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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 19:54 GMT
Jehovah's Witnesses avoid Moscow ban
Russian Orthodox clergy
Clergy attacked the Witnesses' "aggressive recruitment"
A court in Moscow has refused to ban the local activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses, in a case presented by the religious community as a test of Russia's treatment of religious minorities.


Freedom of belief still exists in Russia

Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman
The community had been accused of breaking up families, encouraging suicide and threatening the health of its members by not allowing blood transfusions.

But the Jehovah's Witnesses argued that Russia's religious law was being used to restrict religious organizations other than the long-established faiths of Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

A spokesman for the community welcomed the decision, saying that religious freedom had been preserved in Russia despite "pressure" from the Orthodox Church.

"Despite all the efforts of the prosecutor, justice was victorious," Yaroslav Sivulsky told Reuters news agency.

"You can now say freedom of belief really still exists in Russia."

Experts back prosecution

But a committee of relatives of victims of religious cults, which brought the action, promised to appeal the decision.

Jehovah's Witnesses meeting in secret
Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses have complained of persecution in the past
Committee member Anna Zhavoronkova told the French news agency AFP that the judge had made a "political decision under pressure from the West".

The court case began in September 1998 but was suspended six months later as the court asked experts to examine literature published by the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Human rights groups said at the time it was an important test case which could have a lasting impact on minority religions across Russia.

Focus on religious law

After studying the literature for almost two years, four of the five experts agreed with the committee's accusations.

The court case has also focused attention on the 1997 law which forced newly established religious organisations in Russia to undergo a complicated registration process.

Opponents of the law say that it is designed to boost the power of the Orthodox Church and restricts religious freedom, while its supporters believe it is justified to stop the spread of dangerous sects.

The Salvation Army recently fell foul of the law. It was refused re-registration in January.

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