Russian: Study Jehovah's Witnesses

.c The Associated Press

By ANNA DOLGOV

MOSCOW (AP) -- A Russian judge hearing the case to ban Jehovah's Witnesses from Moscow ordered a panel Friday to study the group's literature, a move church officials called a delaying tactic. Judge Yelena Prokhorycheva is stalling because of strong opposition to an acquittal, church officials said, and the delay keeps in place a number of restrictions against the group.

``In any court of law, we would think that now the judge would be in a position to render a decision and we could be exonerated,'' said Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Judah Schroeder. ``But not here.''

While the trial goes on, Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow have been barred from renting buildings, and several regional branches of the church were denied registration, the group said Friday. The Moscow prosecutor's office is seeking to have the group banned under a controversial 1997 law that gives courts the right to outlaw religious groups found guilty of inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.

The civil trial marks the first time prosecutors have used the law to try to disband a religious group. Russian media have been portraying the Jehovah's Witnesses as a cult that destroys families and threatens lives. The leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church -- which is jealously guarding its dominance in Russia -- have been sharply denouncing the group. Prosecutors say the Jehovah's Witnesses create rifts between family members because of their practice of not celebrating national holidays, and threaten lives by pressuring sick people into refusing medical aid.

If outlawed, the Jehovah's Witnesses would no longer have the right to hold public services, rent property, or distribute literature in Moscow. That would be a major blow to the New York-based Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim to be the fifth-largest Christian group in Russia, with about 10,000 members in Moscow and more than 250,000 across the country.

AP-NY-03-05-99 1514EST