After a successful lawsuit in Belgium, a group of Dutch Jehovah’s Witnesses is now also fighting the ‘discriminatory’ exclusion policy. “It’s a social death sentence.”
Originally published in Dutch by Rianne Oosterom and Marinde van der Breggen on October 10, 2021 on Trow
A group of thirty ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses wants the judiciary to intervene in what they consider to be the ‘dehumanizing’ exclusion policy of the religious organization. They want to force a criminal investigation into the elaboration of this policy by means of a collective declaration of incitement to discrimination and hatred.
Anyone who is expelled or resigns from the organization, which has 30,000 members in the Netherlands, is ‘declared socially dead’, as the ex-members call it. Witnesses are encouraged to avoid contact with disfellowshipped persons, according to articles on their own website. As a result, they lose all their friends and family. This is also known as ‘shunning’.
Because the Witnesses have to avoid “the world,” the people who leave often have virtually no network, says initiator Henri Dahlem. Ignoring ex-members has traumatic consequences, he says. According to him, there is also internal hate speech about them. “Some ex-members aren’t even allowed to see their children anymore.”
Fine for inciting discrimination, hatred and violence
The Dutch ex-Witnesses are inspired by the judgment of the Ghent court earlier this year. He stated that not so much the exclusion itself, but the treatment of ex-members afterwards and the way in which they are talked about is punishable. The organization was fined for inciting discrimination, hatred and violence. The Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed, which will be held at the end of November.
Apostates are portrayed in their own publications as children of Satan who try to ‘draft’ believers with lies . Their names are read aloud at meetings so members know to ignore them, according to the Belgian verdict, stories from the ex-witnesses, and texts and videos on the Witnesses’ website.
The verdict states that apostates are compared to ‘the plague’. In an excerpt from a 2004 Watchtower issue, they are portrayed as predators: “Like a kidnapper who carries an unsuspecting victim away from his family, apostates target trusting members of the congregation and try to get them away. feed from the herd”.
Ignoring after exclusion or departure is a “loving arrangement” according to the organization because it “can bring the wrongdoer to his senses.” In addition, exclusion is a way of keeping the community ‘clean’. However, members who have left themselves are still regularly approached by elders to try to get them back on the right path.
The Dutch board of the Jehovah’s Witnesses informs Trouw that this policy is ‘based on Biblical principles’. “All of Jehovah’s Witnesses agree to live by those standards . . . Each individual Witness acts according to his or her personal religious conscience in applying the Bible’s counsel to limit or terminate association with a disfellowshipped person. ”
The ruling of the Belgian court was a huge relief for the victims there, says the Flemish initiator of that case, Patrick Haeck. It is mainly the recognition of the suffering that, according to him, does them good. Dahlem hopes so too. “If the exclusion that has caused so much suffering is considered punishable, it helps ex-members.”
According to Fokko Oldenhuis, emeritus professor of law and religion at the University of Groningen, the case could have a chance of success. Although he considers a civil procedure, so if the members themselves bring a case, more likely. When it becomes a criminal case, he says it is an ‘interesting procedure’, because drivers could face fines and even prison terms.
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‘This is our secret. If you open your mouth, I’ll hurt you.’
In 2017, Trouw published a series of investigative stories about the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with sexual abuse indoors. From the very first abuse stories to a profile of Bethel, the headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands, you can read it in our file on the religious community.