Moscow -- A two-year courtroom battle on banning the Jehovah's Witnesses resumed in Moscow on Tuesday, a key test of a 1997 law criticised by the United States and the Vatican as undermining religious freedoms in Russia.
The Jehovah's Witnesses deny charges of breaking up families, fomenting national discord, curbing individuals' rights and converting minors without their parents' permission.
They also reject allegations that they have put lives at risk by opposing blood transfusions as contrary to God's law.
"There's a very simple way for the court to handle this case," their lawyer, John Burns, told Reuters outside the courtroom.
"It's all summed up in one sentence of the European Court: 'it's not for the state or the courts to decide what is a good religion,"' he said.
Prosecution officials refused to speak to reporters and the Russian Orthodox Christian Church, which critics charge is behind the current prosecution, was unavailable for comment.
The Golovin district court case, which is expected to last two to three weeks, was brought by the Committee to Protect Youth from Totalitarian Sects under article 14 of Russia's Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association.
The controversial law recognises the "special role" of Orthodoxy in Russian history, and approves of four mainstream religions: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Religious organisations without a long history of activity in Russia are required to undergo a complicated registration process.
Critics say the legislation is a throwback to Soviet-era restrictions and say it is a licence to harass groups disliked by Patriarch Alexiy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church who campaigned loudly for the measure.
The court case against the sect -- which says it has 280,000 members in Russia, including 15,000 in Moscow -- has been postponed several times as prosecutors sought more time to gather evidence.
Witnesses' spokesman Paul Gillies said the battleground for the latest hearing would be a 14-page prosecution expert report covering linguistics and the meaning of passages from the Bible.
"The prosecutor is trying to show how the Bible should be interpreted but I think that is not a matter for the general prosecutor's office," commented Vasily Kalin, who chairs the Jehovah's Witnesses' management committee in Russia.
Kalin said 361 Jehovah's Witnesses' groups had already registered in Russia, making Moscow's refusal an anomaly: "I think this is a first attempt by our opponents, the opponents of freedom and democracy in Russia, who want to have us closed down in Moscow and then at the federal level."
As well as restricting the activities of mainstream churches, the 1997 religion law has placed other groups in legal limbo, including the Salvation Army which is also battling to renew its registration in Moscow.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton stressed the importance of religious and other freedoms during a June 2000 summit with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Leading figures in the U.S. Congress have said the law makes religious freedom in Russia tenuous at best and an illusion at worst.
The Orthodox Church has rejected such criticisms and justified the measure, saying that after 70 years of Soviet rule, when religious observance was suppressed, Russia needs protection from sects and proselytising Christian groups.
Founded in 1872 in the United States, the Witnesses are so called for their belief that Jehovah is the true name for God.
Believers refuse to salute the flag of any nation or serve in the armed forces but are perhaps best known for the blood transfusion ban.
The sect's goal is the establishment of God's kingdom which they believe will emerge after Armageddon -- the final battle between good and evil at the end of the world. They base this teaching on their reading of the Book of Revelation, part of the Bible.