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 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 said 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.
Presber said the ruling would send a dangerous signal to authorities across Russia, possibly leading to similar trials.
He also asked how intrusive authorities would become in enforcing the ban on a group that does not celebrate occasions marked by most of the rest of the population.
Prosecutors claimed that 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 who 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 revived the case. The second trial, which ended in the ban, began in 2002.
Svetlana Genelova, 47, who became a Jehovah’s Witness seven years ago, said members will continue worshipping despite the ban, gathering at followers’ apartments.