Jehovah's Witnesses on trial in Moscow face ban

First test in court of a 1997 law requiring nontraditional religionsto meet tough standards for recognition.

Religious pluralism is under attack in a cramped suburban courtroom here, where a judge is considering the case for banning a sect whose beliefs and practices are foreign to Russian tradition.

Human rights lawyers for the defendants, the Moscow congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, say the trial is a litmus test of the potential for genuine freedom of conscience in post-Soviet Russia.

"The law is being used as a weapon to harass and oppress all minority faiths in Russia," says John Burns, a Canadian trial lawyer representing the group against charges that they foment religious discord, destroy families, and incite people to commit suicide. The case is the first courtroom test of a 1997 law that defined four "traditional" Russian religions - Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam - and set tough conditions for any outside faiths to obtain legal recognition.

The legislation has been widely criticized for effectively setting up the Russian Orthodox Church - which lobbied heavily for it - as the official state religion.

"In the hands of unscrupulous leaders this law could definitely be used to enforce ideological and religious purity," says Geraldine Fagen, Moscow director of the Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in post-Communist countries.

Through most of Russian history, church and state have been inextricably linked, with their joint purposes tending to define the limits of "Russian-ness." Soviet leaders attempted to eliminate the church and replace its role with the Communist Party and its ideology.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the new Russia's leaders pledged to chart a course to modern, democratic, secular statehood. But those promises appear increasingly dubious as President Boris Yeltsin's troubled government slides into the embrace of religious nationalism. "There is a visible reversion taking place," says Ms. Fagen. "The move has been to decrease religious freedom in Russia."

The law requires any "nontraditional" religion seeking to function in Russia to undergo 15 years probation, during which it is forbidden to own property, hold a bank account, publish literature, proselytize, or invite foreign preachers into the country. "It's basically a Catch-22," says Fagen. "The authorities say they will only register religions that are solidly rooted in Russia, but the law prohibits outside faiths from doing all the things necessary to establish themselves," she says.

Mr. Burns says several religious groups will launch a challenge to the 15-year rule in Russia's Constitutional Court.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim 10,000 members in Moscow and 250,000 across Russia, were registered under the Soviet-era religion law but were ordered to go through the process again. Last autumn the Moscow city prosecutor moved to block their application, acting on a complaint from a shadowy organization linked to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Committee for the Salvation of Youth. If accepted by Judge Yelena Prokhorcheva, the indictment will result in the group being banned in Moscow in perpetuity.

Mr. Burns says he is hopeful, but warns that under Russian rules the prosecutor has the power to keep the case against the group going indefinitely, even if it is repeatedly thrown out of court. And he points out that even a high-profile victory in Moscow may not prevent local prosecutors from harassing or banning groups that don't conform to official expectations.

"At the bottom, it's about control," Mr. Burns says. "The Russian government sees religion not as a matter of private conscience but as an expression of obedience to the state, or at the very least not anything different or threatening."

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