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Tuesday, February 9, 1999 Published at 22:40 GMT

World: Europe

Moscow seeks ban on Jehovah's Witnesses

Opponents say the powerful Orthodox church is behind the move

By Andrew Harding in Moscow

A trial has begun in Moscow in which the authorities are trying to ban Jehovah's Witnesses from the city.

Judah Scroder, director of public affairs for the Jehovah's Witnesses: "We are good for society"
It is the first case to be tried under a controversial new law on religious freedom. Human rights groups say it is an important test case which could have a lasting impact on minority religions across Russia.

The authorities in Moscow are throwing the book at the Jehovah's Witnesses, accusing them of breaking up families, promoting suicide, failing to recognise other religions and promoting religious discord.

Sects and cults

[ image: Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses have often had to hold meetings in secret]
Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses have often had to hold meetings in secret
Supporters say the law protects Russia from foreign sects and cults which have poured into the country since the collapse of communism. But critics say it will curb the rights of legitimate minority religions.

Judah Schroeder, a Jehovah's Witness spokesman, said the authorities had no evidence against his organisation and he claimed the case was being orchestrated by Russia's powerful Orthodox Church in an attempt to stifle competition.

If the Jehovah's Witnesses lose the case, a ban will be imposed on all their activities in Moscow. As a result other religious groups are watching the trial closely, fearing that a successful prosecution could set a dangerous precedent.

Foreign governments have repeatedly criticised the new law, which says that religious organisations must be present in Russia for 15 years before they can publish or distribute literature or bring in foreign missionaries.

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