The Netherlands Frees Imprisoned Witnesses
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Netherlands
BACK in 1936 Johan Akkerman was the first Witness to hear the gates of the Veenhuizen Penal Institution close shut behind him. As one of Jehovah’s witnesses, he had conscientiously refused to do military service. Thirty-eight years later, on July 19, 1974, the last of Jehovah’s witnesses was released from that same prison.
This was ‘big news’ for the press. Headlines like “JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES GO HOME” made the front pages of prominent papers of the land.
To many officials this marked the end of a problem that had bothered them for a long time—that of putting decent, clean-cut young men into prison alongside hardened criminals simply because they refused to violate their Christian conscience. To Jehovah’s witnesses it was another victory in the fight for the freedom to worship God in the way the Bible commands.
Background for This Decision
What led up to this sensational news? To understand, one must realize that when a Netherlander turns eighteen he must submit to a medical examination. Should he prove to be physically and mentally sound, he is subject to call for military training when he turns twenty. If he conscientiously objects to the use of weapons he may apply for noncombatant service.
But Jehovah’s witnesses in the Netherlands have refused, not only military service, but also any noncombatant work offered as a substitute. The Scriptural reason for their stand will be considered later in this article.
Before World War II, the problem of conscientious objection involving Jehovah’s witnesses was small. But during the war the problem grew, and it continued afterward. Since Dutch law provided exemption from military service for those who held the office of a regular minister of religion and for those preparing for that office, it was deemed wise to enter the courts of law to try to obtain this right.
Such exemption was granted to the ministers of those organizations whose names appeared on a special list. However, the name of Jehovah’s witnesses was not included on this list. But the law provided also that the Minister of Defense could grant exemption to ministers of a religion whose name was not listed if he chose to do so. Jehovah’s witnesses, therefore, tried to move the Minister toward granting exemptions in some cases.
For about ten years, beginning in 1949, scores of cases were argued before the Council of State, whose duty it was to counsel the government on the advisability of granting exemption. But in time it became clear that exemption would depend on the personal willingness of the Minister and not on proving a legal right. So these efforts were abandoned.
This decade of effort was not altogether without some good results, however. Favorable comments appeared from time to time in the press. For example, a public prosecutor stated: “I have committed the accused to the house of detention, but I realize he does not belong among criminals.”—Het Vrije Volk, November 11, 1955.
During this period it was chiefly the Ministry of Justice that took steps to ease the conditions of imprisonment. From 1950 on, an overseer of Jehovah’s witnesses from the Amsterdam branch office was permitted to visit the imprisoned once a month. Then in 1956 permission was granted to visit the prisoners without the presence of a guard. Also, the duration of the visits was lengthened.
From 1958 on, Bible literature for private study was permitted to enter the prison. In time, the imprisoned Witnesses were moved to barracks adjoining the Veenhuizen Penal Institution and given comparative freedom of movement. Finally, they were allowed to visit their homes on weekends and were also allowed out to attend conventions of Jehovah’s witnesses. But still the Witnesses were being sent to prison, a fact that stirred the conscience of many in the nation.
Authorities Begin to Listen
On March 26, 1971, three representatives of Jehovah’s witnesses met with a forum representing the ministries of Defense and Justice. The discussion lasted two and a half hours.
One of the first points of discussion presented by the forum was this: “That you wish no part in performing military service is clear and needs no further explanation. But what really is your objection to civil, alternative service?”
The Witnesses explained that it is not that they are opposed to civil service as such, but, rather, it is a matter of strict neutrality. Therefore, any work that is merely a substitute for military service would be unacceptable to Jehovah’s witnesses.
Other questions narrowed the issue down still further. “When a person objects to military service,” the government’s agents declared, “he passes from military jurisdiction on to civil jurisdiction and from that moment has nothing at all to do with the military. Why, then, is the accepting of such civil service still so objectionable?”
Willingly accepting such work is objectionable to the Christian because of what God’s law says about the matter: “You were bought with a price; stop becoming slaves of men.” (1 Cor. 7:23) Civilian servitude as a substitute for military service would be just as objectionable to the Christian. In effect, he would thereby become a part of the world instead of keeping separate as Jesus commanded.—John 15:19; 17:14-16.
The discussion now took a new turn. “What suggestion would you like to give as to the handling of cases involving Jehovah’s witnesses?” the committee asked. The answer: Exemption for the full-time as well as the part-time preachers of the Gospel, as the law provides. It was pointed out that members of certain religious orders in the Netherlands enjoy exemption, yet they do nothing more than live in an institution and brew beer.
The committee voiced its concern over this suggestion by the Witnesses. It feared that this would open the gates for all kinds of persons whose only purpose was to avoid military service. But Jehovah’s witnesses assured the committee that it would be nearly impossible for pretenders to get by the screening process that takes place in the local congregations of the Witnesses.
Parliament Member Asks Questions
Less than four months later a witness of Jehovah was sentenced to twenty-one months in prison on the military issue. His lawyer, Mr. Spermon, pleaded the case on the ground that his client was a minister of the Gospel. Then he issued a public statement in which he said, among other things: “Catholic and Protestant theology students obtain exemption from military service as well as alternative civil service simply due to the fact that they attend a recognized theological school. Because Jehovah’s witnesses in the Netherlands do not have a theological college and, moreover, their religion does not enjoy legal recognition as a religious denomination they do not come in line for the possibilities provided for in the law governing conscientious objection.”
To this Mr. Spermon added: ‘This criterium does not please me much. It reeks too much of the authorities’ meddling in the internal matters of church societies. According to the Law on Religious Societies of 1853, the regulation of church society is taboo for the state because that is left up to the religious society itself.’—De Tijd, Thursday, July 22, 1971.
These statements triggered off other action. A member of parliament, Mr. D. A. Th. van Ooijen, wrote to the ministers of Defense and Justice, asking: “Are statesmen willing to voice their opinion as to the following statement by Mr. W. Spermon to the Supreme Military Tribunal . . . ?” He then set out the substance of Spermon’s above-quoted statement.
Then the parliamentarian asked other pointed questions: “Is it true that Jehovah’s witnesses in the United States, Sweden and Germany enjoy exemption from military and alternative service if they can provide evidence that they spend a sufficient amount of time in the preaching work?” “Are statesmen willing to expedite matters so that the Law on Church Societies which leaves it up to the church society to determine who should be recognized as its minister of public religious service, also thus applies to the witnesses of Jehovah?”
Now the Ministry of Defense Takes Action
On October 25, 1973, the three representatives of Jehovah’s witnesses were sitting at a table with the committee representing the Ministry of Defense. The committee took time to be thoroughly informed on the organizational structure of Jehovah’s witnesses and their procedure in appointing their “full-time ministers.”
As this meeting progressed it became quite apparent that internally the Ministry of Defense had already taken steps toward recognizing “full-time ministers” as such. Then, unexpectedly, one of the members of the committee posed the possibility of also exempting those who were preparing to be “full-time ministers.” Since it was seemingly only a suggestion, the representatives of Jehovah’s witnesses treated the proposal rather cautiously. However, the committee pursued the subject and even insisted on it.
The result of this meeting was that the Netherlands headquarters of Jehovah’s witnesses was authorized to pass this information on to the congregations. In this way all those preparing for the “full-time ministry” would know of these new developments. From now on, all those in this category would receive indefinite postponement from military and alternative service, pending a final passage of law in this regard.
You can imagine how welcome this good news was after so many years of effort! And it was thought that this would be the end of the matter. But yet another chapter was to be written into the history of the fight for freedom of worship in the Netherlands. On June 11, 1974, the same representatives of Jehovah’s witnesses met with the same committee from the Ministry of Defense. This proved to be the shortest session to date, but one with far-reaching consequences.
On this occasion the Defense representatives announced that in the future all baptized witnesses of Jehovah, on recommendation by the body of elders in their respective congregations, would be exempted from military service pending the definite passage of law. The procedure for handling these cases was then satisfactorily worked out. The plea for exemption in each case, signed by the congregation’s body of elders, would be routed through the branch office of Jehovah’s witnesses. There the signatures of the elders would be certified before being forwarded to the government. In this way the credibility of each plea would be confirmed for the Ministry of Defense.
The Ministry of Justice, in harmony with this decision of the Ministry of Defense, acted quickly by releasing all the Witnesses then imprisoned. Twelve days after the last Witness had been released, on July 31, 1974, people in all parts of the country were surprised to read in their daily papers such headlines as “JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES GO HOME.”
The report in one of the newspapers concluded with these remarks: “The Ministry of Defense is working on legislation whereby all of Jehovah’s witnesses who are baptized will be exempted from military service. In anticipation of the processing of this law by the States General all prosecution of objecting Jehovah’s witnesses has been suspended. The Ministry of Justice deemed that under the circumstances it was not just to hold in prison any longer those of their co-members who already had been prosecuted.”
So it was that a quarter of a century of struggle for freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience ended with the release of twenty-eight Witnesses. And just in time—a few days before the “Divine Purpose” District Assemblies of Jehovah’s witnesses this past summer in the Netherlands.
We hope and pray that as individuals the men responsible for this wise decision will, in harmony with the Bible’s exhortation, “kiss the son [Jesus Christ],” acknowledging him as earth’s King, and thus come in line to receive of the grand blessings that his glorious Kingdom rule, so near at hand, will bestow on all obedient mankind.—Ps. 2:12.