss the introduction of alternative service with the general public and will invite non-governmental, religious organizations and the mass media to a round table discussion, in order to discuss and consider different aspect of alternative service.

3. The Ministry of Defense invites the public to express its opinion about the necessity of the alternative service by sending comments to the "Home Page"administrator of Ministry of Defense.

Such official announcement initiated by the Ministry of Defence, as well as elevation of the problems related to the alternative service from non-governmental organizations’ concern to that of the Cabinet and the ministries, can be viewed as a considerable achievement in democratization process.

Edgars Endzelis, a JehovahÕs Witnesses lawyer, gave the following commentary on this document: "One has to appreciate the fact that the Ministry of Defence relates the task of establishing the alternative service to the task of securing the freedom of conscience guaranteed by Satversme (the Constitution of Latvia). However, there is a reason to become concerned when it is announced that "the alternative service is a component of overall defence" and that "therefore the manner, how alternative service can be served, will be expressed in regulations, and will be determined by taking in consideration the non-military functions of general defence. " Such kind of service might be unacceptable to the persons whose conscience prevents them to support military structures (and this is the most widespread reason for refusing to perform military service in today’s Latvia). In order to bring the alternative service in accordance with the principle of the freedom of conscience, which is the main reason why it is to be established, it is necessary to implement the recommendations of the Council of Europe and the United Nations Organization, namely, to separate the alternative service from any military structures and to carry it out under the guidance of civilians." [28]

Concluding impressions

One of the first JW congregations officially registered in Latvia, was the congregation whose headquarters are situated in the historically well-known Tornkalns district, to the west from Riga centre. The area’s fast development began in 19th century after an important railway line, a bridge over the Daugava river and a railway station were opened. Tornkalns evolved into a residential area where there lived industrial workers as well as artists and writers who chose this place because of its picturesque surroundings and relatively short distance from Riga centre. Already in late 19th century two strong Lutheran congregations, a Latvian one and a German one, and one Russian Orthodox congregation were active there. Right across the railway, also the Seminary of the Roman Catholics Riga Archdiocese found its abode; later the Roman Catholic College of Theology and from 1938 to 1940, the Faculty of Theology were situated there. Also the Baptists and the Seventh Day Adventists have been present in the area. Nowadays, the architectural space contains signs that can be read as evidence of multiculturalism and peaceful co-existence of various denominations there: the church building of the Riga Luther’s congregation with its socially and politically active pastor; a Russian Orthodox church; a recently built monument to Fricis Brîvzemnieks, a Latvian folklorist and writer of the period of national awakening in late 19th century. This monument has been built in a stylised nationalist manner. ( see figure No. 9)

Just on the opposite side of the street, a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall was opened a couple of years ago (see figure No. 10). Let me say a few words about it. In the late 1930ies, a modern cinema was built there; it was there still in early 1990ies. As a result of inefficient management, the cinema went bankrupt; various businesses followed each other - a second hand shop, a reusable glass collecting shop and, eventually, casino and bar, until one day a fire destroyed the building. On the photos you can see what it was like when the Jehovah’s Witnesses purchased it. This picture shows volunteers working on renovation of the building and how it has changed. It seems to me that in this case the implementation of the freedom of conscience as a democratic principle has made also a considerable contribution to harmonisation of the urban environment in Riga. The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that they not only bring into order the environment; offering anybody an opportunity to attend the Kingdom Hall and come to know the Bible they also make a contribution towards the improvement of morals in that district.

One just has to make one’s own decision. In a pluralist society, also in Latvia, one can choose among a lot of offers, also in religious sphere. Far from often one will have a clear answer to the question where the truth is to be sought and where the faith and peace of mind can be found. Either the answer will ensue from maintaining the family’s tradition, or just on the contrary, its denial; either the decision will be a result of a coincidence or rather a purposeful spiritual search - all the same, in each person’s life that choice will be a significant one. That is the reason why drawing on Riga Tornkalns district I wanted to demonstrate that given there is freedom of religion, multicultural life in an area rich in religious traditions continues to boost revealing ever new aspects of faith of the communities living side by side.

I think that among the many functions of the researcher in the field of religion is his task to go beyond the layers and frames of preconceived opinions and abstract judgements about one or another religious movement, to be able to discover concrete personalities and to find out that the people who have joined a religious community and share one faith, worldview and way of life are a part of our own society. Such an approach, of course, does not preclude confronting questions about human disillusionment and particularly ex-members of religious movements and organisations who either had not found what they had been looking for and have left disappointed, or have been expelled from the organisation for violating its regulations and norms.

Recently I interviewed a painter Andrey Gevl’ who belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses Riga Centre congregation. He told me his story. It was during his first encounter with the Jehovah's Witnesses that he learned about the basic truths of the Bible for the first time in his life. Having become a Jehovah's Witnesses, he carries on with his work of painting; his pictures, however, have become more joyful and life-affirming (see picture No. 11). I would like to conclude my paper emphasising that a society can only get rid of stereotyped judgements about new phenomena and views it has formerly rejected granted it gets to know them. Only then is it able to see behind these views a personality, no longer an abstractly labelled someone marked off from others but a member of the society who is to be judged according to his or her own action and work. Then we would first be paying attention to the mastery of a constructor, a doctor, a teacher, a worker, a painter, a parent, a colleague, or a neighbour and only thereafter would we ask (or learn by chance) what his faith or worldview is.

Nikandrs Gills

Riga, Congress Hall, 31 August 2000


List of charts and figures


Chart No 1. Jehovah&Mac226;s Witnesses in Latvia: publishers, memorial attendace. Membership between January 1993 and July 2000

Chart No. 2. Age groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Latvia in July 2000.

Chart No 3 Jehovah’s Witnesses ethnic composition.

Chart No 4 Jehovah’s Witnesses level of education

Chart No 5 Jehovah’s Witnesses Publishers against Population of Latvia Ratio. September 1999.

Chart No 6 Jehovah’s Witnesses Latvian publishers against Latvian speaking population ratio. April - June 2000

Chart No 7 Jehovah’s Witnesses Russian speaking publishers against Russian speaking population ratio. April -June 2000

Chart No 8 Conscription for military and civilian service in Latvia.

Figure No.1 Tornakalns district in Riga

Figure No 2 Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Tornakalns district, a former cinema (later casino and bar) building restored after a fire.

Figure No 3 Recent paintings by Andrey Gevl’, an artist who joined Witnesses in early 1990ies.


  1. [back] Valdibas Vestnesis [Government Messenger] No.130 on June 14, 1934. (According to the Declaration of the Government from May 18, 1934: the functions of Saeima, beginning with 11 p.m., May 15, 1934, are carried out by the Cabinet of Ministers till accomplishment of constitutional reforms).
  2. [back] For details see: N. Gills Jehovah's Witnesses in Latvia in the 20th Century-http:// www.cesnur.org/testi; Die Zeugen Jehovas in Lettland im 20. Jahhundert// Gewissen und Freiheit. Nr.52, 1999. S.119-136; Les témoins de Jéhovah en Lettonie au XXe siécle // Conscience et Liberte. Nr. 59, 2000, p.103-119.
  3. [back] Section of historical and political documents of the State Archive of Latvia (Riga, Latvia), The Archive of the President of the Russian Federation (Moscow, Russia), The Watchtower History Archive (Selters, Germany), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, D.C.), etc.
  4. [back] Zapiska MGB SSSR o nyeobkhodymosti vyselyenya iz zapadnoi Ukraini I Belorusii, Moldavskoi, Latvijskoi, Lyitovskoi I Estonskoi SSR uchastnyikov antisovetskoi sekti Yegovistov No. 13. 19 February 1951. The Archive of the President of the Russian Federation. F. Z. Op. 58 D. Ly. 52-53. Quoted from: V. I. Pasat, Trudniye stranyitsi istorii Moldovi 1940-1950 gg.
  5. [back] James N. Pellechia. The Spirit and the Sword. Jehovah's Witnesses Expose the Third Reich.// The Spirit and the Sword. Jehovah's Witnesses Expose the Third Reich. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, Brooklyn, New York, 1997. pp. iii;
  6. [back] Ibid. pp. v;
  7. [back] "Many Witnesses had firsthand knowledge about the camps by 1934, one thousand German Witnesses had been arrested, and 400 were sent to the camps. On April 1, 1935, Witnesses were banned from all civil service jobs and arrested throughout Germany. Their pension and employment benefits were confiscated; marriage to a Witness became legal grounds for divorce. Witness children were banned from attending school, and some were taken from Witness parents to be raised in Nazi re-education homes.. By 1937, about one of every four German Jehovah's Witnesses -6,000 in all - were in the camps. They were the only religious group to be identified by a distinctive symbol-the purple triangle.", James Pellechia and Jolene Chu. Teaching Tolerance on the Model of Jehovah's Witnesses as Victims of Nazism. // Shadow of the Holocaust. Second International Symposium "Lessons of the Holocaust and Contemporary Russia" Moscow, May 4-7, 1997. Moscow 1998, .pp. 289-290.
  • [back] Ibid., pp. 289.
  • [back] Johannes Wrobel. How the Watchtower History Archive in Germany Benefits Holocaust Research;// Shadow of the Holocaust, Moscow, 1997, pp. 286.
  • [back] Jehovah’s Witnesses. Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom. Publishers: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. International Bible Students Association. Brooklyn, New York, 1993, pp. 720.
  • [back] Obvinitelnoje zakluchenijie po ugolovnomu djelu Nr. 06200196 po obvineniju Kaptoli Jurija Jurjevicha po st. 75 ch.2 UK Latvijskoj SSR. 31. 07. 1986.
  • [back] Ibid., p.6
  • [back] Prigovor Narodnovo suda Proletarskovo raijona goroda Rigi po obvineniju Kaptola Jurija Jurjevicha v soverhseniji prestuplenija, predusmatrennovo st. 75 ch.2 UK LSSR, 27 avgusta 1986 goda.
  • [back] Obvinitelnoje zakluchenijie po ugolovnomu djelu Nr. 22200160 po obvineniju Andrishaka Andreja Vasiljevicha po st. 75 ch.1 UK Latvijskoj SSR, 30. 12. 1986.
  • [back] Ibid., p. 2
  • [back] Letter by the elder of Riga Centre Congregation Peteris Pauls Luturs-Luters on 3 August 2000.
  • [back] The LR Ministry of Justice. "About the refusal to register the congregations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses". Letter No.1-59/131 to J. Bramanis and M. Krumins on 11 July 1996.
  • [back] An action brought against the LR Ministry of Justice demanding to reverse its decision. 19 July 1996..
  • [back] Newspaper "Diena",13.09.1996.
  • [back] Newspaper "Diena", 18.09. 1996.
  • [back] Newspaper "Diena", 27.07.1996.
  • [back] Interview with Jehovah’s Witnesses lawyer E. Endzelis during the Conference on Religious Pluralism in Nothern Europe, Riga, Latvia, March 18, 1999.
  • [back] Sergey Ivanyenko. O lyudyah, nyikogda nye rasstayushchihsya s Bibliyei. M.Respublika, 172 str.; Galina A.Krylova. Paper "The Jehovah's Wtnesses case in Moscow" presented at the 13th international CESNUR Conference "Religious and Spiritual Minorities in the 20th Century: Globalization and Localization", Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, USA.
  • [back] Certificate: "Eesti Vabariik. Tallinna Linnavalitsus. Tunnistus. Jehoova Tunnistajate Tallinna Kogudus on registreeritud Eesti ettevtete, asutuste ja organisatsioonide registris. Registreerimisnumber: 01092961. 31.10.1991.aastal."
  • [back] Letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses Riga congregation to the LR Minister of Justice on 23 September 1994.
  • [back] The Law on Religious Organizations. Paragraph 8, item 4: "The congregations belonging to the confessions and religions which begin their activities in the Republic of Latvia for the first time and which do not belong to the religious associations (churches) already registered in the country, for the first ten years have to annually reregister with the Ministry of Justice, so that this institution could ascertain that the respective congregations are loyal towards the state and that their activities correspond with legislative acts". These amendments have been adopted on 19 February 1998 (See: Valdibas Vestnesis on 6 March 1998. No.60/61).
  • [back] The republic Of Latvia Ministry of Defence. 10th of August, 2000, Nr. 01/2629
  • [back] Letter from Mr E. Endzelis 28 Aug. 2000. 

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