Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jehovah's Witnesses on Trial in Moscow Face Ban First Test in Court of a 1997 Law Requiring Nontraditional Religionsto Meet Tough Standards for Recognition

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jehovah's Witnesses on Trial in Moscow Face Ban First Test in Court of a 1997 Law Requiring Nontraditional Religionsto Meet Tough Standards for Recognition

Article excerpt

Religious pluralism is under attack in a cramped suburban courtroom here, where a judge is considering the case for banning a sect whose beliefs and practices are foreign to Russian tradition.

Human rights lawyers for the defendants, the Moscow congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, say the trial is a litmus test of the potential for genuine freedom of conscience in post-Soviet Russia.

"The law is being used as a weapon to harass and oppress all minority faiths in Russia," says John Burns, a Canadian trial lawyer representing the group against charges that they foment religious discord, destroy families, and incite people to commit suicide. The case is the first courtroom test of a 1997 law that defined four "traditional" Russian religions - Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam - and set tough conditions for any outside faiths to obtain legal recognition. The legislation has been widely criticized for effectively setting up the Russian Orthodox Church - which lobbied heavily for it - as the official state religion. "In the hands of unscrupulous leaders this law could definitely be used to enforce ideological and religious purity," says Geraldine Fagen, Moscow director of the Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in post-Communist countries. Through most of Russian history, church and state have been inextricably linked, with their joint purposes tending to define the limits of "Russian-ness." Soviet leaders attempted to eliminate the church and replace its role with the Communist Party and its ideology. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the new Russia's leaders pledged to chart a course to modern, democratic, secular statehood. But those promises appear increasingly dubious as President Boris Yeltsin's troubled government slides into the embrace of religious nationalism. "There is a visible reversion taking place," says Ms. …

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