Those who grow up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses often led a dramatically different life from their peers – no birthday parties, little contact with people outside the faith community, no blood transfusions in medical emergencies, and no participation in elections later on. If someone decides to leave the sect, they are left with nothing at first, because the Jehovah’s Witnesses will turn their backs on the apostate, who often has no friends or relatives outside the community.
There are a variety of citizens’ initiatives, such as “JW Victims Help” (“JW Opfer Hilfe e.V.”), whose aim is to shed light on the dire implications of life within the sect and offer support to those who want to leave the faith-based community.
Last Friday, the association put an information stand on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and observed "International Watchtower Remembrance Day". On this day, in 1931, the sect was renamed and "reformed", which resulted in it taking a more authoritarian form.
Giulia Silberger, one of the co-founders of the association, was one of those who came to Alexanderplatz on that hot summer day. In the media, she is known as the founder of "Goldener Aluhut", a platform that deals with conspiracy theories. What many don’t realise is that the young woman herself grew up among Jehovah's Witnesses.
The woman says that members of the sect would often face emotional abuse. Children are particularly affected; very often their emotional traumas haunt them throughout their lives.
"Children’s souls are destroyed – they are brought up in fear and violence; they are forced to constantly fear Armageddon, the end of the world, which only those who are pleasing to Jehovah can survive. This is a terrible fear, which one grows up with and which results in mental illnesses, basically making a person disabled," Giulia said.
According to the woman, the fear she grew up with gave her a mental illness and a disability status.
"I want that to stop, and I want people to know about the dangers of this organisation. These are not harmless people who you can find preaching love somewhere at the station; this is an ice-cold, almost fascist society that destroys its members."
In addition, Giulia believes the Jehovah’s Witnesses violate the country’s constitution, in particular, Article 6, which deals with the protection of marriage and the family. According to the woman, this is because even minor children face isolation from community members when they are expelled from the sect; and [their relatives] no longer talk to them.
Giulia also said that the sect has cultivated its own legal system:
"When a crime is committed within the community, it is usually not handed over to the authorities, but resolved by the sect's assembly according to their own, very cruel laws. For example, there is a two-witness rule – you have to bring two witnesses or nothing has happened. These are things that simply don’t fit into a democratic society like ours," she said.
Sophie Jones has also managed to get out of the sect. According to the young woman, she was born into a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When one doesn’t know what’s going on in the "outside world", they don’t think that what they see inside their community is weird. The sect members don’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays – from the cradle, children take part in constant sermons and prayers. But the older you get, the more you realise how isolated you are.
"Of course, one should mainly have contact with others in the community because they are 'good' and everyone else could dissuade you from the faith. Therefore, for a Jehovah’s Witness child, it’s quite difficult to find normal friends," Sophie said.
"When you get older, you realise that you’re somehow different; you realise that you’re weird and don’t do the things normal kids do. You don’t know what they’re talking about; you don’t watch the same TV shows. You go to the service; you look different and behave differently. You are even ashamed – that’s normal. Of course, people say that you should be proud of your faith and that you’re chosen by God. But at the same time, you actually feel like a freak.”
According to Sophie, there are "liberal" Jehovah’s Witnesses; however, her mother was a devout believer and brought her up accordingly. The turning point came at the age of thirteen, when her father was expelled from the community and any contact with him was forbidden, the woman recalled.
"I couldn’t cope with that; I really suffered a lot from being unable to contact him. You cannot even greet the person, no matter if they’re your family members or not. I realised that I was incredibly unhappy and asked myself what I was suffering for. How can it please God that I suffer so much that I move away from my own family? That made no sense to me and I realised that I had to change something in my life. As soon as I turned 18, I got out of the sect and sought contact with my father and other excluded friends."
The exit didn’t happen immediately, since the comeback rate is very high, because Jehovah’s Witness apostates usually have no contacts in the outside world. Sophie made a list of the people she would lose by leaving and those she would win back. At the same time, she was looking for new friends and building up new social contacts.
"When I realised I was ready, I went to the last service, the remembrance service. I told some people that they wouldn’t see me again, and then I left. I got a new phone number; I moved and got a new job. And then it worked quite well."
Today, Sophie Jones is very happy that she decided to leave and can see her father again.
"I feel as though I got a new life. I can be who I want. I can do what I want. I can be friends with whom I want. That makes me very happy," she said.
JW Victims Help seeks to support people like Sophie Jones; they want to raise awareness among the public, the media and politicians about the problems associated with various sectarian organisations. People from the outside have no idea how bad life is for members of sects and for those who have decided to leave their ranks, club activist Stefan Barnikow said.
"Very often outsiders cannot believe that such a medieval practice can be found today, in the middle of Berlin. With us, the dropouts have someone who listens to them and understands their problems," he said.
At the same time, according to Barnikow, Jehovah’s Witnesses' door-to-door missionary work, which is perceived by many as intrusive or annoying, don’t violate the constitution.
"The Jehovah’s Witnesses have managed to get recognition as a public organisation in all federal states. Thus, they are allowed to perform their missionary activities. Of course, as a homeowner, I can say that I don’t want that. You also have to understand that the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t want to do anything bad to you; they just want to 'save' you. In fact, they have your best interests at heart, but there is nothing good about it."
There are currently about 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, but the number is declining. Barnikow sees the increased desire to exit as a sign that the activity of his and other online and offline organisations is yielding results.
However, devout Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t seek a dialogue – not even on Alexanderplatz that day. "The Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to avoid us," Barnikow said.