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Last Updated: Friday, 26 March, 2004, 23:45 GMT
Moscow bans Jehovah's Witnesses
The Patriarch of Moscow during an Orthodox Christmas service in January
The group's lawyer says the Orthodox Church encouraged the ban
A Russian court has barred Jehovah's Witnesses from operating in the capital, Moscow.

The court ruled that group's practices broke up families, encouraged suicide and threatened its members' health by not allowing blood transfusions.

Lawyers for the group said the ruling was a step back for democracy and was reminiscent of Soviet rule.

They said they would appeal the verdict both in Russia and to the European Court of Human Rights.

"Religious minorities are often a litmus test for where a society is going... this is an ominous signal," the group's lawyer, John Burns, said.

In an interview outside the courtroom, Vasiliy Kalin, a Jehovah's Witness official, expressed his disappointment at the ruling.

"In the Soviet time a Russian had to be an atheist," he said.

"The situation has changed and a Russian must be Orthodox now."

A Russian law from 1997 recognises only four traditional religions - Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

Prolonged battle

The court case against the Jehovah's Witnesses 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.

In February 2001 a Moscow court refused to ban the local activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

But an appeals court later that year overturned this ruling, allowing prosecutors to relaunch proceedings against the group.

Jehovah's Witnesses claim 11,000 followers in Moscow and more than 133,000 throughout the whole of Russia.


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