Several dozen police officers broke up a prayer meeting of about 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses in southeastern Moscow and briefly detained 14 worshipers.
The Wednesday evening raid promises to raise new worries about a clampdown on minority religions at a time when the clout of the Russian Orthodox Church is increasing.
More than 30 police officers burst into the prayer meeting in a rented hall on Sovkhoznaya Ulitsa at around 9 p.m. and detained 14 organizers, Vasily Kalin, head of the managing committee of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, said Thursday.
Kalin said police told the worshipers that they were violating a 2004 ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow.
In June 2004, the Moscow City Court barred the denomination from engaging in religious activities, citing a law that bans religious groups deemed to incite hatred or intolerance.
Kalin said the ban applied to Jehovah’s Witnesses only as a legal entity and that the Russian Constitution guaranteed members freedom of assembly.
Police said Thursday that the organizers were taken to the Lyublino police precinct for routine document checks after “vigilant” citizens reported the meeting to police.
“They were released after it was established who they were and that they didn’t have warrants out for their arrest,” said Olga Yegorova, a spokeswoman for the police’s southeast district branch.
The police arrived in about 10 cars while the worshipers were commemorating the Last Supper by passing around symbolic bread and wine, Kalin said.
“They wouldn’t even allow them to finish the ceremony. There was nothing secretive going on there. They could have allowed them finish,” Kalin said by telephone from St. Petersburg.
Witnesses from the meeting could not be reached for comment. Kalin said those present had relayed details of the incident to him.
Kalin said the organizers were hauled in to the local precinct and released about four hours later without any written explanation for their detention.
He expressed bafflement over the incident. “There is so much crime. Do the police have nothing better to do than to break up a meeting of peaceful people?” he said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, which count around 10,000 members in Moscow and 133,000 nationwide, are not the only religious minority that has faced pressure in a country dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 2000, Moscow city authorities repeatedly turned down attempts by the Salvation Army to re-register. Siding with the city, the Presnensky District Court called the Salvation Army a “militarized group” — in a perhaps unintended nod to a character in the popular “Austin Powers” films, Frau Farbissina, Dr. Evil’s German adviser and the head of the “Militant Wing of the Salvation Army.”
In 2003, a higher court overturned the ruling and allowed the group’s Moscow chapter to reopen.
The U.S. State Department’s 2005 report on religious freedom, released in November, said that “some federal agencies and many local authorities” in Russia “continued to restrict the rights of various religious minorities” and cited specifically the 2004 ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses activities in Moscow.
The report cited “indications that the security services, including the Federal Security Service, increasingly treated the leadership of some minority religious groups as security threats.”
Criticism concerning the lack of religious freedom has been repeatedly dismissed by government and Russian Orthodox Church officials.
However, Justice Minister Yury Chaika recently raised red flags by announcing that his ministry planned to introduce legislation later this year that would tighten control over religious organizations conducting missionary work.
“Recently, we have been disturbed by illegal missionary activity,” Chaika said at a news conference last month.
He did not specify any particular religious groups.