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Bulgaria, the Watchtower and Blood Transfusions
In order to gain legal recognition in Bulgaria during the 1990's, the Watchtower was required to change its doctrine on military service, and allowed civilian service in 1996. It also signed a document before the European Commission on Human Rights, deceptively stating it does not sanction followers for taking blood transfusions.
The situation regarding the Watchtower Society and blood transfusions in Bulgaria demonstrates that the Watchtower is prepared to bend the truth in furthering its own political needs. It is hard to reconcile how Watchtower actions before the European Commission on Human Rights could be construed as anything other than perjury.
A four-year legal battle ensued, resulting in compromise on both sides. The Watchtower Society and government of Bulgaria brokered an agreement through the European Commission of Human Rights that was adopted on March 9th 1998 under Application No. 28626/95. This states in part:
16. By letters of 8 and 12 September 1997 the parties indicated their willingness to reach a friendly settlement. The parties exchanged correspondence and proposals for a friendly settlement and held meetings in Sofia on 20 and 21 November 1997. On 17 January 1998, upon the parties' request, the Commission made proposals to the parties with a view to resolving some remaining differences in their positions. The parties again met in Sofia on 10 February 1998.
The Watchtower reached a “friendly settlement” by indicating a change to its rules regarding blood transfusions and military service. In order to accommodate the wishes of the Watchtower Society, the Bulgarian government created a non-combative military service option for conscientious objectors to participate in.
“It is proper to cover over our arrangements for the work that God commands us to do. If the wolfish foes draw wrong conclusions from our maneuvers to outwit them, no harm has been done to them by the harmless sheep, innocent in their motives as doves.” Watchtower 1956 Feb 1 p.86
Bulgaria had an issue with the Watchtower’s refusal to participate in military service. For many decades, Witnesses were not allowed to engage in military service. Not only was combative military service disallowed, also non-combative or civilian service was also forbidden. Many young witnesses around the globe were jailed for such a stance, some for years.
Jehovah’s witnesses are according to God’s Word no part of this world which is governed by the political systems. For this important Bible reason they tell officials of the government that they conscientiously object to serving in any military establishment or any civilian arrangement that substitutes for military service. Watchtower 1951 Feb 1 p.77
Other Witnesses, such as in Mexico, were permitted by the Watchtower to bribe officials to receive documentation dishonestly claiming they had completed military service. See Malawi vs Mexico
"What, though, if the State requires a Christian for a period of time to perform civilian service that is a part of national service under a civilian administration? … That is his decision before Jehovah. Appointed elders and others should fully respect the conscience of the brother and continue to regard him as a Christian in good standing. " Watchtower 1996 May 1 pp.20,21
This change in policy seems somehow disappointing after the hardship young Witness men endured for decades. By determining that civilian service was not actually an important issue before Jehovah, Watchtower leaders showed Bible interpretation can be shaped by governmental requirements as readily as by holy spirit.
The other issue of importance to the Bulgarian government was regarding blood transfusions. The authorities felt Witnesses should not be coerced to forgo life saving treatment at the threat of being disfellowshipped. For Jehovah's Witnesses to be recognised as a religious organization in Bulgaria, the Watchtower Society had to ensure that, regarding blood transfusions, "members should have free choice in the matter for themselves and their children, without any control or sanction on the part of the association."2
“2.1 - Jehovah's Witness patients resort to the use of the medical system for themselves and their children; each member having the right to make use of this [medical system] freely at their own discretion, without any controls or sanctions on the part of the petitioner;” - Translation of Application No. 28626/95
Watchtower representatives publicly announced that though they continue to highlight Bibles principles regarding the requirement to abstain from using blood, they do not prevent followers from taking blood. In a Watchtower press release of April 27th 1998, they stated:
“The agreement also includes an acknowledgment that each individual has the freedom to choose the type of medical treatment he receives. …. The terms of the agreement do not reflect a change in the doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
This is far from true in two regards.
Finnish journalist Pasi Turunen writes that in an interview in Finland on a local Christian radio station in April 1998 a Watchtower representative made the following comment:
"...this deal by Bulgaria is such that when the European human-rights court gave two weeks ago a decision, that the Bulgarian government must register Jehovah's Witnesses, that Jehovah's Witnesses cannot be classified as a destructive sect or religion, so Jehovah's Witnesses do not tell what a particular individual does, so this deal means this, that every individual has a full freedom of conscience to do, and Jehovah's Witnesses do not tell in a centralized way what someone does or does not do. And that's what that deal means." It seemed that a dramatic shift in policy had occurred. In reality nothing had changed, as Watchtower’s policies and procedures remained virtually the same. The words conveyed by the Watchtower representatives are deceptive, as Witnesses are subject to identical repercussions if they have a blood transfusion or allow their children to have one.
Following the Watchtower’s agreement with Bulgaria, blood transfusions were removed from being a disfellowshipping offence. This was of little consequence, as the consumption of blood was simply reclassified from being a disfellowshipping offence to one of disassociation. This change was released as a letter to Traveling Overseers dated: 4/26/00: For KS/91 page 95 – Blood Issue. 5/21/00: New procedure for handling cases where ones take a blood transfusion.
The Notification of Disfellowshipping or Disassociation form (S-77-E 7/01), used when a person is to be announced as "no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses", included taking blood under the disassociation check box.
In 2010, the new Elders manual outlined that taking blood can lead to being disassociated.
"Willingly and unrepentantIy taking blood.
The difference between being disfellowshipped and disassociated means that Witnesses have actually been disadvantaged by this change. Whereas a committee is formed for disfellowshipping where the subject can plead and then appeal their case, with disassociation the subject is considered to have by their actions chosen to be removed from the congregation and hence have no right of appeal to the decision. Despite the subtle difference in procedure, it is important to recognise that both result in shunning, as shown in the following copy from the Elders manual.
People that enquired to Watchtower headquarters about the Bulgarian changes have received explanations such as the following.
The cunning wordplay is a shocking indication of the lack of respect Watchtower leaders hold for governments of the world. Whilst the Watchtower signed in the European Commission of Human Rights application that a Witness could act “freely at their own discretion, without any controls or sanctions ”, the above letter shows there are repercussions that are highly persuasive in preventing Witnesses from exercising their own freedom and discretion.
“Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock” p.21
“Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock” p.22
Can it be said that a person has freedom to choose medical treatment if their religious leaders threatened them with shunning and the loss of life eternal? It would be like the taxation office saying you are free to refuse to pay tax, but when you are caught you will go to jail. That is not freedom. Furthermore, whilst the Watchtower may try to skirt around definitions of freedom, there certainly can be no doubt that it is a direct lie that Witnesses do not face “controls or sanctions” if they have blood.
In 2000 the Watchtower issued a press release stating that the requirements from Bulgaria had resulted in no changes in policy.
The Bulgarian government attempted to allow individual Witnesses the right to choose a blood transfusion, and the Watchtower gave the impression that they were changing their procedures on blood when signing Application No.28626/95. There can be no doubt that Bulgarian authorities felt this document meant they had paved the way for Witnesses to enjoy freedom of choice in regards to blood. Maybe the Bulgarian government was naïve in thinking a religion that prides itself on political neutrality would abide by political documents that it signed.
“Today God’s servants are engaged in a warfare, a spiritual, theocratic warfare, a warfare ordered by God against wicked spirit forces and against false teachings. God’s servants are sent forth as sheep among wolves and therefore need to exercise the extreme caution of serpents so as to protect properly the interests of God’s kingdom committed to them. At all times they must be very careful not to divulge any information to the enemy that he could use to hamper the preaching work.“ Watchtower 1957 May 1 pp.285-286
1 For a full description of the claim by Bulgaria and counterclaim by the Watchtower Society see the Press Communique’ Application No. 28626/95
2 As quoted from Communiqué issued by the Secretary to the European Commission of Human Rights INFORMATION NOTE No. 148 on the 276th Session of the European Commission of Human Rights (Strasbourg, Monday 2 March - Friday 13 March 1998)
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2013