Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged from the Bible Student movement founded in the late 1870s by Charles Russell in Pennsylvania, United States. Adherents were initially known as the Messengers or the New Scholars of the Gospel before officially becoming known as Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931, named after the God of Israel, according to the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament.
Jehovah’s Witnesses worship the one true and almighty God and recognize the Bible as his message to humans. Adherents base their beliefs on all 66 of the Bible’s books, including the Old Testament and New Testament. However, these beliefs differ from other Christian sects in many aspects and details. For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not venerate the cross, nor do they use it as their symbol, because they say that the Bible recommends avoiding paganism by not using images, statues or symbols, including the cross, in worship.
Similarly, they do not observe Christmas, Easter, birthdays or other holidays and customs they consider to have pagan origins. They believe that Jesus is the son of God and the ruler of God’s kingdom in heaven but not a divinity in the Trinity as most Christian sects believe. Neither do they believe in the immortality of the soul or in post-death punishment.
Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to serve in the army even if this results in prison time, because they follow the divine order ‘Do not kill’. Neither do they salute the flag. They do not recognize governments or presidents, because they believe that the true government is in heaven and is not a condition in the hearts of Christians. In addition, they believe that the kingdom of God, led by Jesus, will dominate on Earth, causing all human governments to fall.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are prohibited from smoking or accepting blood transfusions. Adherents justify the latter by saying that the Bible commands the abstention from blood, which God views as representing life, and they consider that the transfusion of blood is an act of disobedience to God who is the sole giver of life.
According to the sect’s official website, it has around 8.5 million followers in 240 countries, including several Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, Tunisia and Jordan. The sect first emerged in the Arab world in the 1950s but faced many objections from governments and religious leaders for allegedly destabilizing religions, distorting facts provided in the Gospel and for supporting the Zionist movement.
There may be some truth to the latter accusation. The sect’s official magazine was initially named Zion’s Watchtower, although the word ‘Zion’ was later removed. Its symbol, the seven-armed candlestick, is the same as the national symbol of Israel. Moreover, the sect is widely believed to preach the rule of the Jews on Earth and is hostile to all religions and communities except Judaism despite claiming to ‘‘respect everyone’’.
According to a report published by the CIA Library, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian while being controlled by and working for the Jews, they have close relations with Israel and international Jewish organizations, and quote and publish excerpts of the Bible that encourage proximity to Israel and the Jews.
Based on these alleged Zionist links, the Arab League’s Boycott of Israel Office issued Recommendation No. 570 on 12 May 1964 banning Jehovah’s Witnesses in all Arab countries, which has had a significant impact on their presence in the region.
The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses – a non-governmental organization registered in Britain that works to defend Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world and ensure their freedom to exercise their religious beliefs – pointed out that, in the face of accusations alleging the sect’s collaboration and rapprochement with the Zionist movement, adherents in Arab countries have on several occasions asked the Boycott of Israel Office, based in Syria, to prove that the cult is not associated with Israel or the World Zionist Organization. However, they have not received a reply and the sect is still on the boycott list.
In Egypt, the faith was introduced by a Greek waiter named Benayoti Constantine Aspiropoulou. An Egyptian called Anis Fayek formed and chaired the Watchtower Association, which had a number of offices in Egyptian governorates.
However, the government issued a decision to dissolve the association and ban its activities. Besides, the faith is not officially recognized as a Christian denomination. A ministerial decree was issued stating that ‘it shall be prohibited to write marriage contracts for members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’, and the ‘certification and validation of documents issued by the Watchtower Association for purposes related to the Bible shall be deemed invalid’. Nevertheless, the sect continues to carry out its missionary activities under the cover of charitable work in some governorates such as Cairo, Alexandria, Asyut and Tanta.
In Lebanon, Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a presence since the 1920s, although Watchtower magazine was banned in 1956. Also, the Council of Ministers issued a decision banning the association representing the cult, in accordance with an Arab League recommendation. According to a report by the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the authorities prohibited the entry into Lebanon of publications issued by the sect and the Ministry of Interior refused to register the organization as a religious association. The authorities also prevented the sect from owning or leasing premises for its followers to practise their religion, forcing adherents to observe their rituals at home. They have also had to resort to civil marriage because the sect is not officially recognized. Besides, other denominations have shown hostility towards them, recommending that Christians write the following sentence on their doors: ‘If you are a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, do not knock on the door.’
Similarly, Tunisia and Jordan have refused to recognize Jehovah’s Witnesses as a Christian community and have banned their activities and publications. However, this has not prevented them from preaching, proselytizing and establishing some informal centres.
In Sudan, the faith was introduced by Greek missionaries in 1953. The sect’s beliefs were adopted by the Ovanidus family in Khartoum. George Ovanidus headed the group and convinced some other Christian families to convert. In 1984, the Catholic Church issued a complaint against the group, saying it was spreading Zionist ideas. The group currently has 633 followers in Sudan, the only Arab country that officially releases this number, although members say they are routinely harassed.
Outside the Arab world, there is considerable variation among countries in terms of recognition of the sect and the freedom granted to members to practise their rituals and preach. Jehovah’s Witnesses were recognized in Germany in 2005 by the Federal Administrative Court of Berlin as a religious denomination subject to public law and enjoying the freedom to raise funds and establish offices, places of worship and special cemeteries despite the opposition of the Protestant Church. In Russia, on the other hand, the Supreme Court refused to recognize the sect and banned it as an extremist organization, suspending the activities of 395 congregations operating in Russian territory and confiscating their property. In February 2019, an adherent was sentenced to six years in prison for extremism. According to the sect, it has 165,870 members in Germany and 175,000 in Russia.