The right to practise what they preach

National Post, June 22, 1999
By Yuri Gripas

Metropolitan Kirill complained of "aggressive proselytism." John Burns is arguing the Jehovah's Witnesses' case in Russia.

John Burns is approaching the first anniversary of his arrival in Russia and the best anniversary gift he can think of would be the dismissal of a civil court case that could make it extremely difficult for Jehovah's Witnesses to practise their faith in Russia.

But the Canada-based trial lawyer isn't holding his breath waiting for a speedy resolution. He has been in Russia since last summer, arriving just as the ruble tanked, the banking system collapsed and the country plunged into economic crisis.

He has had other concerns on his mind. A Jehovah's Witness himself, he has become the church's chief legal troubleshooter, criss-crossing the world to battle allegations that the organization is a harmful religious cult.

"The only good thing about this trial is that it has given us a chance to explain our beliefs and show that they are not a threat to anyone," he said.

After winning an initial skirmish with prosecutors, who embarrassed themselves by objecting to a foreigner arguing the case -- only to find Russia's constitution permits it -- he has combined personal convictions and legal skills in a defence of religious freedom.

Alexei Nazarichev, a spokesman for the organization, said Russia's tough new religious law had encouraged extremists to attack Jehovah's Witnesses.

"It's been a green light to ultra-nationalists," he said. "They've vandalized some of our meeting places and attacked some of our members."

Equally as worrying, leases have been cancelled on three places of worship, forcing about one-fifth of members to travel long distances to sites used by other congregations.

For the better part of a year, through frequent adjournments and odd diversions, the case against the Witnesses has preoccupied Mr. Burns and his wife, Wendy, a trained paralegal who helps with research and a flood of e-mail.

"This is the biggest thing I've ever done," he said, referring to his involvement in a trial that is taking place in a rundown, cramped (spectator seating capacity: 12 spaces) district court northeast of the Kremlin. Outside, supporters of Russia's Orthodox Church show up occasionally to brandish icons at the defendants.

The proceedings have also attracted widespread international attention as they represent the first attempt by Russian prosecutors to use a controversial and restrictive 1997 law to try to disband a religious organization.

The law, which has the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, allows courts to ban any religious organization that is found guilty of inciting hatred and intolerant behaviour. Such a verdict would prohibit Witnesses from voicing their beliefs publicly, meeting other members of their faith, renting space for religious services or even distributing The Watchtower and other organization publications.

Lyudmilla Alekseyeva, who monitors human rights violations in Russia for the International Helsinki Foundation, said the trial's significance extends far beyond the tribulations of one small religious group. "It will be terrible if we lose this case," she said. "If that happens it will be the turn of other minority groups to come under attack."

Russia's Orthodox Church, the main religious organization, centred in Moscow, is not directly involved in the case. But the church hierarchy makes no bones about its dislike of Jehovah's Witnesses, currently the fifth largest and one of the fastest growing Christian groups in the country, with more than 200,000 members.

The public organization whose complaints formed the basis for the case, the anti-cult Committee for the Salvation of Youth, alleges the Witnesses violated the 1997 law by preaching religious discrimination, breaking up families and persuading people to refuse medical treatment and even commit suicide "through their advocacy of one true religion."

"All religions maintain that they represent the true faith," pointed out Sergei Vasilyev, a Witness convert from orthodoxy. "If that were unlawful, then the Orthodox Church should be on trial as well. But everyone should be tolerant of others' convictions."

Leading members of the Moscow church hierarchy have also charged that Jehovah's Witnesses lure people from what it calls "the religion of their ancestors."

Metropolitan Kirill, one of the church's most prominent leaders, has led that campaign, complaining about what he described as "the aggressive proselytism of Jehovah's Witnesses." The church also endorses the prosecution's sweeping charge that Witnesses have an "anti-government, anti-social and anti-traditional as well as anti-Christian orientation."

Although he has been on the receiving end of such negative assertions for months, Mr. Burns has tried to remain optimistic in the face of another Russian tradition, a suspicion of foreigners and foreign influences. Still, he is a bit irritated that the case is dragging on, even though prosecutors have been unable to prove those charges and the judge has scolded them for sloppy preparation.

He responded cautiously to last month's news that the federal Justice Ministry had re-registered Witness congregations across the country, a requirement under the 1997 law.

"It's a positive step forward, but it does not directly influence this case," he said. "People abroad don't realize just how weak the Russian federal government has become. The outcome of the Moscow case will have an enormous influence on the way local authorities treat Jehovah's Witnesses and other minorities in the regions."

Along with the Russian lawyers who are conducting the defence, Mr. Burns has a strong hunch that Judge Yelena Prokhoricheva has come close to dismissing the prosecutors' allegations.

Instead, in yet another time-extending diversion, she has ordered a five-member panel of experts skilled in linguistics, psychology and religion to study Jehovah's Witnesses' literature and report to her before she makes a ruling. The prosecution placed three of its candidates on the panel, with the other two selected by the defence.

"To admit that Jehovah's Witnesses are right and the state, as represented by the prosecutor, is making groundless accusations against them; well, that might seem to be too bold a step for this court," said defence lawyer Galina Krylova.

Mr. Burns was more blunt. "Russian judges don't make decisions, they just keep dodging them," he said. But he added the judge had clearly shown interest in a recent European parliament resolution urging Russian officials at all levels to guarantee freedom of religion across the country.

"It was a clear signal to me that she was close to dismissing the case," he said. "But you have to remember where you are -- in a country with a weak judicial system. This is a place where the authorities are used to dictating what it is acceptable for people to believe. I'm going home to Canada but she still has to live and work in Moscow for the rest of her life."

Mr. Burns also has his hands full combatting a smear campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses by the generally hostile Russian media. In Chelyabinsk, in a region of central Russia devoted to nuclear weapons manufacture, that meant a week-long series of allegations by a local television station that the Witnesses had been trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

In Moscow last winter, a suicide pact by three teenage girls in a northern suburb shocked the city and produced groundless newspaper reports connecting the girls with the Witnesses.

As he dismissed those charges, Mr. Burns remarked he most admired Russians' ability to endure hard times and adversity. After a year spent battling for human and religious rights in Russia, he too isn't about to quit early.

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