Moscow court upholds ban on Jehovah's Witnesses

Associated Press/June 16, 2004
By Maria Danilova

Moscow -- Reflecting increased pressure on religious minorities in a country dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church, a Moscow court Wednesday upheld a ban on activities by the Jehovah's Witnesses in the capital.

The ruling by the Moscow City Court upholds a lower court decision earlier this year that prohibited Jehovah's Witnesses from engaging in religious activity.

The ruling arose from a Russian law that allows courts to ban religious groups that are considered to be inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.

Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Christian Presber said the decision will prevent the group from renting space for worship, holding bank accounts or otherwise supporting its religious activities.

"Religious freedom has just turned back to where it was in Soviet times," the organization's Canadian lawyer John Burns told The Associated Press outside the courtroom.

At the hearing Burns and his colleagues argued that the lower court was biased, taking into account evidence provided almost exclusively by prosecutors. They also said the court based its ruling on the testimony of only seven witnesses who did not speak for the entire Moscow community.

There are about 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow and 133,000 nationwide, according to the group.

Defense lawyers also argued that banning Jehovah's Witnesses was an ideological decision against people who don't celebrate Russia's national holidays, chose not to serve in the army and are seen as promoting what the court ruling called "alienation from traditional religions."

Presber said the ruling would send a dangerous signal to authorities across Russia, possibly leading to similar trials.

He also asked how intrusively authorities would become in enforcing the ban on a group that does not celebrate occasions marked by most of the rest of the population.

"Are they going to make police come into apartments to see that kids are celebrating holidays and birthdays?" he said.

Prosecutors claimed the group was destroying families and endangering followers' health by forbidding medical procedures such as blood transfusions. They also said Jehovah's Witnesses were violating privacy by distributing religious pamphlets on the street and by mail.

In Moscow, the Jehovah's Witnesses have about 100 congregations of about 100 members each and usually gather once or twice a week for worship services involving prayer and discussion of the Bible. They also publish two magazines, Presber said.

The Moscow group had been fighting for survival since 1998, when proceedings were first launched to shut it down. In 2001, a local court threw out prosecutors' attempts to ban the group, but another court later revived the case. The second trial, which ended in the ban, began in 2002.

An elderly woman who attended the hearing and identified herself only as Olga applauded the ban, saying that now "other souls won't die." Five years ago, she said, her daughter joined the Jehovah's Witnesses, which she derisively referred to as a "sect."

Russia's 1997 religion law enshrines Orthodox Christianity as the country's predominant religion and pledges respect for Buddhism, Islam and Judaism ---- called traditional religions ---- but places restrictions on other groups.

Wednesday's ruling came a day after a museum manager went on trial on charges of inciting religious hatred with an exhibit that angered the Russian Orthodox Church.

Defense lawyer Galina Krylova said that although Wednesday's decision was final, the case was already being considered by the European Court of Human Rights.

Svetlana Genelova, a 47-year-old who became a Jehovah's Witness seven years ago, said members will continue worshipping despite the ban, gathering at followers' apartments. "Nobody can forbid us to read and live by the Bible," she said.

Wednesday's ruling came a day after a museum manager went on trial on charges of inciting religious hatred with an exhibit that angered the Russian Orthodox Church. The court sent that case back to prosecutors, saying the indictment was flawed. The court gave the state five days to fix the problem.

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