Russian court loosens bonds on religious groups

CNN News, November 23, 1999

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia's Constitutional Court loosened the bonds restricting religious groups in the former Soviet state on Tuesday, a move the Jehovah's Witnesses hailed as a step forward for human rights.

The court softened part of a controversial 1997 law "On freedom of conscience and religious organisations" which had asked religious groups to prove they had existed for 15 years before being registered in Russia.

The Jehovah's Witnesses had sought the scrapping of the clause, saying it was discriminatory as many groups had been outlawed in Soviet times.

The court waived the clause for most larger "non-traditional" religious groups. The Jehovah's Witnesses said the court ruling was a partial victory.

"To some degree it is a victory for the Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious organisations. Everyone should have equal rights and freedom of worship," Albert Polanski, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses, said by telephone.

But he said their victory would be hollow for organisations which had smaller congregations and could not receive the status of a "centralised organisation" by being represented in three of Russia's 89 regions.

"There are over 10,000 congregations in Russia that don't have registration, I assume there are quite a few which would not qualify as a centralised group," he said.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have been fighting the law after a Moscow court tried to ban them in the Russian capital, accusing them of breaking up families and preaching intolerance.

The group said the law, which gives courts the right to disband groups they find guilty of inciting hatred or intolerant behaviour, was a throwback to Soviet-style repression.

Polanski said the group would review the Constitutional Court's 18-page decision and then decide whether to take their criticism of the law to the European Court.

"If religions cannot register, they can't rent places for worship, they cannot bring any literature into Russia or receive it. All they can do is meet in small groups and worship," Polanski said. "As you can imagine this is very limited."

Polanski said there were some 100,000 active members of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, including about 10,000 in Moscow, adding that other religious groups like the Roman Catholic Jesuits are not so big and could face registration problems.

"The Jesuits are trying to register now, but there are few of them," he said. "If you don't have legal strength and lawyers some poor religious groups will have difficulties working here."

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