Ukraine Sees Friction Between Jehova’s Witnesses and Mainstream Christians
By The Universe’s Europe Correspondent Jonathan Luxmore: Ukraine’s Catholic Church has demanded government action against Jehova’s Witnesses after accusing them of insulting mainstream faiths in the country.
“We appeal to you to exercise state control in line with current legislation on freedom of conscience”, Catholic and Orthodox leaders said in a joint open letter to officials in the western Lviv region.
“This letter in no way infringes the rights and freedoms of Jehova’s Witnesses. But it is an attempt to defend rights given by God and the state, as well as the dignity of our parishioners”.
The Church leaders were reacting to a mass brochure circulated by the Witnesses, titled “The End of False Religion is Nigh”, graphically depicting a prostitute astride a many-headed beast. They said the image, symbolising the “world religious system”, was offensive to Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and could also be viewed as “heating up religious animosity.”
However, the brochure was defended by the Witnesses’ Public Relations Department, which said it was based on “biblical descriptions from the Book of Revelations” and had not mentioned any “officially registered denominations”.
“Every religion has a constitutional right to interpret the prophecies in its holy book and denominational literature according to its understanding”, the Department said in a statement. “Our aim is to submit the issue of true and false worship existing in the limits of ‘Christianity’ to serious review”.
Jehova’s Witnesses, who rely exclusively on the Bible and reject later Christian doctrine, have 5.2 million adherents worldwide, and have been active since the 1890s in Ukraine, where they currently number 115,000 in 655 communities, according to government data. The movement, officially called the Watch Tower Society, suffered repression under Soviet rule, but was legally registered shortly before Ukraine’s s independence in 1991.
A Catholic bishop who signed the open letter, Mgr Marian Buczek, said he believed the Witnesses were “deluding people”.
“They break up marriages and families, and finally break up society”, Bishop Buczek, a Lviv auxiliary, told local newspapers.
“The state, like the Church, should warn people about this threat. We know this is a totalitarian sect, with a rigour worse than the army, which totally captivates its people”.
Local newspapers said street clashes had occurred in the Lviv area when members of mainstream Churches tried to prevent Witnesses from distributing leaflets.
Meanwhile, a member of the Lviv Regional Council, Oleh Niemchynov, confirmed that he and other deputies had agreed at a late December meeting to ask Ukrainian parliamentarians to consider banning the movement.
Ukrainian churches have previously complained about small religious groups, who need only 10 members to gain legal registration in the country.
The Church in neighbouring Poland warned Catholics last October not to converse with Jehova’s Witnesses, who have spread rapidly in Eastern Europe since the 1989-90 collapse of communist rule.