Russian court bans Pentecostalist group

Associated Press/March 3, 1999
By Nick Wadhams

Moscow -- A Russian court has used a controversial religion law to ban the Pentecostalist Church from a town in eastern Siberia, news reports said Wednesday.

Under Russian law, courts have the right to outlaw religious groups found to be inciting hatred or intolerant behavior. The law has been used against several groups recently.

A judge in the Siberian town of Aldan ruled Tuesday that the Pentecostalists had violated the law because they refused medical aid for ailing members of the group. The court also said the Pentecostalists had preached intolerance by teaching their children at home, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.

The man who oversees Russia's Pentecostalists, Vladimir Murza, suggested the case was part of a conspiracy to discredit the church and justify a crackdown. He denied any connection to the group in Aldan and said it was not registered with the Justice Ministry as required by Russian law, ITAR-Tass said.

The religion law, passed in 1997, recognizes the Russian Orthodox Church as the nation's leading faith and pledges to respect Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. Other denominations face a host of restrictions and must prove they've had a presence in Russia for at least 15 years before they're permitted full legal status.

The court ruling came as the city and the Pentecostalists were involved in another confrontation in Aldan, 3,000 miles east of Moscow.

A group of 60 Pentecostalists took over Aldan's administration building Sunday and demanded that the city pay them for work they performed when severe flooding hit the region last spring, ITAR-Tass said. City leaders say they repaid the church members with food, clothing and fuel.

Authorities removed the group from the building on Wednesday, taking the women and children to a hospital while the men were placed in a detention center, the Interfax news agency said.

ITAR-Tass said the group had threatened mass suicide if its demands weren't met.

Murza criticized the Pentecostalists' actions. "Blackmail, calls for mass suicide -- such unlawful methods cannot be used ... by evangelical Christians and faithful people in general," he said.

Human rights groups have protested Russia's religion law as a violation of the constitution, which permits freedom of religion.

The style of worship varies in different Pentecostalist churches. Many worshipers exercise Holy Spirit "gifts," including speaking in tongues, faith healing and modern-day prophecies.

Last month, 400 Pentecostalists in the eastern city of Magadan applied for asylum in the United States after claiming they were harassed by local officials.

In Moscow, prosecutors are seeking to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses from the capital. And tax police last week raided the offices of the Church of Scientology, confiscating documents and questioning leaders.

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