the following experiences, on pgs 198-208 of the 1982 Yearbook, totally remind me of today's text discussion. I shouldn't laugh, but some of the stuff that took place in the early years between JW's and the clergy is really funny in retrospect. It reminds me of the Old West. lol.
(First district convention in Italy, held in Milan, October 27th-29th, 1950. Illustration on pg 209)
The Clergy Stir Up More Trouble
The freedom now enjoyed in Italy goes back to the important date of December 27, 1947, when the Constitution of the Italian Republic went into force. The Constitution recognized basic rights directly pertinent to our work of announcing Jehovah’s kingdom and which had been ruthlessly trampled underfoot during the dictatorship.
In spite of the new Constitution, however, difficulties were not yet over for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although the Catholic hierarchy no longer had a dictatorship to lean upon, it could still boast powerful connections with the most important political party in the country. The clergy did their best to suffocate Kingdom interests by appealing to that body of Fascist law that was contrary to the Constitution and that had not yet been abolished.
Sometimes priests stirred up mobs of fanatics against the brothers while they were at meetings or in the field ministry. For example, in an article entitled “A Priest Stirs Up a Mob of Women and Children Against ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ at Molfetta,” the daily newspaper L’Unità of September 22, 1954, said:
“The religious fanaticism stirred up by a priest [name and address given] against honest citizens, whose only fault is that of professing a different religion from that of the above-named cleric, is of a particularly serious nature . . .
“A few days ago the hardworking and orderly town of Molfetta witnessed a most disgusting scene of religious persecution, worthy of the most obscure period of the Inquisition. About ten of the townspeople were met together as usual at No. 7 Via Zuppetta when the priest [name given] came along chanting hymns and followed by a mob of women, children and youths. He then gave the signal to start a disorderly uproar that went on for over two hours. The demonstration included a constant hail of stones against the doors and windows of the meeting place, accompanied by rowdiness and the shouting of threats and abuse from the crowd. . . .
“Obliged to come out into the open to avoid the worst, these people were subjected to ridicule, insults and threats and then surrounded by the unruly women and children. They were punched and hit by stones before they managed to reach the police station, not only to obtain protection but also to ask that the instigators of this unlawful aggression be punished. However, the official in charge, obviously sympathizing with the other side, had no intention of intervening to guarantee respect for the law and constitutional rights. So instigators and perpetrators went unpunished with the tacit approval of those whose duty it should be to safeguard the basic rights of the individual and personal safety. In this particular case these rights were trampled underfoot and violated in the most vile and degrading manner.”
The same newspaper, in its issue of January 3, 1959, published an article entitled “Outbreak of Religious Intolerance Against ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ at Lapio.” What had happened this time? On December 29, 1958, two publishers, Antonio Puglielli and Francesco Vitelli, were preaching the “good news” at Lapio, a small town in the province of Avellino. At about eleven o’clock in the morning they were confronted by a mob of youths and children led by the local Catholic priest who began shouting, “Go away!” and then, “You are ignorant good-for-nothing peddlers of lies! You don’t understand the Bible. You just ruin the flock.”
Since the mob evidently meant business, the two brothers took refuge in the town hall, and the priest followed them up the stairs to the upper floor where the mayor intervened to protect them. What about the other brothers preaching in the town? The two brothers declared: “Accompanied by municipal guards we went to the part of the town where the others were working. We found them surrounded by a crowd led by a threatening priest and it was only with some difficulty that we were able to free them and get them back to the bus that was to take us away. Once we were on the bus the priest stood in front of it so that it could not leave and tried to incite the crowd to further violence. Fortunately the people did not obey anymore.”
These are just a few of the clergy-inspired incidents. For obvious reasons, the newspapers that denounced these acts were usually controlled by the political opposition, while those controlled by the Catholic majority usually passed them over without comment.
This persistent opposition by the Catholic Church is hardly surprising. Rather, it is consistent with the attitude she has generally maintained when dealing with other religions. A clear delineation of this policy is given by “Father” Cavalli in the Jesuit semimonthly, Civiltà Cattolica of March 27, 1948:
“The Catholic Church is convinced of her divine right, as the one true church, to claim freedom of action for herself alone, so that this privilege be reserved exclusively for truth and be denied to error. As for other religions, the Church will never take up the literal sword against them but she will make use of legitimate channels and worthy means to see that they are not allowed to spread their false doctrines. Consequently, in a predominantly Catholic state the Church will insist that erroneous beliefs be denied legal recognition and that, if certain religious minorities persist, they should be allowed a mere de facto existence and be denied the possibility of spreading their beliefs. In cases where existing circumstances render a stringent application of this principle impossible, either due to government hostility or the numerical consistency of dissident groups, the Church will try to obtain the greatest concessions for herself and will tolerate the lawful existence of other cults as a minor evil. In some countries, Catholics will themselves be forced to sustain the absolute right to freedom of religion and resign themselves to coexistence with other cults where they alone should have the right to thrive . . . ” (Italics ours)
In other words, the Catholic clergy clearly says to those like Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘If we had our way we would get rid of you.’ But Jehovah has not permitted this opposition to prevail against the people who have ‘come to know his name.’—Psalm 91:14.
Efforts To Disturb Assemblies
The clergy did everything within its power to disturb our peaceful activity, adopting various means to interrupt our assemblies. For example, priests would infiltrate the audience with hecklers, usually young people. These would go inside and sit quietly among the delegates for a while, and then they would start to upset the meeting by shouting and creating a disturbance. At this point the police would take a hand, but, instead of removing those responsible for the trouble, they would often stop the assembly on the pretext that the meeting was “disturbing the peace.”
William Wengert recalls: “When we started an assembly we were never sure whether we would be able to finish it. There were so many interruptions and difficulties in those days!”
The circuit and district overseers who organized the assemblies found a simple and practical remedy. They would see to it that there was a very efficient group of strapping ushers and put plenty of them near the entrance. One traveling overseer relates: “The circuit assembly had just begun and clergy interference was expected. The district overseer had given instructions to the ushers on duty at the entrance to stop anyone they did not know and casually ask them a couple of questions, such as, ‘Where are you from?’ or, ‘Who is the overseer in your congregation?’ Those answering in a convincing way were allowed to enter.
“But what if a troublemaker managed to slip in among the audience? In this case the ‘flying squad,’ a group of very determined-looking ushers, came on the scene and they kindly invited opposers to be silent. If the disturbance continued the ‘squad’ would very discreetly lift the heckler out of his seat and ‘help’ him to leave the hall. Since the police did not sustain our right to hold meetings undisturbed, we had to resolve the problem ourselves.”
Let us now mention a few of the many incidents sparked off by the clergy. The first of these happened at a circuit assembly held at Sulmona, a small town in central Italy in a fertile valley of the Abruzzi region. On Sunday, September 26, 1948, there were about 2,000 persons present at the public talk—a tremendous crowd if we remember that there were only 472 publishers in the whole country at the time. What happened on this occasion? An extract from the 1950 Yearbook (English ed.) narrates:
“Sunday morning at 10:30 found more than 2,000 people swelling out the largest theater in the city, and the doors had to be closed minutes before the time set for the talk. Many had to be turned away, but not before having received a booklet; there simply was no more room left, even the aisles were occupied! Inside, an extremely attentive audience showed its appreciation and approval of truth by applauding several times during the lecture and upon its conclusion.
“However, before the meeting was closed, a young religionist who had been standing in the rear of the hall taking notes from two priests made his way to the platform, raised his hands and began shouting, demanding to be heard. The chairman calmly explained that questions of the public would be answered personally and privately after the close of the meeting. That this fanatic was bent on making trouble and using our public meeting to spread his religious propaganda was evident. No doubt he, like the clergy, was aware of the empty pews in the churches these days and was seeking other places to harangue the people. Goaded on by his sneaky, priestly advisors, he scrambled to the top of the platform as soon as the assembly was dismissed, waved his arms like a madman and yelled at the top of his lungs for attention. The two priests in the rear, ducking their heads down to hide their reversed collars, shouted and whistled in approval, hoping thus to arouse a wave of enthusiasm for their hireling. It did not work. The audience turned down his uninvited attempt to do religious proselyting. Instead of applauding and permitting him to speak, those in the audience drowned out his protesting voice with cries of: ‘Fascistone!’ [Fascist!] ‘Vergogna!’ [Shame on you!] ‘How much are they paying you to do this?’ Seeing things were not going so well, the would-be interloper soon leaped off the stage and quickly disappeared with his priestly companions. Then, orderly and quietly, the audience made its way out of the theater, accepting gladly the free booklet that was offered.”
The account ended by saying: “The tables had been turned on them and once more Jehovah gave the victory.”
First District Convention
Now let us describe another episode of religious intolerance. We were to hold the first district convention ever to take place in Italy, at the Teatro dell’Arte, Milan, from October 27 to 29, 1950. (shown in the illustration above) At the last minute the chief of police canceled our permit to hold the convention there. The two brothers in charge of convention organization were told that the measure had been taken to avoid the danger of reaction from Catholics who might be offended by a Protestant meeting! This was absurd! It was just an excuse to deprive honest citizens of their right to meet together peaceably.
Even though these and other arguments put forward by the brothers were obviously logical, the chief of police would not go back on his decision. When, as a last resort, the brothers threatened to inform the press of this abuse of authority, he did not know what to say and threw them out of his office. Coupling what had been said with other facts in our possession, we were sure that the clergy had had a hand in the matter. This time they had devised a different method, using their influence with the police force.
Brother George Fredianelli, the assistant overseer at that convention, recalls:
“This was the situation: there were barely 24 hours before the assembly was due to begin, brothers were arriving at Milan from all over Italy, and we couldn’t find another hall anywhere! What were we to do? We were very worried. But once again Jehovah intervened in our favor.
“The morning before the assembly, Brother Antonio Sideris, the assembly overseer, and I were out looking for another hall. As we were passing by a piece of ground surrounded by a fence, we suddenly had an idea, ‘Why not ask the proprietor if he would let us use it for three days?’ He rented us the land at a very reasonable price, and off we went to look for some large tents under which the assembly could be held. Finally we found a well-known tent factory willing to rent us marquees and even to help us put them up. They were pleased with the prospect of extra publicity.
“The next problem facing us was that of getting permission from the authorities all over again. Since there was little or no chance that it would be given in time, we decided to present them with an accomplished fact. There was no other way. We just couldn’t send all the brothers back home again. We put the marquees up and organized the various departments overnight before anyone noticed, and at nine o’clock in the morning the assembly punctually got off to a start.
“The police arrived soon afterward. They jumped out of their jeep armed to the teeth. What a glaring contrast they made! What a ridiculous situation it was! Armed policemen sent to control people peacefully sitting there singing religious hymns. Brother Sideris told them that if they interrupted the assembly, they would be sorry. We would report the fact to the local and international press to show that Italy’s new constitution was not being observed and that there was a return of the Fascist dictatorship. The intimidated policemen went away to ask for instructions from higher up and later returned to inform us that we could carry on with our assembly.”
About 800 were present at the public talk and 45 were baptized. Since the tents had been put up in an area where there were several factories, the brothers had the opportunity of giving a witness to many of the workmen who took advantage of their lunch break to see what was going on. What was it like sitting inside those marquees on the cold, damp October days? Fern Fraese recalls: “As we listened to the program we kept our coats on, and many of us were holding hot-water bottles to keep warm. Nevertheless, we were very happy and rejoiced to receive such good spiritual food.”
Clergy Intolerance Backfires
Another episode of clergy-inspired intolerance took place the last week in June 1951 with regard to a circuit assembly to be held at Cerignola. What happened on this occasion? The 1952 Yearbook report (English ed.) states:
“At noon two policemen came over to the hall to advise us that our private meetings there were being forbidden. Immediately we called on the local office of the commissario [police commissioner] to find out what this was all about. As we entered the police station, a young priest was leaving the place with a big smile on his face. Evidently he was quite joyful, and we soon learned that the police had given him reason to feel contented. The commissario himself made it very plain to us that our police permit was being canceled for reasons over which he had no control. The authorities gave as the ‘reason’, the unsafe condition of the hall, but no one was expected to believe that. After a somewhat heated discussion of the matter, we were advised to go to the capital of the province and talk to the provincial ‘boss’, the questore.
“A few hours later we were walking into the provincial police headquarters, and to our surprise we found there the same Catholic priest we had met in the commissario’s office, this time accompanied by an older and more important-looking priest. We found out later that the latter was the vicario of the city where we were holding our assembly. The priests were waiting to talk with the questore, but when his assistant, the chief of police, came in they asked to be shown into his office instead. A few minutes later the questore arrived . . . He clearly showed that his mind had already been made up for him before hearing what we had to say and . . . he started out by threatening us with arrest for having rented a hall that was, in his opinion, unfit for meetings. His tactics were to frighten us and make it seem as if we were the ones that had done wrong and hence deserving reproof. . . .
“We were determined not to give in to this arbitrary, fascist-like action of the police without a battle, and for more than one hour we stayed in the questore’s office and debated the legal aspect of our case.”
In spite of this, the questore did not change his decision. So what happened about the assembly?
The report continues:
“We went back and made arrangements to hold the assembly in two private homes, and by means of loud-speaking equipment we had the same program in both places at the same time. The intolerance of the clergy aroused the indignation of many honest persons, even though the priests tried to cover up by announcing in church the next morning that no one should attend the public meeting of Jehovah’s witnesses that day (when they knew all the time that it had been forbidden and therefore would not be held!). . . . But here again the priests were defeated, because Jehovah’s witnesses do not keep their mouths shut but continue to expose the hypocrisy and the erroneous teachings of the false religionists, resulting in more persons of good will getting their eyes opened.”