Moscow Court Bans Jehovah’s Witnesses from Practicing in City

MOSCOW, March 26 — After six years of civil proceedings, a court here on Friday banned activities by Jehovah’s Witnesses in what members of the group said could be a first step toward a nationwide ban.

A spokesman for the Christian religious group said the decision would be appealed. But he said the ruling increased the danger of violent attacks directed at Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and other former Soviet areas.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Theologically, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult of Christianity. The oppressive organization does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity in any way. Sociologically, it is a destructive cult whose false teachings frequently result in spiritual and psychological abuse, as well as needless deaths.

The spokesman, Christian Presber, said the group, which is federally registered, had 11,000 adherents in Moscow and 133,000 throughout Russia. Since the first trial started, in 1998, he said, city authorities have repeatedly frustrated its attempts to buy or rent places to hold worship services.

In 1999, members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a monitoring body made up of European legislators, warned, “The case is a cause of concern for other religious groups who also expect to be banned if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were to lose.”

Mr. Presber said, “The prosecutor said in open court that this is just the beginning. When she’s banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow the goal is to start the process for the rest of Russia.”

He said the basis for the ruling involved a 1997 law on freedom of conscience and religious association that the prosecutor interpreted as showing that the group was an “antistate organization.”

A lawyer for the group, Artur Leontyev, said the case did not deal with any alleged incidents of wrongdoing but rather with the question of whether the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses were legitimate.

“This question has already been decided numerous times by the European Court, which ruled that it is not within a state’s prerogative to examine the legitimacy of religious beliefs, much less pass sentence on them,” he said, referring to the European Court of Human Rights.

A Canadian legal counsel for the Moscow group, John Burns, said the grounds for the ruling were cited as “inciting religious discord, breaking up families, violating individual Russian citizens’ rights, inclining people to commit suicide and luring teenagers and minors.”

He said that the allegations were not supported by evidence and that studies and testimony presented to the court refuted them.

“The big concern is what the extremists are going to do in Moscow and Russia when they hear about this decision,” Mr. Burns said. “How many people are we going to see beaten up?”

Human rights groups say religious and racial intolerance have become intertwined with notions of nationalism in Russia.

In a report issued on Friday, the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, an independent monitoring group, said that according to polls it had conducted, some 60 percent of people living in Russia “have a xenophobic attitude and agree that representatives of ethnic minorities should be barred from political life and from living in large cities.”

It added, “An estimated 5 to 6 percent are ready to carry out pogroms.”

In 2001 a Moscow court ruled in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the case was reinstated and proceedings resumed after an appeal by the prosecutor’s office.

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The New York Times, USA
Mar. 27, 2004
Seth Mydans

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday March 30, 2004.
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