Witnesses protection programme

Stephen Bates reports on the religious leaders who objected to a website that spread their church's teachings

The Guardian, UK/January 16, 2006
By Stephen Bates

Most Christian organisations are only too pleased to spread the Good Word, but the Jehovah's Witnesses have taken an altogether different approach by forcing a Canadian member to close down a website highlighting their beliefs.

This may have something to do with the weirdness of some of the church's views, such as the belief that vaccinations are a cruel hoax by Satan, that organ transplants are the equivalent of cannibalism, that blood transfusions are unbiblical, that God himself edits its magazine, that the Great Pyramid of Giza was "an outline of the plan of God" and that the world would end in 1914. And 1915. And 1918. And 1920. And 1925. And 1940. And 1975. Having learned its lesson, it now believes officially that the end is merely imminent.

The offending website, quotes.watchtower.ca, was launched by a Toronto mechanical engineer, Peter Mosier, a long-standing, though now somewhat disillusioned, member of the 13.8 million-strong worldwide faith, which has 130,000 followers in Britain. The site consisted entirely of lengthy quotations from official Witnesses publications pointing out some of the church's anomalies and quiet changes of position over the last 130 years, many of which have never been formally communicated to members of the church in good standing.

Presumably tongue-in-cheek, the site quotes instructions issued to followers in the Watchtower, the church's magazine, in 1942 that Jehovah has entrusted followers "with the privilege and obligation of telling His message".

The magazine added: "Those who believe that God uses the Watchtower as a means of communicating to His people should truly study [it] with thankfulness of heart and ... give neither honour nor credit to any man."

The website adds solemnly: "If you are looking for criticism, critique or editorial commentary, you have come to the wrong place."

Ironically, for a group best-known to the outside world for its members' enthusiastic attempts at doorstep proselytisation, the Witnesses' elders suffered a massive sense of humour failure when confronted with the site. They threatened to sue Mr Mosier for 100,000 Canadian dollars unless he closed his website down, with punitive damages for his impertinence in spreading their views where they might be seen by non-believers.

The Witnesses were also sore that Mr Mosier had successfully annexed a domain name that they had not already claimed for themselves, based on the title of their magazine and the name of the office block in Brooklyn, New York where they have their worldwide headquarters.

They claimed Mr Mosier had unlawfully misappropriated and disclosed confidential information and damaged their copyright. They stated: "The defendant's main purpose is not fair use but rather to try to embarrass the plaintiffs by quoting selectively from some of the religious works in a manner that misleads internet users as to the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses in Canada ... [and is] likely to cause confusion."

Members of the church keep themselves separate from the world, do not vote or take part in civic life and have traditionally been strictly controlled by their elders. Those who break their code of conduct - such as by accepting a blood transfusion to save their life or that of a child in their family - may find themselves ostracised from their relatives and communities.

A recent legal opinion in the US alleges that the Watchtower has wilfully misled followers over the reality of blood transfusions, which could lay it open to massive claims for damages from members who believe their relatives have died in vain because they thought they were following the word of God in rejecting transfusions.

Members of the public answering the door to witnesses might be surprised to learn the confidential information that non-believers are regarded as doomed to Old Testament punishment on the Last Day, their eyes plucked out and their bones ground to dust.

In the past the Watchtower has told local elders that a member accused of child abuse should only be reported to the police in the unlikely event of there being two independent witnesses to the abuse, otherwise the victim can be instructed to "wait on Jehovah" to sort things out.

In an attempt to keep control of members' thoughts and prevent them falling into sin through happening on pornographic sites, the Watchtower leaders have instructed that, if members view the internet, they should only look at authorised Witnesses websites - hence the consternation that they might accidentally stumble on Mr Mosier's effort.

Mr Mosier, 37, who was brought up as a Witness, baptised into the faith at 17 and was a member in good standing for 10 years after that, said: "I decided to set up the website after learning things that I had never heard before. There were things that, had I known them when I was baptised, I would not have joined. The Watchtower calls itself God's Channel but it has a way of changing its mind and not telling anyone that things have changed."

"My website has clear quotes that enable people to study their religion and learn more about it, but the Watchtower wants people to learn about it only on their own terms. My site has been getting 10,000 visitors a month, so you could say I have been more successful in informing people about Jehovah's Witnesses than I ever was when I went round knocking on people's doors."

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