Jehovah's Witnesses Winning Battle for Church Status in Germany

Speigel Online, Germany/June 10, 2009

Several German states are trying to prevent the Jehovah's Witnesses from gaining the same offical status as the main church faiths. But they're unlikely to succeed after the group, controversial because of what former members call "totalitarian methods," won a landmark court case in Berlin.

Marina J. could still be alive today. Her small daughter would have had a mother and her widower wouldn't be a single father. A blood transfusion could have saved her.

On July 3, 2008, Marina J.'s husband took her to the hospital in the town of Lich in the western German state of Hesse. She was 29 years old, the mother of a seven-year-old daughter and a deeply devout member of the Jehovah's Witness church. The doctors diagnosed her with a miscarriage and strong bleeding. A blood transfusion could have been saved her life, but the woman insisted she didn't want one. She was accompanied by several members of her church and she showed the doctor a living will. Two days later, Marina J. was dead.

Prosecutors in Giessen, a city in Hesse, are researching the case to see if it is possible to pursue criminal charges. The case of a woman whose life could have been saved has also attracted the attention of politicians and government representatives in state capitals in western Germany. They are hoping the death might provide new ammunition in a two-decades old dispute between the state and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Followers of the religion, close to 166,000 in Germany, believe the end is near for this world of sin. But they also believe that there are only 144,000 places available in heaven for a few chosen ones who proved to be particularly pious and true to the bible in life. People, for example, who distribute God's word by handing out copies of the Jehovah's Witnesses magazine, Watchtower, on the streets.

For years, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been seeking to obtain legal recognition as a church from the German government so that they can enjoy the same rights and privileges as the Catholic and Protestant churches.

They have already had success in the states of Hesse, Bavaria and Lower-Saxony. But the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg have resisted the church. In Rhineland-Palatinate, Governor Kurt Beck of the center-left Social Democrats is dreading a situation in which the group would get church tax revenues in his state or set up businesses in which trade unions aren't given a say. In Germany, tithing for religions recognized by the government is handled by the state in the form of a church tax.

A few weeks ago, Beck called on all division of his state government to "intensively seek out arguments" that could help hinder any official recognition of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Beck said he had "the most considerable doubts as to whether it could be defined as a religious community that is in keeping with Germany's constitution." After all, the intellectual leaders of the centrally organized group discourage members from voting or participating in elections.

Beck's aides have already collected several cases that could be used against the Jehovah's Witnesses. In autumn 1999, for example, a delegation of the Jehovah's Witness community in the state of Bavaria attempted to prevent a life-saving blood transfusion to a school-age child. The child's father, also a Jehovah's Witness, even used physical violence against the head physician. Ultimately, the blood transfusion had to be administered under police protection. And in Baden-Württemberg in 2001, a 16-year-old cancer patient died because his parents refused to permit a blood transfusion, citing the family's faith.

'Very Clearly a Sect'

The statements of former Jehovah's Witness members who claim the organization used "totalitarian methods" is also being considered. They claim the group is permanently demanding donations and endless work on behalf of the organization. They also claim that members who express any doubts about the Jehovah's Witnesses beliefs are subjected to extreme psychological pressure. And they claim that minors who don't want to subject themselves to the group's rules are punished with hard physical "beatings".

Marc Ratajczak, an expert on sects for the conservative Christian Democratic Union party's group in the state government in North Rhine-Westphalia, argues that the Jehovah's Witnesses are "very clearly a sect" who "damn" and "suppress" any other religions or attitudes about life as "Satan's work." In his free time, Ratajczak conducts rescue operations for the Red Cross, and finds it "inhuman" that Jehovah's Witnesses could fundamentally refuse blood transfusions and, by doing so, even allow children to get into life-threatening situations.

The regional member of parliament says he would like to see his state join the initiative to stop the Jehovah's Witnesses that has been spearheaded by neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate. Monika Brunert-Jetter, a fellow CDU member, says her party, the largest in the state government, will resist any attempt by the state government to recognize the Jehovah's Witnesses. The state's parliament would have to vote on any such decision.

But the opponents of Jehova's Witnesses are going to have a hard time. Three years ago, Berlin became the first German state to be forced to award the organisation official recognition as a church. The Berlin city government lost a 15-year legal battle. The Witnesses filed separate applications for recognition in Germany's 15 other states immediately after that. They were able to point to the Berlin court decision as a precedent that gives the other states very little legal leeway.

That's the conclusion regional government officials on church matters reached at a meeting in Bonn last year. All the organisation had to do was avoid breaking the law to make sure that authorities couldn't take away its official status, officials concluded, adding: "The constitution doesn't demand a loyalty that goes beyond that."

Even if individual Jehovah's Witnesses break the law, that doesn't affect the status of the church as a whole.

Recently even the government in Catholic Bavaria quietly recognized the Jehova's Witnesses, as did saxony and Hamburg. In Baden-Württemberg, Culture Minister Helmut Rau had drafted a government document recognizing the church before Governor Günther Oettinger of the CDU stopped it. "Tolerance for religious conviction" is one thing but recognizing it as an official church was "something quite different."

The head of the CDU parliamentary group in the Baden-Württemberg regional parliament, Stefan Mappus, went further. "A religious community that rejects democratic elections, looks down on individual freedoms and rejects blood transfusions for example, can't be regarded as loyal to the constitution in our opinion." Oettinger now plans to discuss the matter with the big churches.

The Jehova's Witnesses have so far reacted calmly to such announcements. The legal situation is "unambiguous," says Gajus Glockentin, lawyer for the German Jehova's Witnesses headquarters in the Hesse town of Selters. The group argued successfully in the Berlin court case that the events cited against it were regrettable individual cases that the group couldn't be blamed for.

The Witnesses' policy of abstaining from voting wasn't an effective arguement either, Glockentin says. After all, declining to vote isn't aimed at weakening democracy, he argues. It's simply the result of an "apolitical attitude to life."

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