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Jehovah’s Witnesses to face trial for discrimination and incitement to hate
The Belgian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses attended a hearing yesterday in criminal court in response to charges of discrimination based on religious beliefs and incitement to hatred. It is the first time that the Jehovah’s Witness are being tried in a criminal court anywhere in the world.
The congregation, which is based in Kraainem, is being given several months to prepare their case; the trial begins next February. The case follows a five-year investigation by a court magistrate in Ghent in response to complaints filed by Patrick Haeck, an ex-member.
“It’s an important precedent,” Haeck told VRT. “How is it possible that a religious community can commit a crime under the guise of freedom of religion?”
Haeck was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 35 years and was an elder – someone with considerable authority within his local congregation in Ghent. When he exposed a case of sexual abuse within the congregation, he was officially shunned.
Jehovah’s Witnesses use shunning as a tactic to keep members from being disloyal to the group, he claims. “It’s worse than just being excluded,” Haeck told Het Nieuwsblad. “From the highest levels of the organisation comes the order that no one is allowed to talk to you, not even your own family. They declare that this person must be avoided because they have a mental illness that is contagious.”
Several more former Witnesses have joined the complaint, and stories have flowed out from former members who have been shunned. Cecile Temmerman was a Witness for 35 years when her son began to ask critical questions of the congregation's elders.
“I knew hundreds of people in the congregation; almost every day someone came over to visit,” she told Het Nieuwsblad. “From one day to the next, everyone turned their back on me.” She means that literally and figuratively: Witnesses physically turn away from members who are being shunned.
‘In the hands of Satan’
“At a meeting, everyone was warned that my family was in the hands of Satan,” continued Temmerman. “I had literally no one left in my life; the Witnesses make sure that you have no social contact outside the organisation – including family. Even my very best friend wouldn’t speak to me any more. I sank into a depression.”
The prosecutor in Ghent is bringing four charges again the Belgian congregation: for inciting discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs against a person and against a group, and inciting hatred or violence against a person and against a group.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the target of civil court cases before, this is the first time an entire congregation has ever been charged with a crime. Haeck hopes this will set a precedent in other countries.
“Not only for Jehovah’s Witnesses but other religious organisations as well,” he said. “There is a strict separation of church and state. Now that there is more attention being paid to religious extremism, we have to ask ourselves where we draw the line, at what point the state must become involved.”
Photo ©Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA