Russia targets Jehovah's Witnesses

Trial tests law curbing foreign religious groups

February 10, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Prosecutors launched a drive yesterday to outlaw the Jehovah's Witnesses, accusing them of fomenting religious strife at the start of a trial that could have implications for all faiths in Russia.

The case is the most prominent test so far of Russia's new law on religion, which is designed to curb the activities of foreign religious organizations seeking new members in Russia.

Prosecutors brought charges under an article seeking to outlaw dangerous cults. The indictment accuses the Jehovah's Witnesses of inciting religious discord, splitting families, promoting suicide and denying medical care to the critically ill.

Human rights advocates warn that although Russia's constitution officially protects freedom of worship, a ruling against the Witnesses could be used to outlaw any religious group that falls out of favor with authorities.

"This is a major test case," said Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. "If they win this case they can easily use it as a precedent to close down groups throughout Russia."

The ruling in the trial, being held in a district courtroom in northern Moscow, will technically apply only to that district of the city. But both sides say its impact will be felt throughout Russia.

"The central issue is whether the government can classify any religious group they want to close down, as a cult," said Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow director of the Oxford-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedoms in former communist countries.

The central accusation against the Witnesses is that they "foment religious strife" by claiming to be "the only true religion." That's an assertion made by nearly every faith, Uzzell noted.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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