MOSCOW - The Jehovah's Witnesses won a two-year courtroom battle Friday when a judge refused to liquidate the group's Moscow communities in a case seen as a key test of Russia's attitude toward religious freedom.
The battle focused international attention on a 1997 law that approved Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity as Russia's traditional religions and forced faiths without a long history of Russian activity to undergo a complicated registration process.
"Despite all the efforts of the prosecutor, justice was victorious," Yaroslav Sivulsky, spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses, said by telephone. "You can now say freedom of belief really still exists in Russia."
The group says it has some 120,000 active followers and more than twice as many members in Russia.
A city court judge threw out a case brought by the prosecutor of the city's northern region that had accused the Witnesses of breaking up families, infringing upon individuals' rights and converting minors without parents' permission.
The prosecutor also charged the group with breaking Russia's 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association, which the United States and the Vatican have strongly criticized.
The Jehovah's Witnesses rejected all the charges and Sivulsky said the victory would resonate far beyond the capital.
"The prosecutor said we are beginning with Moscow and then will liquidate the other communities across the whole of Russia, despite the fact that we have already registered 361 of them."
"It is a decision with significance not only for Moscow's Jehovah's Witnesses but for those across Russia, the former Soviet Union and even western Europe," Sivulsky said.
Founded in 1872 in the United States, the Witnesses are so called for their belief that Jehovah is the true name of God. They refuse to salute any national flag or serve in the armed forces and are known for their ban on blood transfusions for believers.
OTHER GROUPS AFFECTED
As well as restricting the activities of mainstream churches, the religion law threw other groups into limbo, including the Salvation Army, which is fighting to renew its registration in Moscow.
Former President Bill Clinton stressed the importance of religious and other freedoms during a June 2000 summit with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Russia's Orthodox church has rejected talk of oppression, saying the law is justified in stopping dangerous sects flooding the spiritual vacuum created by 70 years of Communist rule.
Interfax news agency quoted Father Vsevolod Chaplin, representative of Moscow's patriarch, as saying the church had not initiated the court case but still viewed the Witnesses' work as "quite dangerous."
"A court verdict is a powerful thing, of course ... but it is tricky to say whether we are talking about the final decision on this particular problem," Chaplin said. "In any case, this is a matter for state powers."
"(Witnesses) approach people in the street, go from house to house, try to start conversations without invitation," he said. "And the organization's closed character is also worrying."
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