Russia To Hear Religion Appeal

The Associated Press June 25, 1999

MOSCOW (AP) - A Moscow court will hear an appeal Monday by a branch of Jehovah's Witnesses, who are seeking to overturn a lower court ruling in a case aimed at banning the group, church officials said.

The Moscow city prosecutor's office is trying to outlaw the Moscow branch of the U.S.-based church, using a provision in a religion law that gives courts the right to ban religious groups found guilty of inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.

This is the first time prosecutors have used the religion law to try to disband a religious group.

The prosecutor's office charges that Jehovah's Witnesses are a cult that destroys families, fosters hatred and threatens lives. But it hasn't produced any specific evidence so far, defense attorneys say.

If outlawed, the Jehovah's Witnesses would no longer have the right to hold public services, rent property or distribute literature in Moscow.

In March, the Moscow district court judge hearing the case to ban the group ordered a panel of experts to study the group's literature.

Jehovah's Witnesses challenged that decision, and the appeal was scheduled to be heard in the Moscow city court on Monday, Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Alexei Nazarychev said Thursday.

The group's literature was already studied by a federal panel of religious studies experts when the Justice Ministry was considering whether to renew the Jehovah's Witnesses registration as a religious organization.

The ministry's panel found nothing untoward in the group's literature and operations, and the registration was renewed in May.

The registration of all religious groups in Russia had to be renewed after the passage of the religion law in 1997.

The Moscow district judge refused to recognize the Justice Ministry's findings and insisted on a review by a separate court panel. Jehovah's Witnesses say that the court panel lacks qualifications to decide the matter.

Even though the Justice Ministry has granted the group federal registration, individual cities may still use the religion law to outlaw local branches of the group.

The law was adopted under strong pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, which is jealously guarding its position in Russia and is eager to see a ban on Jehovah's Witnesses, accusing them of ``aggressive proselytism.''

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