Jehovah's Witnesses in Latvia in the 20th Century
A paper presented at CESNUR 98, Turin, by Nikandrs Gills, Researcher at the Academic Centre for the Study of Religions, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia
Please allow me to introduce you to some observations and findings regarding the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses in Latvia. This is, in fact, the preliminary work of a more extensive research project on Jehovah's Witnesses in Latvia.
Jehovah's Witnesses are a religious minority which has held a peculiar place in the religious life of Latvia for more than seventy years. Out of all the minority religions in Latvia, Jehovah's Witnesses have attracted the majority of recent public attention. In religious terms, Latvia is a diverse country. Most religious affiliation is Christian. According to the information obtained by Krumina-Konkova and Gills, in 1997 there were approximately 300,000 active or practising Lutherans; 250,000 active Roman Catholics; 190,500 active Orthodox believers; 22,500 active Old-Believers; 60,147 Baptists; 3,900 Seventh-Day's Adventists; 1,643 Jehovah's Witnesses (this figure may have reached 1,681); and 245 Mormons. If we compare these figures with the total population of Latvia, which was 2,501,660 in 1997, we can conclude that approximately 12% of the population are active Lutherans; 9.9% to 11% are active Roman Catholics; 7% are active Orthodox believers; 0.9% are active Old-Believers; 0.25% are Baptists; 0.16% are Seventh-Day's Adventists; 0.06% are Jehovah's Witnesses; and 0.008% areMormons. This means that, in 1997, approximately 31% to 33% of the Permanent inhabitants of Latvia displayed a certain level of activity in the aforementioned religious groups. For more detailed information, see the article by Solveiga Krûmina-Konkova entitled 'The New Religions in Latvia 1997-1998'.
We can compare these, often very approximate, figures with the data collected from the 1935 Latvian population census. In 1935, out of a total population of 1,472,642, 55.15% were Lutherans; 24.45% were Roman Catholics; 8.94% were Orthodox; and 5.5% were Old Believers. In other words, in 1935, 94% of the total population of Latvia was religiously affiliated to one of the aforementioned denominations. Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Adventists and other Protestants were counted together, and formed only 0.98% of the population, whilst the total number of registered numerically small Christian organisations had reached the three hundreds mark by the mid-1930s. It is clear that, at that time, Lutheranism was the most wide-spread religion in Latvia. The percentage of Lutherans was even higher among ethnic Latvians, reaching 68.26%. However, it should be noted that, despite the fact that the majority of the population in Latvia is formally affiliated with Christianity, i.e. with one of the Christian denominations, this does not indicate a unified Christian world-view and experience. Each denomination has its own history and tradition, and its religious expression is very closely linked with the historical, ethnic, cultural and social environment in which it has found a response from people and a place to be active. For many Latvians, converting to Christianity seemed rather difficult, since for many centuries Christianity had been linked with "a foreign landlord, pastor and monk".
How did the movement of Jehovah's Witnesses originate in Latvia? In July 1926, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS), with its headquarters in Brooklyn, sent its representatives to Latvia and opened an office at No. 39 Kuìu Street, Riga. The leader of the WTBTS in Latvia was a British man called Rees Taylor. When interrogated at the 10th police station of Riga on 22 November 1928, he confirmed that the WTBTS had no adherents in Latvia at that time. In order "to preach the contents of the Bible and to show how biblical prophecies find expression in life", free lectures were held several times a month at 24 Brivibas Street, the premises of the Latvian League of Women. Also, books and brochures in Latvian, German, Russian, English, Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, French, Esperanto, Swedish, Danish and the local dialect of Yiddish, were distributed there in exchange for a small payment. Other lectures were held in Jelgava, Sloka, Tukums, Liepaja, Aizpute and Ventspils. Not only Taylor, but also Johannes Berger, Fritz Michaelis and Ernest Schenkel, all German nationals, gave lectures. Taylor stated that each time a lecture was going to be held, he presented a request to the Ministry for Internal Affairs in which he indicated the time and place of the lecture and the name of the speaker. He said that no other permission to give lectures and to sell spiritual books and brochures was given to him, but that nobody was asked to join the WTBTS, and everybody was allowed to keep his or her own religious convictions.
The official status of the WTBTS in Latvia at this time was rather obscure. On 23 November 1928, the Foreigners Section within the Administrative Department of the Ministry for Internal Affairs sent a letter to the Department of Spiritual Affairs (DSA). This letter noted that there was an organisation called the WTBTS in Riga, and that the British citizen Rees Taylor was an authorised agent of this society. It also stated that the WTBTS employed eleven people, but only two of them had Latvian citizenship - Harriet von Lutzan and K Puíis. The DSA was asked to provide all the information it had regarding "activities of the aforementioned organisation in Latvia; i.e., whether it gives any benefit to Latvia, and if it is at all acceptable that this society increases the number of its foreign employees." The response from the DSA, dated 5 December 1928 (No.113798), to the above mentioned letter was as follows: "Since the WTBTS is not registered, and only citizens of Latvia are allowed to be pastors and preachers, then the DSA considers that there is no reason to permit foreigners to preach, to spread the word of God and to sell books, without the assent of the Minister for Internal Affairs. Taking into account the fact that the inhabitants of Latvia have more than twenty larger or smaller religious organisations to choose from, there is no need for a foreign organisation such as this. However, since there is freedom of faith and consciousness in Latvia, the aforementioned does not refer to the citizens of Latvia."
It must be noted that, originally, many representatives of the WTBTS worked in Latvia as book-vendors, in order to have a formal reason to approach people in their homes. Distribution of the books helped to popularise literature published by them, and to actively propagate their views. With regards to this matter, Mîlenbahs, Chief of the DSA, in his letter dated 26 November 1928 to the Prefecture of Riga City, inquired about seven people living in Riga. He wanted to know whether or not these people, who were book-vendors and also members of the WTBTS, had the legal right to gain permission for employment since they were foreigners. The official attitude of the Latvian state institutions towards the activities of the WTBTS in Latvia is indicated in the letter dated 30 January 1929, written by the DSA to the Foreigners Section of the Ministry for Internal Affairs. It reads: "... the DSA believes that the activity of the WTBTS is not welcome, and it is harmful...The publications of the WTBTS voice a tendency to be hostile to the mainline churches and their clergy, as well as to secular state order. All world powers and churches are believed to stem from Satan, and only the WTBTS is said to be "the holy one". This hostile tendency manifests itself particularly in their brochure called Freedom to Nations by Judge Rutherford. The following quotation from this brochure confirms the above: '... financiers and professional politicians, together with untrustworthy clergy, have managed to chain the hands of common people. Thus, their sufferings are on-going, and they are seeking a new path towards guidance and freedom.'" On 1 July 1930, the US ambassador wrote to the Latvian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hugo Celmins, requesting an explanation as to why the WTBTS had not been given permission to open a branch in Latvia, and the legal reason for this refusal. (The Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Latvia to the Department of Spiritual Affairs, 4 July 1930, No.13455) The ambassador pointed out that refusal to register the WTBTS was contradictory to the thirteenth paragraph of the Agreement on Friendship, Trade and Consular Relations between Latvia and the United States. In his letter, the ambassador quoted the reason given for the refusal, i.e. "that activities of the WTBTS in Latvia are 'undesirable'".
On 1 March 1933, Dr Walter Runke, Consul of the Republic of Latvia in Magdeburg, answered the request from the government of Latvia to elucidate the character of the WTBTS and the International Bible Students Association (IBSA). He wrote that, according to his long-term personal observations and data collected from the Chief of the Magdeburg police, it was possible to confirm that in Germany the WTBTS (Brooklyn-N.Y.) was legally registered by the resolution of the Council of State on 7 December 1921, according to the tenth paragraph of the section 'On Registration of Societies' of the Civil Code. The society acted in Germany under the name of the WTBTS. "Its headquarters are situated in Magdeburg. The society has its property here, which consists of a large factory and a residential house on land owned by the society. Literature of a religious nature is produced here, and what is more, all activities are based upon strictly philanthropic principles." At the same time, the centre in Magdeburg was in charge of all the transactions and organisational matters of the IBSA. This organisation, with headquarters in London, was registered in the German Register of Societies on 19 January 1927, according to the Resolution No.466 of the Administrative Court. Both organisations, "are only religious societies, which are not in the least bit connected with politics and never act politically. They have not even voted once in public elections! They are purely religious organisations and completely reject all kinds of political parties, especially all kinds of communist parties. The practices of both institutions are strictly legal, and both have gained good reputations among the authorities. The street, where the 'Watch Tower' building is placed, has been officially renamed as the 'Watch Tower Street' ('Wachtturn Strasse'). All employees and officials are quiet, ordinary people, and they are warmly welcomed everywhere. The WTBTS rejects all semi-legal enterprises undertaken by its members, and would strictly and resolutely expel such members from its ranks. However, it is not likely that this situation would ever occur. This society operates in ninety four countries, and it is well-favoured everywhere. I know the aspirations of this society, and I know my native land Latvia along with all its peculiarities, so I can only greet the activities of the branch in Latvia with warm support."
On 3 March 1933, the IBSA presented its request for registration to the Department of Registration at the Regional Court of Riga. Nikolajs Valters, Assistant Solicitor, was empowered to present the above mentioned request along with the statute of the society. The request was signed by five citizens of Latvia - Jânis Krastins, Alexander Forstmanis, Martiò- Grenats, Ferdinand Fruck and Robert Bergman. The statute stated that, "2. The society is a non-political organisation. Its goal is ethically cultural. The task of the society is to work against increasing godlessness, and a lack of faith in God and the Bible. The aim of the society is to study the Bible and to publish the knowledge that is achieved in this way. Articles, published by the IBSA in London and the WTBTS in Brooklyn, are used to support this aim. The duty of the society is to work in this direction, so as to fulfil its aims, by arranging open and closed lectures, distributing the above mentioned Christian literature and Bibles, and to work in any other legally permitted way... 11. ...Expulsion of a member is admissible only: a) ifxobjections based on moral, ethical or religious ground can be presented in regard to his or her way of life; b) if he or she disagrees with the main principles of the organisation; c) if he or she causes deliberate harm to the interests of the society." Âdolfs Erss and Roberts Kroders, both popular Latvian writers as well as cultural and public workers, were asked by Assistant Solicitor Valters to review thirteen books published by the IBSA and the WTBTS. They wrote that the contents of these books are very religious, and that they touch on the social forms of life with metaphysical criticism, based upon the ethical teachings and prophecies of the Bible. The current social, state and official forms are criticised on consideration of the teachings of Christ with regards to good deeds and the coming Kingdom of God. Their assumption is based upon allegorical images of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, which are regarded as God's timetable for world affairs and the only authentic insight into the destiny of man. The Union of Nations and the Socialist State of Reason will not bring happiness to humanity, for only God's Kingdom can do this through the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which will bring forth a thousand year period of peace under his rule. The state of Christ will be the highest state form. It is from this idea that all the criticism of the contemporary social order follows, as well as criticism of the official Church and its authorities - the pope, bishops and clergy. Also, the society does not approve of economic policies which lead to the concentration of capital into the possession of only a few. They do not approve of the existing state forms, which are filled with the power and cunning of financiers and politicians, and not with the Spirit and the Word of God. The review stresses that these books have nothing to do with the teachings of socialism and communism, which stand against God, Christ and the Bible. Just the opposite, in fact, for these books are dealing with old and well-known biblical teachings, which are preached during all Baptist meetings, and which are also known to the great Russian writer Tolstoy, who expresses them in a sharper, clearer and more realistic way.
On 14 March 1933, the Registration Department at the Regional Court of Riga, with Chairman L Bruemmer and four people present, heard the request for registration of the IBSA, and taking into account that its statute abides by the law, according to the 11th paragraph of the Law on societies, associations and political organisations, decided to register the IBSA, according to the 17th paragraph of the same Law (Statement No.92 b). The society was seated on Casu Street No.11, app. 25 in Riga. After the events of 15 May 1934, when the Prime Minister of Latvia, Karlis Ulmanis, assisted by loyal politicians, dismissed Saeima from the Republic of Latvia (see Declaration of the Government dated 18 May 1934, which states that the functions of Saeima, beginning at 11 p.m. on the 15 May 1934, are to be carried out by the Cabinet of Ministers until constitutional reforms have been made), the state power entered a stage of authoritarianism. Due to the Law on the termination, liquidation and registration of societies, associations and political organisations during the period of exceptional state, published on 14 June 1934 as Valdibas Vestnesis (Government Messenger) No.130, tens of political parties, and hundreds of societies and associations were terminated.
As early as the 30 June 1934, the Minister of Internal Affairs issued Resolution No. 20, which stated that "according to the Law on termination, liquidation and registration of societies, associations and political organisations, I consider that the IBSA is harmful to the interests of the state and society, and therefore I have decided to close the mentioned society, appointing as its liquidators the Chiefs in the DSA, Janis Ozols and Janis Kajins, the Minister of Internal Affairs, V Gulbis, and the Director of the Administrative Department, Ansmits". Such a step taken by the Latvian government aroused incomprehension in many states where the society was functioning. On 3 November 1934, the Department of Press and Societies in the Ministry for Internal Affairs received a letter addressed to the President of Latvia, Kârlis Ulmanis, from Rutherford, the long-term president of the WTBTS, its ideological leader and author of many books. The letter said that the benevolent WTBTS has been in existence for more than fifty years, that it is registered in many countries, and that it is now seeking registration in Latvia. In it, Rutherford explains that the society is carrying out work of a charitable and compassionate nature, never asks for money from people, and teaches the truth of God. For this reason, the society has many enemies, who attempt to misinterpret the society and its work. Rutherford stresses that the ethos of the society is purely educational and never political, and he pays respect to all the kindness given to Dey, a representative of the society in northern European countries. In fact, Rutherford explains that the WTBTS and the IBSA are the same union of people. The IBSA organised as such "under the laws of Great Britain merely for convenience and so as to hold a title to property...". He says that enemies accuse them of being socialists and communists, but nothing could be further from the truth. Both associations are devoted to the educational work of the Bible and human interests. Rutherford himself has written many books which have been published by these organisations. He stresses that literature distributed by them is devoted only to learning the teachings of the Bible. He says that he would be very appreciative of any efforts made on behalf of these organisations to obtain permission to distribute their literature in Latvia.
On 3 November 1934, the Department of Press and Societies in the Ministry for Internal Affairs received a request from the founders of the WTBTS, in which, according to the Law on societies and associations, it was asked to issue a certificate confirming that the Ministry for Internal Affairs had no objections to the foundation and registration of the WTBTS on the basis of the submitted statute. The request was signed by Janis Krastins, Karlis Iltners, Martins Grenats, Janis Labzars and Alexander Forstmanis. It should be noted that the submitted statute was identical to that of the IBSA, which was submitted to the Regional Court of Riga on 2 March 1933. An urgent letter was sent to the Political Department in order to gather data about the above mentioned people. The letter noted that the WTBTS was hoping to be established in place of the IBSA, which had been closed down. The answer from the Political Department contained data about three people who had been active within the illegal organisation of the WTBTS, smuggling books and holding illicit meetings. Forstmanis, a WTBTS preacher and head of the Liepaja branch, had distributed and translated publications of this organisation into Latvian. On 7 October 1934, Grenats and Krastins had sent a telegram to Hitler's government, asking it not to persecute Jehovah's Witnesses. It should be noted that the telegram was detained according to an order issued by the Public Prosecutor of the Regional Court of Riga.
On 2 November 1934, the Ministry for Internal Affairs received a request from Indriíis Grûbaums, Assistant Solicitor and the authorised agent for the WTBTS founders. It states that since 1884, when the WTBTS was founded in Pennsylvania, USA, it has been accepted by all countries. The organisation was registered and given the right to be active in Russia in 1913, where it experienced no repression from the former Czarist government. The best evidence of the organisation's completely apolitical goals are its books, which it has published and which have been referred to by such competent people as Roberts Kroders, advisor to the Ministry of Education on cultural issues, and writer Âdolfs Erss. Alexander Grins, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Rits, has translated these books into Latvian. Also, the Regional Court of Riga, according to the findings of the public prosecutor Karèevskis, has admitted to the harmlessness of the brochure published in Latvia and has rejected the suggestion to confiscate it. The consulate of Latvia in Magdeburg has given a summary of the activities carried out by the organisation in Germany, along with warm recommendations. The aforementioned request mentions the activities of the WTBTS in Estonia. It refers to the certificate which was issued on 24 July 1934, by the Police Department of the Ministry for Internal Affairs in the Republic of Estonia, to the board of the Vahi-Torn'a Bible and Tract Society in Tallin. The certificate confirms that this society is registered according to the resolution issued by the Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs on 21 July 1934. Since the day of registration, the society has functioned in Estonia, and so far, no violation of existing laws by the society and its board have been observed. Moreover, the Estonian embassy in Riga has translated information sent by the State Broadcasting Centre of Estonia to the Vahi-Torn'a Bible and Tract Society on 19 July 1934, which states that the society, as recorded in diary entrances at the Centre, has spoken over the radio on fifty two Sundays in 1933, making a total of fifty one hours and forty five minutes of broadcasting time, and twenty five Sundays in 1934, with a total broadcasting time of twenty five hours. The diary does not keep records about the distribution of broadcasting time according to language. As we can see from this information, the Vahi-Torn'a Bible and Tract Society has had the opportunity to speak over the state radio even before its official registration.
On 25 March 1935, the liquidators of the IBSA came together for their regular meeting, and decided to "finish liquidation and to send the books and papers from the liquidated society to the Regional Court of Riga for storage." The list of seized books comprised of eight titles, with 42,975 copies in total. On 5 April 1935, the DSA received a letter from the Press Department with a request to prepare a response for Dey, the Chief of the WTBTS in northern Europe, who asked permission for the society to work in Latvia.
The movement of Jehovah's Witnesses was also forbidden during the Nazi and Soviet occupations. In 1951, political cases were brought against the Jehovah's Witnesses, and many of them were deported to the northern and eastern regions of the USSR. Archival evidence reveals that the majority of Jehovah's Witnesses were accused and sentenced according to paragraphs 58-11p. and 58-10p.d. of the Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federate Socialist Republic (RSFSR), 1926 edition, for counter-revolutionary agitation and propaganda, and for participation in a counter-revolutionary organisation. For example, the special conference of the USSR Ministry of State Security, held on 20 January 1951, sentenced twenty Jehovah's Witnesses to ten years in "corrective labour camps" situated in remote parts of Siberia, as well as confiscating their property.
Immediately after World War II, the WTBTS in Magdeburg began to send letters to its brothers of faith in Latvia. Archival evidence shows that some of these letters did not reach their addressees, but passed into the hands of the special services, whilst others were confiscated from arrested Jehovah's Witnesses. It is ironic that these letters expressed the hope that Soviet power, in contrast to the inhumane Nazi regime, would allow Jehovah's Witnesses to gather freely and to express their views, as occurred after the war in liberated Germany. There are people in Latvia who have spoken about the underground lives and activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses Pauls Bergmanis, Valija Lange, Teofîlija Kalvîte, Paulîne Serova and others during the Soviet regime. This oral history is an essential source, which helps us to understand how a religion functions. In the 1960s, when there were large waves of persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses in the Lithuanian SSR, some Jehovah's Witnesses left and settled down in the border areas of Latvia, starting to form groups of Jehovah's Witnesses there. Although they did this in secrecy, the KGB found them and carried out punitive sanctions against them. One of the major court actions brought against Jehovah's Witnesses was in 1972, in Klaipeda, Lithuania, where Latvian inhabitants where also tried. The court process, which lasted for one month, was organised as an open show with the propagandistic intention of demonstrating that the accursed were in fact American spies or agents in religious disguise. Different sentences were given to them, varying from two and a half to four years in labour camps. As one of the inmates later said, "this ordeal was like a seal for her religious beliefs, confirming the words of the Holy Writ." There were several court cases in Latvia, held in Liepaja and Jelgava, against those who refused to join the Soviet army on the grounds of religious reasons. They had to serve their prison terms among sentenced criminals who physically abused these religious dissidents. Although there is no alternative service provided for by the laws of independent Latvia (military service has been obligatory since February 1997), no repressive measures have been carried out against those who refuse to serve in the army.
In 1991, after the Soviet regime collapsed and independence of Latvia was restored, increased religious activity was observable due to the fact that the renewed Satversme granted freedom of thought, conscience and religion. According to the new law of the Republic of Latvia on religious organisations, such organisations can gain the status of a juridical person. Jehovah's Witnesses also tried to legalise their status. In 1993, the Jehovah's Witnesses submitted their application to the Religious Affairs Department in the Ministry of Justice for registration as a religious society. After a long correspondence, the Ministry of Justice announced on 21 November 1994 that, according to the legislation of the Republic of Latvia, the registration of Jehovah's Witnesses would be postponed for three years. In 1995, the correspondence with the Religious Affairs Department was resumed, to find out whether the Jehovah's Witnesses could be regarded as a new or an old religion in Latvia. This issue was brought before the court of the Zemgale Borough of Riga, which ruled on the 26 May 1995 that Jehovah's Witnesses started their activities in Latvia in 1933 under the name of the ISBA. However, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Latvia over-ruled the judgement of the court of the Zemgale Borough on 28 June 1995. The last response from the Ministry of Justice regarding the refusal to register the Jehovah's Witnesses was dated 11 July 1996. This refusal was based on Clause 11, Paragraph 3, of the new law on religious organisations, which states that religious organisations should not be registered, "if their activities endanger national security, public order and harmony, as well as the health and morals of other people, or if they propagate religious intolerance and hostility, or if such activities contradict the Republic of Latvia's Satversme (Constitution) and legislation." On 19 July of the same year, the City of Riga Centre Congregation filed a suit with the Court against the Republic of Latvia's Ministry of Justice, requesting that the Ministry of Justice should revoke its decision of 11 July and that it should be made to fulfil its obligation to register the City of Riga Centre Congregation as a religious organisation. However, the Congregation withdrew this request in the summer of 1997.
A large proportion of the public and the authorities are perplexed by the views of Jehovah's Witnesses regarding mandatory military service, blood transfusions; their attitude towards honouring national symbols and the celebration of traditional holidays; and their manner of distributing religious literature, etc... Unfortunately, the Latvian media have not tried to explain their attitudes objectively, so as to promote a tolerant view of these people, and in many cases the media have been hostile and prejudiced against them. Thus, Latvia has remained virtually the only country in Europe where Jehovah's Witnesses are not officially registered. However, Jehovah's Witnesses were registered in Russia in March 1991, in Estonia in October 1991, and in Lithuania in July 1993. The attitude of the Department of Public and Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Justice, as far as it is possible to judge from recent announcements, has changed this year, and it is now possible that congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses could be registered for a year's period according to the legal procedure. The Latvian Ministry of Justice registered two congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses in Riga on 12 October 1998, and one in Jelgava on 28 December 1998 for the period of one year. They must be re-registered every year for the next ten years. The Latvian State Bureau of Human Rights sees it as a state mechanism to control activities of Jehovah's Witnesses more tightly.
Although Jehovah's Witnesses are not officially registered in Latvia, they are nevertheless active here. In 1993, there were 423 publishers of Jehovah's Witnesses in Latvia and 1,215 active supporters of Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1994, the numbers were 676 and 2,398 respectively; in 1995, 981 and 3,164; in 1996, 1,320 and 3,580; in 1997, 1,643 (although this figure may have reached 1,881) and 3,956. In 1997, 281 people were baptised as Jehovah's Witnesses, and 372,706 religious lessons were given, including 1,597 bible lessons. By 1 July 1998, the total number of Jehovah's Witnesses preachers was 1,900, with an average age of 36 years. Among these, 500 (26%) were under the age of 25 years; 890 (47%) were between 25 and 45 years old; and 510 (27%) were over 45 years old. Regarding gender, 30% were male and 70% were females. With regards to education, 23% had elementary and basic education, 65% had secondary education and 12% had higher education. Nationality was divided between 30% Latvian and 60% Russian, with a further 10% representative of other nationalities. Today in Latvia, there are twenty one congregations and thirty groups of Jehovah's Witnesses. Three to four of these groups are shortly going to become congregations.
We would now like to share some observations concerning the history of Jehovah's Witnesses in Latvia during this century. Since the beginning, Jehovah's Witnesses have been designated as 'sectarians'. The everyday use of the term 'sect', as opposed to the scientist's sociological interpretation of this term, already has a negative connotation. The term 'religious minorities' is considered to be much more appropriate. With regards to this issue, significant recommendations have been given by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR). Terms which are applied to the sphere of religion and faith, should be chosen so as to protect freedom of faith as much as possible, and therefore people are encouraged to avoid such disparaging terms as 'sect'. It is often said in Latvia, that the Jehovah's Witnesses are one of the foreign, undesirable and harmful sects which, due to its refusal to make an oath in front of the national flag, to honour national symbols and its avoidance of the military service, is anti-social and anti-patriotic. The fervour of such an attitude can be explained historically, on the one hand, by the priority of ideas concerning national values and national unity during the period of the Latvian Republic (1918-1940), particularly in the second half of the thirties due to the ideology of authoritarian power, ideas which are still strong now; and on the other hand, by the ideology of totalitarianism enacted during both the Nazi and Soviet occupations.
What are the solutions now being proposed by Jehovah's Witnesses in Latvia, to bring their views into accord with the accepted views and laws in this country? Since these solutions take into account the recent experience of other countries, we shall dwell upon these for a moment. The Jehovah's Witnesses propose an alternative service to the military one. As noted by Alain Garay, an expert in the Convention on Human Rights, public freedoms, medical legislation, and a barrister at the French Court of Appeals, a distinction needs to be made between "relative conscientious objection", with the unique aim of refusing to carry arms and make war, and "total conscientious objection", which implies an alternative such as the replacement of the military service with a civil one. As shown by the experience of other countries, Jehovah's Witnesses only have a relative conscientious objection to carrying arms or wearing uniform in order to prepare themselves for and to participate in military actions. "Thus, in France, these young men are now required under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs, to participate in the civilian service for conscience objectors for a period of twenty months. In some countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands, they are exempt for religious reasons, without going against the principle of civilian equality with regards to public responsibilities." In other countries, for instance in Italy, the 52nd paragraph of the Constitution declares that "the defence of the nation is a sacred duty for the citizen. Military service is obligatory". However in 1985, the Constitutional Court, by its resolution no.164, announced that this duty could also be carried out by performing, "appropriate non-military social work...In some conditions, the military national service can be replaced by doing other personal service of equal value, in which the idea of defending the nation can be recognised." Instead of honouring the national symbols, a neutral attitude and complete loyalty is proposed. In relation to this, Garay quotes the decision of 1 March 1993, made by the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which states that although the Jehovah's Witnesses, "do not take part in the compulsory flag ceremony, they do not engage in 'external acts' or behaviour that would offend their countrymen who believe in expressing their love of country through the observance of flag ceremony...They quietly stand at attention during the flag ceremony to show their respect for the right of those who choose to participate in the solemn proceedings...Since they do not engage in disruptive behaviour, there is not warrant for their expulsion." In my opinion, the Court's decision expresses an all-embracing opinion which could be held by many modern countries, and Latvia among them, "We are not persuaded that by exempting the Jehovah's Witnesses from saluting the flag, singing the national anthem and reciting the patriotic pledge, this religious group, which admittedly makes up a 'small portion of the school population', will shake up our part of globe and suddenly produce a nation 'untaught and unimbued with reverence for the flag, patriotism, love of country and admiration for national heroes'."
People in Latvia, especially doctors, feel shocked and condemn the refusal by the Jehovah's Witnesses to have blood transfusions, particularly if children are involved. It is understandable, since the mass media produce biased information and society is scarcely informed about the rights concerning patients and medical methods, how these issues are dealt with in other countries. No doubt, this question has never been an easy one, either from a moral or medical standpoint. Contemporary medicine has begun to use alternative blood substitutes for transfusions. Hospital liaison committees have been established at the hospitals. The Jehovah's Witnesses address the medical staff to explain their views, produce lists of surgeons and therapists who sympathise with their opinion, and keep records of surgical procedures which are carried out without blood usage. Of course, an understanding attitude in state institutions is required, as well as respect for the right of a patient to choose curative methods. In my opinion, a positive step with regards to this matter was made in Latvia on 18 and 19 April 1997, when The First Baltic Symposium 'The Methods of Blood Maintenance' was held in Riga. Not only surgical and anaesthesiologic issues, but also legal and ethical problems were discussed during the symposium. Bill Chepman, Chief Advisor of the Latvian State Bureau of Human Rights, touched on the problem in his paper titled 'Human Rights and Rights of Patients in Latvia'. He noted that every human being, including every Jehovah's Witness, has a right to refuse a blood transfusion due to religious convictions or faith, "even in the cases when medical specialists think that this procedure could save or at least extend a patient's life". He stressed that it is not only the Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions, since there is always a risk of becoming infected with such illnesses as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS, or of being endangered by the accidental transfusion of incompatible blood. As a result, other members of society also have to use alternative methods now.
The question arises as to why there are so many diverse religious directions, movements and groups in societies which historically have been united by the Christian culture? One answer could be that this diversity is caused by a complicated social structure, social environment and the social phenomena within it. "Each of these groups perceives the Holy in its own way, experiencing it as an absolute value. An outsider cannot reach the same conviction of a religious group which is based on the absolute value. He can only speak of his own religious conviction...It takes its roots in the social structure of religion." Here we find the social structures of religion, each of which, in turn, has a relationship with some other structure. There are no identical social structures, and this theory also applies to the structures of religions, and therefore the spectrum of their relationships can be rather complicated. One of the manifestations of a democratic society is its pluralistic nature, both in the social aspect as well as in the diversity of people's ideas about the world. International instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Pact on Citizens' and Political Rights, to which most of the world's nations have acceded, stipulate the notion that every human being has his or her right to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. New international instruments were drafted and signed during the summit meeting in Copenhagen from 6-12 March 1995. The heads of 117 nations and governments signed the Copenhagen Social Development Declaration and the Action Program for Social Development. The Declaration appealed to societies to acknowledge and respect cultural, ethnic and religious differences; to promote and respect the rights of people belonging to national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities; and to carry out measures to ensure their participation in the political, social, religious and cultural life of their societies. The flourishing religious diversity in Latvia is also facilitated by the fact that society is strongly secularised, that a large proportion of society does not have its own religious traditions, and that people are not satisfied with or do not wish to accept the existing religious traditions. We can expect religious minorities, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, to hold a similar place in Latvian society, in the near future, to the one they have in western European societies with stable democratic traditions. The integration of these religious movements into wider society, as the experience in other countries shows, also depends on the understanding and tolerance of other members of society. The modern scientific study of religion plays an important role in promoting this understanding and tolerance, by distributing objective information about these religious movements which helps to do away with traditional prejudices, and to discredit the regular anti-sectarian, or anti-cultist, "striking findings" about the activities of religious minorities.
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