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Kerala blasts: Jehovah's Witnesses pledge to use enhanced security measures for future gatherings

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Thiruvananthapuram, Nov 21 (PTI) Still grappling with the aftermath of the devastating October 29 bomb attack at its gathering in Kerala, minority religious group Jehovah's Witnesses said it is now committed to ensuring the safety and security of its members at all future conventions, meetings, and gatherings.

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Satish Joseph, a staff member of the Public Information Department at the national headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in India Bengaluru, emphasised the organisation's decision to ensure the safety of its followers and expressed a willingness to seek help from the police if necessary.

He said the members of the community in Kerala are yet to recover from the shock of the devastating blasts at its prayer convention attended by around 2,300 people in Kochi last month that claimed six lives.

The six lives lost include those of three members of a family, one of whom was a 12-year-old girl. Several people were injured in the multiple blasts carried out allegedly by a disgruntled member of the group.

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”October 29, 2023, is a date that cannot be easily forgotten by us,” its members have said.

Following the devastating incident, a man named Dominic Martin, claiming to be an estranged member of Jehovah's Witnesses, surrendered before the police in Thrissur district, asserting that he carried out the multiple blasts.

On being asked whether the religious organisation was concerned there may be others like Martin who might carry out attacks at other conventions and meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses, Joseph said, "Absolutely".

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He said that in the world and times we live in, such "horrific" attacks can happen anywhere and not necessarily at a convention alone.

"We live in such an uncertain world where such horrific incidents are carried out by such people. So, from our side we want to ensure all safety and security measures are followed for the rest of the conventions, meetings and gatherings.

"If required, we will be very happy to take help from the police as well because safety is a priority and life is of the utmost value to Jehovah's Witnesses," Joseph told PTI.

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He further said that even before the incident, safety and security measures were always in place.

"But we never expected this kind of a tragic event would happen at our convention. So, we will be obviously careful from now on as lives are very important for us.

"For Jehovah's Witnesses, life is very sacred and highly precious and we want to do everything possible to safeguard lives," Joseph said.

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At the moment for all our regional conventions across India, following the October 29 incident, we have included the door scanners, baggage scanners and metal detectors, Joseph said.

"We have also hired private security agencies. They will deploy armed security guards," he said.

These new measures have become mandatory for conventions following the October 29 incident, he added.

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Earlier these measures were not in place as the convention halls were hired and the owners of the premises had to take care of the security, Joseph said.

At the convention hall in Kochi where the blasts occurred, security measures like scanners and metal detectors were not present as nobody expected such an attack, he said.

These beefed up security measures are costly and would be funded by the donations from existing members and any other voluntary contributions from those visiting our places, he said.

So, the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses need not necessarily fund such measures, he added.

"That is one aspect of the security arrangements. In our regular meeting places, called Kingdom Halls, we have always had security measures which we are going to continue.

"Now we are going to be more vigilant. We will be tightening up the measures which are already in place," Joseph said.

The measures already in place at the Kingdom Halls were -- presence of attendants, at the entrances and inside the hall, who would escort strangers to such meetings and enquire about them, evacuation plans in case of emergencies, fire extinguishers, emergency exits, etc, he said.

There are also CCTV cameras in the Kingdom Halls even if they are rented premises.

"But we do not have door scanners at these places. However, in places where the situation becomes sensitive, like in Kerala, we will bring in these measures," Joseph said.

Whether the safety measures would include shifting to virtual meetings would be decided according to the need of the hour, he said.

He said the option of virtual meetings was always available in times of "these kinds of terrorist attacks", social unrest or even pandemics.

However, presently there have been no requests from members to hold virtual meetings as at the moment everyone, including Jehovah's Witnesses, are "in shock that such a terrible thing happened" to a community of people who are “peaceful, united and have a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural environment among our gatherings", he said.

"We are one of the most peace-loving people on planet Earth. So a terrible thing like this happening to us is kind of a big shock to us.

"So we want the members to first recover from the shock before finding out from them what kind of meetings they prefer or do not prefer in the days to come," Joseph said.

At the same time he also said that if any requests for virtual meetings are received in future, it would not be treated as a negative.

"Obviously, a person who has gone through it would have nightmares. It is very much human to think like that," he said.

This year, 74 conventions were scheduled to be held across India, including Kerala, and 75 per cent of them are over.

While the remaining conventions in other parts of the country would be held as scheduled, those in Kerala have been postponed following the October 29 incident, Joseph said.

He also said that there is no reduction in attendees in the conventions held in other parts of the country following the October 29 incident.

In fact, the attendees were more in number than the expected or projected figures, he said.

Regarding the ongoing probe into the blasts by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Kerala Police and various central agencies, Joseph said that the organisation would not speculate about any more suspects or the "true motives" behind the attack.

"We do not want to speculate. We want the investigating authorities and agencies to complete the probe and come out with the facts.

"We are hopeful that the true motives behind the horrific incident will soon come out. Right now our main focus has been on providing adequate support and help to those affected by the tragedy," he said.

He said that speculating about involvement of any others or their motives would only lead to interfering with or hindering the probe of the investigative agencies.

"Personally I might think that there could be others or more than one (accused), but I do not want it to be a hindrance in the probe by the agencies. So at the moment we leave that job to them (police).

"If they (police) approach us (Jehovah's Witnesses) as part of their investigation, we are going to cooperate and talk to them about our suspicions. We will then definitely express what we feel and what we know," Joseph said.

He said that presently, the police were doing their job by talking to the survivors and their families.

Jehovah's Witnesses also expressed its thanks to the state government for the Rs 5 lakh financial assistance promised to families of those who died in the incident as well as all the other help and support provided to those affected.

The Kerala government had on November 15 decided to provide financial assistance of Rs five lakh each to the families of those who had lost their lives in a blast at a religious gathering in Kalamassery near Kochi last month.

Joseph said that even before the government came forward with its offer of free medical treatment, the organisation was taking care of all medical expenses of its members who were seriously injured in the incident.

"We are very grateful for the additional help offered to us by the government apart from what we as a community offered to the victims and their families. Accepting the additional compensation offered by the government is a personal matter of the individuals and their families," he said.

He also said that the parent body of Jehovah's Witnesses in Warwick, USA has issued directions to the branch offices in India to take care of those affected .

"On hearing about the incident, they had immediately directed the National Headquarters in Bengaluru to rush people to Kerala for relief efforts and provide pastoral care to those affected," he said.

He said even now the parent body in the USA was in regular communication with the branch offices here in India.

"Right now our focus has really been on helping the victims. Help them emotionally, mentally, physically and practically with whatever aid and assistance we can render," Joseph said. PTI HMP ANE

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