Russia Renews Jehovah's Witnesses (5/6/99-updated)

.c The Associated Press

Jehovah's Witnesses win legal recognition in Russia despite court case 6 May 1999 (Newsroom) -- The Jehovah's Witnesses gained official status in Russia on Thursday despite a continuing attempt by Moscow prosecutors to ban the group. The Russian Ministry of Religion re-registered the Witnesses as a "centralized religious organization" under the 1997 religion law.

"We are pleased that the Ministry of Justice was willing to investigate our religion honestly rather than listen to innuendo and rumor," said Vasilii Kalin, director of the Witnesses' Administrative Center in St. Petersburg.

Prosecutors in the Russian capital filed their case against the Jehovah's Witnesses under a provision of the new law that gives courts the right to ban groups that break up families and preach intolerance. "The timing is particularly significant in as much as the court case against the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow has not been resolved," says Raymond Prigodich, a Russian religion expert at Denver Seminary. "It would seem that someone in the government who is responsible for registering religious groups is ignoring this cloud that is over the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow and saying, 'Look, in terms of our understanding of the law, this group meets the requirements.'"

The controversial new law on religion gives preferred legal status to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism as Russia's traditional faiths. Religious organizations considered "non-traditional" are required to re-register by a December 1999 deadline and wait 15 years for full approval. Some groups, however -- including the Jehovah's Witnesses -- have found a way around the 15-year rule by taking advantage of an apparent loophole in the law that allows registration as a "centralized religious organization," or group with a central base in Russia. The Jehovah's Witnesses, which originated in the U.S. in the 19th century, have been active in Russia for nearly 100 years. They claim more than 250,000 followers in Russia and that some 13 million people attend their services worldwide.

A Jehovah's Witness spokesman said last month that the group believes that the Russian Orthodox Church is the "driving force" behind the Moscow case, noting that the lead witness for the prosecution, Aleksandr Dvorkin, works for the Moscow Patriarchate. The case was instigated in 1996 by a complaint from the Committee to Rescue Youth from Totalitarian Sects. Witnesses' spokesman Judah Schroeder believes that the Orthodox Church helps finance that "anti-cult" group.

The Moscow case hinges primarily on whether the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses incite religious discord that threatens social peace. Some human rights groups have maintained that a decision against the group would set a precedent, threatening the freedom of all minority religions. "The Russian Federation's decision to re-register the Jehovah's Witnesses is the right decision," says Lyudmila Alekeyeva, president of the International Helsinki Federation. "We hope that local officials in Moscow will follow suit."

The group has formally registered under the name "Administrative Center for Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia." Use of the word "Russia" is permitted under the 1997 law only by religions that have been active in Russia for more than 50 years. In a statement, the group said, "Jehovah's Witnesses hope that the formal acknowledgment of their long history in Russia and of their respect for Russian tradition will help to remove the prejudice, harassment, and violence experienced by some of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia today."

Prigodich says that the government's legal acceptance of the Jehovah's Witnesses might indicate a trend, noting that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, were registered a year ago. "This is another instance of a group under some suspicion having been formally recognized by the Ministry of Religion," he said.

Kalin, the Witnesses' director in St. Petersburg, expressed relief at the decision, which essentially gives the group the liberty it had under the law on freedom of conscience established in the waning years of the Soviet Union. "After living through persecution for my religious beliefs under the Communist regime, I am happy to see that the freedom to practice my religion openly that was granted in 1991 will continue," he said.

- from Newsroom

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