Jehovah’s Witnesses and the War in Ukraine

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, different religious organizations have reacted differently to both the events in Ukraine and the war. The position of these religions has not left society indifferent. Unfortunately, we know of cases where the leadership of some religions has openly approved of the war in Ukraine and, consequently, the death of many innocent people. For this reason, many parishioners who do not agree with this position have even stopped attending their churches. Other religious organizations have taken a position of neutrality. In this regard, there is much discussion about the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Damaged Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses

In this article I would like to present my personal research on this topic based on the sources available to me. And, first of all, I would like to address the main question: does the political neutrality of Jehovah’s Witnesses mean that they are indifferent to what is happening?

According to the organization’s internal statistics, about 50 believers have already been killed and about 100 more have been injured as a result of the military operations in Ukraine. More than 1,200 homes of believers have been destroyed or severely damaged. Additionally, 25 religious buildings of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been badly damaged. Another 76 religious buildings, or Kingdom Halls, have sustained minor damage.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in the greater Kyiv area (Gostomel, Irpin, and Bucha), Kharkiv, as well as in eastern Ukraine have suffered the most. The author was personally able to interview some eyewitnesses from different regions of Ukraine. The extremely tragic situation in Mariupol was the most striking. Many saw their relatives or neighbors die with their own eyes. Also, according to eyewitnesses, some young girls, Jehovah’s Witnesses, were abused by servicemen of the occupying army there.

As reality has shown, those believers who remained in the occupied territory were immediately put on the list of extremists. Interrogations and searches began immediately after the occupation. You will recall that earlier, in the territory of the Russian Federation, the Witnesses were included on the list of extremist organizations. Due to their position of neutrality, as well as their refusal to serve in the Russian army and kill innocent people, Jehovah’s Witnesses in that country are subject to severe persecution. Today, some Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation are sentenced to prison terms longer than for murder.

Present-day court sentences have even surpassed the severity of the Soviet system. It should be noted that the totalitarian Soviet regime had previously tried to eliminate Jehovah’s Witnesses completely. Thus, in 1951, the largest religious deportation in the USSR was organized. Almost 10,000 believers were deported from western regions of the country to remote parts of Siberia. Today, only the wording has changed, but the reason for religious repression remains the same – the refusal of the Witnesses to compromise their principles and support the state’s military policy.

For this reason, many Jehovah’s Witnesses have left the occupied territory of Ukraine. Believers in the war zone have also left their homes so as not to expose themselves to danger. In the rest of Ukraine, 26 special committees were set up to assist all those fleeing the war. In many cities, local churches (Kingdom Halls) were converted into shelters. In these shelters, local residents regularly prepared meals and provided basic necessities to all those in need. At the same time, the Witnesses provided assistance not only to their fellow believers, but also to their unbelieving relatives and everyone else in need. In total, such committees have helped almost 55,000 refugees. In addition, special stands were set up at train stations in major cities of western Ukraine, where everyone was provided with information, as well as psychological and emotional assistance.

Restoration of residential buildings by JW construction crews

Since the first days of the war, male Witnesses have been actively involved in volunteer work. Many of them have risked their lives to deliver food and medicine to war zones. To do so, some have traveled more than 500 kilometers each day and passed through many checkpoints. One group of 21 male volunteers made about 80 trips and in total traveled almost 50,000 kilometers, delivering more than 23 tons of food. Sometimes volunteers were captured and brutally beaten by soldiers. Their cars and food were confiscated. There were also cases of Witnesses being killed during their volunteer work. For example, one elder from the Donetsk region was killed in Kramatorsk while helping residents of the city flee the war zone.

Although Jehovah’s Witnesses do not participate in military operations, they do what they can to help rebuild buildings after the bombings. For example, several construction groups are currently operating in the country to help repair residential buildings, public institutions, and Kingdom Halls. To date, 37 projects have been completed, and work is underway on 48 more. If a house is destroyed, a garage or shed is converted into a modest dwelling. Even those who have lost their homes to rocket attack participate in the reconstruction work. Such construction groups even help repair public buildings. For example, in the city of Mykolaiv, a group of Witnesses assisted an international humanitarian organization in repairing and organizing a warehouse for clothing and other aid.

Due to the circumstances, many Witnesses were forced to leave Ukraine and go to another country. According to available data, a fifth of all Ukrainian adherents of the community, almost 28,000 believers, are outside the country. In most cases, these are women and children.

Rooms for Ukrainian refugee children in the Assembly Hall in Sosnowiec (Poland)

Almost immediately after the outbreak of the war, Jehovah’s Witnesses set up special stations on the Ukrainian-Polish border where they provided volunteer assistance to those in need. In Poland, some assembly halls were converted into aid centers for Ukrainian refugees. One of the largest centers was the Assembly Hall in Sosnowiec. In this hall, a special room was supplied with a lot of toys for children. Children were allowed to take their favorite toys.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany have also helped. According to the author’s personal research, the majority of the Witnesses from the most affected regions of Ukraine, such as Mariupol, have moved to Germany. It is also where believers from the occupied territories of Ukraine, such as Crimea and Donbas, have moved and continue to move.

Among these people are many who have lost their homes and relatives. Many have suffered extremely deep emotional and psychological trauma. With this in mind, special committees were organized Germany to help the victims. The practice of “case monitors” was also organized. German Witnesses acted as “case monitors”, helping Ukrainians not only in finding housing but also in other ordinary matters, such as language learning, paperwork, and communication with government agencies. Many German Witnesses continue to do this work selflessly.

German believers also actively participated in finding housing for Ukrainians. In many cities in Germany, Ukrainian refugees were provided not only with housing but also with all their necessities. This, of course, is very important for those who have nowhere to return to. At the same time, local Witnesses often helped not only their fellow believers, but also all those who turned to them for assistance.

A Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses converted into a refugee reception center

Unfortunately, the exact number of Ukrainian Witnesses currently living in Germany is not known. However, almost throughout Germany, Russian-speaking communities (congregations) have grown by 40-50%. Ukrainian-speaking groups have also begun to appear in the country.

It is worth noting that when analyzing the Society’s reports and publications, it is evident that the topic of the war in Ukraine has been avoided recently. Except for small press releases, the situation in Ukraine is hardly getting any coverage now. Perhaps this topic is considered too dramatic and potentially triggering. However, in our opinion, neutrality does not mean silence. It is worth mentioning Joseph Rutherford, one of the first presidents of the Society. At one time, he boldly and openly condemned fascism. The publications of the time openly condemned all manifestations of Nazism.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first to report on Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Also, in subsequent articles on their website, the Society repeatedly reported on the negative consequences of the war. Even the words of the President of Ukraine about the inadmissibility of nuclear war were quoted.

Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine continues and most likely, by the time you read this article, the number of victims mentioned at the beginning of this article will have increased. The whole world is watching with pain in its heart as innocent people suffer because of this war. At the same time, it is gratifying to know that even neutral organizations like Jehovah’s Witnesses are not standing aside and are doing everything possible to help the victims of the war. Their desire to rebuild with their own means what was destroyed by the war is also commendable.

About the author: Kostyantyn Berezhko, candidate of historical sciences, author of the book Jehovah’s Witnesses and the KGB

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