JEHOVAH’S Witnesses may be well known for offering a Watchtower magazine and a warm smile when they knocked on your door on a pre-COVID Saturday morning, but there are darker secrets running in the core of the religion.

There is an average of 47,980 active Jehovah’s Witnesses in Zimbabwe and around 8.5 million worldwide, each with the same task – to preach the ‘good news of God’s kingdom’. In fact, the subject features in their global campaign to distribute an edition of their magazine called “What is God’s Kingdom?” this month (November).

On the surface, the message appears to offer readers comfort and hope for a world free of pain and suffering. But what do followers of the religion actually believe?

Since they formed in the late 1800s, Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed that humanity has been living in the last days and have falsely predicted the end of the world many times. For them, the end of the world means Armageddon and the destruction of everyone who is not a faithful member of their religion – that includes men, woman and children. Those who survive will live forever in an earthly paradise built on the graves of the billions killed for their disbelief, while 144,000 members will rule from heaven with Jesus. This heavenly rulership is how they describe ‘God’s kingdom’.

Their preaching work is one way they recruit into their religion. They also produce magazines, articles and videos to share their beliefs. In fact, across Africa, Oceania and South America, the religion has been giving the JW Box to congregations with limited or no internet access, which allows them to read the religious propaganda it produces.

But for converts, there is a lot to give up. They will expect you to limit contact with non-believing family and friends. You can’t read anything negative about the religion. You can’t talk to ex-members. You can’t celebrate holidays. You can’t study the Bible using anything other than their own materials. You are expected to dress a certain way. You certainly can’t openly question or criticise their teachings. You will be expected to preach. You have to marry in the faith. You can’t use tobacco. Witchcraft, including n’ganga, is forbidden by Jehovah’s Witnesses. And you can’t have a blood transfusion, even if it will save your life.

Cultural traditions will have to be dropped if they conflict with their teachings. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ 1985 Yearbook described how tribal marriages in Zimbabwe were not accepted and those who had refused to register their marriage with the civil authorities were kicked out of the faith. Pg 135 of the book reads: “All those married since January 1951 and whose marriages had not been legalised were given six months to have them registered. If, by the end of that time, the couples had done nothing and there were no extenuating circumstances, then the only course was to disfellowship them.”

And their firm stance of neutrality can be deadly. Along with no voting, political and military involvement is out the question. The doctrinal principle of neutrality led to the torture and death of thousands of Malawian Witnesses during the 1970s and 1980s as they were not to hold a political card in the one-party state.

In many countries about the world, Jehovah’s Witnesses are being investigated by authorities for their failings when it comes to child sexual abuse. In 2015, the Australian Royal Commission found a “serious failure” to protect children when it was revealed they failed to report over 1,000 abusers in their congregations. In America, many court cases have found the religion negligent in their handling of abuse. In the Netherlands, police have raided its Kingdom Halls for databases of abuse following a report calling child sexual abuse a “serious problem” within the “closed community”. In the UK, the Independent Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse continues to dig into its mishandling of child victims and their abusers. And yet, despite failing to protect countless children, the religion offers no apology and no decent policy changes to prevent such abuse.

But if a Jehovah’s Witness wants to leave the religion for this or any reason, they can’t – not without losing all their friends and family to shunning.

So if you know a Jehovah’s Witness or come into contact with them during their preaching work, please be kind. They have been born or recruited into a religion with promises of love, promises of being reunited with dead loved ones, promises of no more pain and no more suffering. But with all these empty promises comes heavy indoctrination and heavy control. Rather than harsh words and persecution, they deserve sympathy and understanding. They may not be God’s people, but they are only human.

This is an opinion piece submitted by our reader. We welcome contributions about any subject. Send in your contributions to story@thezimbabwedaily.com