Argentina: Champion of Freedom—Or of Religious Intolerance?
“JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES BANNED IN ARGENTINA!” That was the news carried across the Argentine nation and around the world by newspapers, television and radio during the first week of September 1976.
Time-consuming legal proceedings followed as Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the ban through the Argentine court system. At last, in February 1978, the result of this legal action became known, as news sources declared: “SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS EXECUTIVE DECREE BANNING JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES.”
In nations of the Western world where the Christian activity of the Witnesses is well known, this shocking news brought forth protests—and questions. Many asked: ‘Why this religious persecution and discrimination in Argentina?’ Others wondered: ‘Does not the Argentine Constitution guarantee freedom of worship?’
How were such questions answered by official spokesmen for the military government? These officials, and many newspapers too, were quick to reply that freedom of conscience and of religion continued to prevail as cherished traditions in Argentina—this in spite of the fact that a total ban had just been upheld on the Christian activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
An example of this amazing official response was noted in a form letter issued by the Argentine Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa. The letter stated, in part: “Freedom of conscience has been and continues to be fully guaranteed under the Constitution and Laws of Argentina. ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ in common with other religious bodies, have found . . . complete freedom for the practice of their beliefs.” Yet the Witnesses were at the time under ban!
The embassy form letter added: “It has never been the intention of the Argentine Government to curb or deny individual freedom of conscience, and much less to persecute any person for his religious convictions.” But these very curbs, denials of individual freedoms and persecutions were already inflicted on Jehovah’s Witnesses!
La Nación, a leading Argentine newspaper, in an editorial of February 17, 1978, asserted: “The Argentine Nation can exhibit before the world, with legitimate pride over its history, the tolerance of its laws and of its people for the practice of religion.” It added: “As in few places in the world . . . the law protects and permits [other religions] ‘to freely practice their religion,’ according to the wise Constitutional prescription.”
It is claimed that religious tolerance is ‘prescribed by the Argentine Constitution.’ Yet, let us examine these facts:
The September 1976 ban, together with the February 1978 Supreme Court ruling, has deprived Jehovah’s Witnesses in Argentina of their freedom to worship God;
The meeting places for Christian worship and Bible study of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been closed by law;
The publication and distribution of Bibles and Bible literature by Jehovah’s Witnesses have been prohibited;
Hundreds of the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been expelled from primary and secondary schools. Similarly, adult Witnesses in the employ of the government at federal, provincial and municipal levels, as well as in public utilities and schools, have been dismissed without pay;
A growing number of police raids have taken place on the private homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They have been arrested and detained for hours, days and even weeks;
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been victims of insults, blows and attempted intimidation on the part of the constituted authorities. On some occasions even the basic elements for their physical needs have not been provided.
Now, then, is all of this the religious tolerance ‘prescribed by the Argentine Constitution’?
what does the constitution say?
Just what does Argentina’s Constitution say about the rights of its citizens relative to freedom? Note some of the following articles incorporated in the law.
Article 14 states: “All of the inhabitants of the Nation enjoy the following rights, in conformity with the laws that govern their exercise; . . . to publish their ideas in the press without previous censorship; . . . to associate together for worthwhile purposes; to freely practice their religion; to teach and to learn.” [Italics ours]
Article 19 states: “The private actions of men that in no wise offend the public order and morals, nor injure a third party, are reserved only for God, and exempt from the authority of the Magistrates.”
Then Article 20 declares: “Foreigners . . . can . . . freely exercise their religion.”
what have they done?
In the face of such clearly established freedoms, why the total ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses? What have they done to incur such government opposition? What have they been teaching in Argentina for the past 54 years? Let us examine the record.
In all these years, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Argentina, and everywhere else too, have carefully adhered to the principle set down in God’s Word at Titus chapter 3, verse 1. There it says: “Continue reminding them to be in subjection and be obedient to governments and authorities as rulers.”
Do those words sound like a revolutionary manifesto with intent to destroy the established order? On the contrary, they clearly tell Bible believers, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, to obey the laws of all governments. They are not to search out ways to overthrow established governments by human means.
Such thoughts are part of the teachings that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been spreading throughout Argentina since 1924. It was in that year that Juan Muñiz, who had recently arrived from Spain, began to preach the “good news” to the people who were praying and looking for God’s kingdom to come in accord with the words of the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus Christ.—Matt. 6:9, 10.
From that year on, as the Founder of Christianity commanded, the making of “disciples of people of all the nations” prospered in Argentina. (Matt. 28:19, 20) Large quantities of Bibles and Bible study aids in many languages were eagerly received by the Argentine people. In addition, free Bible lectures were delivered in person and by radio transmission. And in 1946, the legal entity called La Torre del Vigía (The Watch Tower, in Spanish) was organized and, later, officially recognized by the Argentine government.
legal recognition revoked in 1950
In 1949, the government formed a department of cults or religion within the Ministry of Foreign Relations. All religions were required to register with this newly formed agency. However, on May 26, 1950, this registration was denied to Jehovah’s Witnesses! And on July 12 of the same year their legal recognition was revoked!
Since then, during all these past 28 years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have repeatedly appealed to the authorities. They have appealed to ministers of Foreign Relations, to governors and even to presidents. Part of their appeal has been that they at least be given the opportunity to explain their position. Yet, all these appeals have fallen on deaf ears! Jehovah’s Witnesses have been judged and condemned without even a hearing!
What reason has been given for such treatment? They have been told that their organization “is against the sacred principles of the Magna Charta due to teaching a doctrine contrary to the Armed Forces and to the respect that should be paid to the symbols of the Nation.”
questions of conscience
In all parts of the world, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take part in such ceremonies as the saluting of the flag and the singing of national anthems. Why not? Because to them this would constitute an act of worship in direct violation of the first and second of the Ten Commandments.—Ex. 20:3-5.
They take a stand similar to that of the three Hebrews in Babylon. (See Daniel, chapter 3.) During such ceremonies, Witness schoolchildren stand quietly and respectfully. And they never interfere with others participating in such ceremonies.
Also frequently questioned is the conscientious objection to compulsory military training by male members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet, Witness youths are neither deserters nor anarchists. They present themselves to the military authorities on the date that they are called up. But they request exemption because of their Bible-based beliefs. And such exemption is granted to them in many countries, particularly in the Western world.
This refusal to bear weapons of war is based on numerous Bible principles. One of these is found at Matthew 22:39, where Jesus said to his followers: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” Another command is given at Matthew 5:21, where Jesus said: “You must not murder.” Similarly, in the Bible book of Isaiah, chapter 2, verse 4, God’s people are told: ‘You must beat your swords into plowshares and not learn war anymore.’
history and the Bible speak
History and the Holy Bible show that the first-century Christians had beliefs identical to those of Jehovah’s Witnesses today. They refused to perform what they considered acts of worship toward the emperor and his state emblems. And they would not participate in military service or in war.
This stand of the early Christians has been verified by many historians down through the ages. One of these is Juan Bautista Alberdi, who shared in framing the Argentine Constitution. In his work El Crimen de la Guerra (The Crime of War), he said: “Present society is a mixture of two types: warring or pagan [type], peaceful or Christian [type].”
Because of this “mixture,” opposition is not unexpected by Christians. Jesus Christ clearly forewarned that the “Caesar” governments of the world would try to encroach upon the worship of true Christians. That is why the Christian apostle Peter said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
The small band of Christians in the first century were misunderstood, maligned and persecuted. Yet they left a positive balance of benefits for humankind.
Without resorting to violence and war weapons, true Christianity transformed the very lives of those who embraced its teachings. It resulted in people’s replacing practices that hurt themselves and their neighbors with beneficial practices of the highest moral and spiritual caliber.
Commenting on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Argentina, the Buenos Aires Herald of March 31, 1978, observed: “However irritating their practices may be to government officials, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have proven throughout the years to be hard-working, sober, thrifty and God-fearing citizens of the kind the nation manifestly needs.” A high-ranking naval officer expressed it this way: “Regarding the morality and honesty of the Witnesses, there exists no doubt.”
Yet, in spite of this fine record of honesty, morality, integrity and obedience to law, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been singled out for cruel treatment. Intolerance against them has intensified. Some of the events that have taken place are noted in the following article.