Russia's Constitution guarantees religious freedom, but the 1997 law defined only four faiths - Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam - as "traditional," and made it tough for others to obtain legal recognition. Faiths unable to do so can be severely restricted, and some, including Witnesses, have lost leases, been deprived of property, and faced other forms of harassment in many parts of the country.
"We are pleased that the Ministry of Justice was willing to investigate our religion honestly rather than listen to innuendo and rumor," says Vasilii Kalin, director of the Witnesses' administrative center in St. Petersburg. The court case, which is in recess pending an "expert study," charges the group with fomenting religious conflict, destroying families, and inciting suicide.
Ludmilla Alexeyeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights watchdog, says the decision "is a significant step forward. We must keep in mind, however, that the struggle for freedom of religion and of association is not over yet. Moscow's efforts to ban Jehovah's Witnesses in that city continue.... We hope that local officials will follow" the federal government's decision.
Active in Russia for almost 100 years, the Witnesses claim some 900 congregations there. More than 100 of those are now registered under the new law along with the "centralized religious organization."
In March, the European Parliament, citing international conventions and Russia's partnership treaty with the European Union, sent Russia a human rights resolution that called on "those in power at the central and local level to guarantee religious freedom."