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Russia: Jehovah's Witnesses Come Under Pressure From Officials

The Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses has its headquarters in New York and claims 6 million members around the world. The group's fundamental guiding belief is that the Bible contains the literal word of God. Its followers are widely known for their active recruiting of new members and their opposition to laws that run counter to their beliefs. These are characteristics that have bought them trouble in many places. Among the latest of these are Russia and Greece.

Prague, 23 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It's official. Moscow officialdom has banned any further organized activity in the city by the Christian group Jehovah's Witnesses.

Last week's final ruling on a four-year-old case by the Moscow City Court is important to the group's 10,000 followers in Moscow, as well as those elsewhere. That is because they consider active proselytizing -- that is, "witnessing," or speaking out on behalf of Jehovah, an old Hebrew word for God -- as a necessary part of their worship.

It is significant, too, because this is the first successful application under Russia's 1997 religion law to outlaw a religious organization. The court ruling was also the last step required to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Geraldine Fagan, of the religious rights organization Forum 18, has been following the Moscow case from its inception. In a telephone interview from Moscow, she said that Jehovah's Witnesses arouse opposition in Russia not for what they profess to believe, but for how energetically they profess it. "A key element here is not so much the doctrine of the organization, as [it is] how active they are," she said. "The Jehovah's Witnesses are very active in terms of proselytizing, in terms of going around to people's flats, handing out literature, having large conferences, and so on."

Followers of the faith understand that their diligence -- some would say aggressiveness -- in declaring their views can be an irritant. But as Jim Andrik, a Jehovah's Witness and human rights lawyer at the denomination's headquarters in New York, explained, their activity is inseparable from their doctrine: "Part of our worship -- we feel clearly from the scriptures [that] Jesus said in the Book of Matthew that the good news of the kingdom would be preached throughout the Earth. And it's a commission that we feel we need to follow as part of our worship of our God, Jehovah. And so when oftentimes we're talking to people, and it's just by the nature of our work that they see us around quite often, and so some don't like to see us talking about our beliefs."

One oddity of the treatment of nontraditional religions in Moscow is that the Jehovah's Witnesses case outwardly rests on Russia's religion law of 1997. Yet under that law, the group has been able to register and operate unhindered elsewhere in Russia. Andrik said he thinks that the Russian Orthodox Church orchestrated the Jehovah's Witnesses' problems in Moscow.

"It could be [because] this is where the seat of the patriarch is. And it was clear throughout the trial that the Russian Orthodox Church was instrumental [in the case against Jehovah's Witnesses]. Even the charges that were brought were brought by a group that is associated with the Russian Orthodox Church," Andrik said.

Canadian lawyer John Burns represented the denomination in the appeal just lost in Moscow City Court. He said that the matter now is ripe to go before the European Court of Human Rights. The official European human rights body, the Council of Europe, established the European Court of Human Rights in 1953 to interpret and reinforce the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The court is empowered to hear and decide cases, to levy fines, and to refer violations to the Council of Europe. It has no independent enforcement powers except moral suasion. Russia is a member of the council and a signatory to the court treaty.

Burns said that the Jehovah's Witnesses took their case to the European court several years ago, complaining that the proceedings in Moscow were too slow, and that the very effort to ban the denomination was interfering with its followers' right to practice their faith. The European court declined to act, however, until the final Russian court action.

"So now that we are banned, of course, we can complain,” Burns said. “So what we're doing is we're updating the European court as to the decision last week."

Burns said that both parties to the case, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Russian officials, have petitioned the court to hear oral arguments promptly. The church group says it already has waited too long.

"The Russian government has asked for an oral hearing on this case because they say it's one of great public concern," he said. "That was in a letter that their representative gave to the European court during the month of March. And we've also asked for an oral hearing. And that's on the issue of admissibility -- is this a case [that] the European court should hear? -- and then as to the merits [of the case]."

Jehovah's Witnesses won a victory over Greece in the European Court of Human Rights less than a month ago. Greek law provides for compulsory military service but allows ministers of what the law calls "recognized religions" to decline. Priests of the Greek Orthodox Church routinely apply for and receive this exemption.

From the early 1990s, however, the Greek military has insisted on arresting and jailing declared Jehovah's Witnesses ministers on the grounds that their faith is not a recognized religion. The military persisted despite repeated court rulings in favor of the applicants.

The European court ruled late in May on an appeal from several applicants that their right to religious equity before the law had been violated. The court ordered Greece to pay the equivalent of $72,000 in compensation to the applicants.

Greece, like Russia, is a member of the Council of Europe.