MOSCOW — A district court decision here to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses, upheld by the city's top appeals court last week, is either an isolated event or a chilling sign of reviving religious intolerance in Russia, depending on whom you ask.
The judgment ends a six-year court battle by the Jehovah's Witnesses to maintain legal registration under Russia's 1997 law on religion. Without that, the group's 10,000-member Moscow community is forbidden to rent premises, print literature, or officially assemble. The court further ordered the Jehovah's Witnesses to "terminate their activity," which could subject members to fines or arrest simply for gathering in a private home or discussing their faith with friends.
"We may have to go back to meeting in the forest as Jehovah's Witnesses had to do in Soviet times," says Christian Presber, spokesman for the group. "This decision is like putting a bull's-eye on the back of every Jehovah's Witness and, by extension, everyone who's a member of a religious minority in Russia."
The Jehovah's Witnesses, who sprang from a Bible-reading class in Pittsburgh in 1870, today claim more than 5 million members around the world and about 130,000 in Russia.
The group has angered a succession of Russian governments by its refusal to celebrate national holidays or perform military service. Its tough intracommunity discipline and an assertive style of proselytizing new converts has also irritated authorities. One of the first Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, Semyon Kozlitsky, was exiled to Siberia by Czar Alexander III in 1891. Thousands died in Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's Gulag prison camps, but the organization was legalized as the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991.
Most representatives of other registered churches have declined to comment on the case. Of those who do speak, many insist they have no difficulties working in Russia.
But Mikhail Odintsov, an official liaison with public associations on behalf of the Kremlin's Human Rights Ombudsman, says many other religious groups are deeply worried by the ruling.
"It's my personal opinion that this ban is likely to stimulate similar processes in the Russian provinces," he says. "I think other religious groups feel they're on a hot frying pan right now, though they're not likely to tell you that because they're scared."
The 1997 law on religion requires all churches not associated with Russia's four "indigenous" faiths - Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism - to obtain registration and accept strict state regulation. According to deputy Justice Minister Yevgeny Sidorenko, there are currently 21,000 local congregations belonging to 59 different faiths, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, registered by the federal authorities.
Mr. Sidorenko said the law is working well, though last year the state issued 1,900 warnings to religious groups that their activities "infringe supervising bodies upon the legislation." Local prosecutors filed 246 court applications to close down specific local religious communities.
Although the Jehovah's Witnesses had gained federal registration, they ran into a brick wall trying to legalize their Moscow organization. Prosecutors charged the group with stirring up religious strife, dividing families, infringing on individual rights and freedoms, encouraging suicide by enjoining members to refuse medical assistance (Jehovah's Witnesses reject blood transfusions), and inciting citizens to ignore civic obligations such as military service. A lower court threw the charges out three years ago but prosecutors ordered a retrial, which resulted in last week's verdict, the first outright banning of a church under the 1997 law.
"The decision against the Jehovah's Witnesses is more political than legal," says Anatoly Pchelintsev, director of the official Institute of Religion and Law in Moscow. He says the same charges could be applied to any religion that advertises itself as the "true" one. "We are repeating the actions of Hitler and Stalin in banning them. It's a very bad precedent and it will have ill consequences for other confessions," Mr. Pchelintsev says.
Mr. Presber says his group is already experiencing stepped-up official harassment in other regions around Russia, where Jehovah's Witnesses have some 400 registered communities. "This is being seen everywhere as a green light to attack us," he says. "When Moscow speaks, all the regions listen."
Legal options in Russia are largely exhausted, unless the Kremlin steps in to suspend the ban, Presber says. The group now says its best hope lies with the European Court of Human Rights, which has repeatedly declared Jehovah's Witnesses to be a "known religion" entitled to protection under international conventions that Russia has signed.
Some applaud the move. "We do not consider the Jehovah's Witnesses real Christians; it's high time they were prohibited," says Dimitri Lotov, a chaplain with the Lutheran Church in Moscow.
The giant Orthodox Church has often been accused of fomenting official trouble for its competitors, but insists that it did not instigate the case. "This decision [to ban the group] was just wrong and it will do no good," says Yelena Speranskaya, a spokeswoman for the Church's Moscow Patriarchate.