In India, Jehovah's Witnesses have been in the news for controversial reasons - refusing blood donations and modern medical procedures, and for refusing to sing the national anthem or salute the country's flag. In many countries, especially Russia, they have been forced to go underground because of allegations that they poach members from mainstream Christian denominations.
On Sunday, news of the blasts at a Jehovah Witness congregation in Kalamassery, Kerala had community members in Mumbai glued to television. "Honestly, we do not know much in Mumbai. We are some information from friends and family in Kerala," said Craig Gould, member of a Santa Cruz-based congregation.
Though they count themselves as Christians, they eschew many visible symbols of the religion like crucifixes, icons, church buildings and a clergy. Followers do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, who is venerated as the 'son of god' by other Christians, instead basing their faith on a creator called 'Jehovah'.
Instead of the geographical parish that is the building block of mainstream churches, the Jehovah's Witnesses divide themselves into congregations with no head priest. Leadership in each congregation is provided by a 'Body of Elders' who are senior members. Members meet for prayers, but do not collect tithes or compulsory religious contributions, instead relying on donations. They have no Pope or a bishop and worldwide leadership is provided by a governing body of 'mature Christians' based in Warwick, New York state.
"We have no priests, no head. Our only head is almighty God," said Charan Raj, member of a congregation in Ghatkopar.
In Mumbai, the community has centres, called 'Kingdom Halls' in Santa Cruz, Vikhroli and Mira Road and Ghatkopar.
The group has often been called 'fundamentalist' because of their belief in the Bible as 'God's inspired message to humans. However, they refuse the 'fundamentalist' tag. They practice sacraments and beliefs common to other Christians, like Baptisms resurrection, but refuse to venerate images.
Their political beliefs and extreme views on medicine have been other sources of controversy. Though the group refuse blood transfusions, they deny that they are against modern medicine. They are supporters of what is called 'bloodless treatment' and claim that advanced medical procedures like heart surgery, orthopedics and organ donations can be done without blood transfusions.
In January 2020, doctors at a Bengaluru hospital were reported to have performed a liver transplant on a Nigerian Jehovah's Witness, without any infusion of blood or blood products.
The group was in the spotlight after the Jehovah Witness parents of a four-year-old child with Burkitt lymphoma refused to allow surgery because their faith did not allow a medical procedure that included transfusion of blood. The parents gave a go-ahead for the surgery only after the doctors threatened to take legal action. In August 2022, the head teacher of a school in Tamil Nadu refused to salute the national flag, saying that her Jehovah Witness faith did not allow her to venerate anything apart from God.
In July, 1985, a school in Kerala expelled three children from the community because they refused to sing the national anthem. The Supreme Court later allowed them to rejoin classes after saying that the expulsion from school was a violation of their 'right to fundamentalist expression and religion'. The students are reported to have left formal education later.