Moscow -- A Russian court has banned the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, intensifying a drive against what authorities view as "totalitarian sects" with a pro-U.S. agenda.
The decision drew a strong response from the U.S. State Department, with a spokesman urging the Russian government to honor commitments to respect the right of all faiths to religious freedom.
The capital's Golovinsky district court banned the group Friday under a provision designed to counter the incitement of intolerance and religious division.
The court ruled in favor of prosecutors who claimed that the Jehovah's Witnesses destroyed families, inspired religious hatred, and forced ill people to refuse medical help.
Jehovah's Witnesses object on theological grounds to accept blood transfusions.
Defense lawyer Galina Krylova said she would appeal the verdict at a higher court. Krylova has been defending Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow since 1998, when legal steps were first taken against them.
An earlier case against the group, which claims 130,000 members in Russia, including 10,000 in Moscow, was dismissed in 2001.
The chairman of the Jehovah's Witnesses ruling council in Russia, Vasily Kalin, compared the court's verdict with Soviet-era religious persecution.
Last October, government and religious officials in Russia accused the United States of using groups including Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Scientologists and the Unification Church to undermine the Russian state.
Participants at a Moscow conference entitled "Totalitarian Sects: Weapon of Mass Destruction" suggested that the country amend its criminal code to more effectively combat such groups.
The gathering was attended by interior ministry officials, scholars, and representatives of the Orthodox Church.
Officially, the Russian constitution outlaws religious persecution. However, in 1997 Russia passed the controversial "freedom of conscience and religious association" law, requiring religious groups to prove that they have existed in Russia for at least 15 years before being permitted formal registration.
The law describes the Orthodox Church as the country's dominant religion and designates Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as other "traditional" faiths. All other denominations, including the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches, are relegated to a secondary role, and subjected to tough registration requirements.
The development in Moscow comes shortly after authorities in another autocratic post-Soviet regime moved to improve the conditions of minority faiths.
Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov this month annulled a legal requirement that a religious community must have at least 500 adult citizen members before it can gain official registration.
Religious groups have responded cautiously to the unexpected decision, which came in a country that has outlawed Protestants, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Shia Muslim and other faiths.