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17-06-2004 19:59
ENGLISH VERSION: Moscow bans Jehovah's Witnesses

MOSCOW — Reflecting increased pressure on religious minorities in a country dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church, a Moscow court Wednesday upheld a ban on activities by the Jehovah's Witnesses in the capital.

The ruling by the Moscow City Court upholds a lower court decision earlier this year that prohibited Jehovah's Witnesses from engaging in religious activity.

The ruling arose from a Russian law that allows courts to ban religious groups that are considered to be inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.

Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Christian Presber said the decision will prevent the group from renting space for worship, holding bank accounts or otherwise supporting its religious activities.

"Religious freedom has just turned back to where it was in Soviet times," the organization's Canadian lawyer John Burns said.

At the hearing Burns and his colleagues argued that the lower court was biased, taking into account evidence provided almost exclusively by prosecutors. They also said the court based its ruling on the testimony of only seven witnesses who did not speak for the entire Moscow community.

There are about 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow and 133,000 nationwide, according to the group.

Defense lawyers also argued that banning Jehovah's Witnesses was an ideological decision against people who don't celebrate Russia's national holidays, choose not to serve in the army and are seen as promoting what the court ruling called "alienation from traditional religions."

Presber said the ruling would send a dangerous signal to authorities across Russia, possibly leading to similar trials.

He also asked how intrusive authorities would become in enforcing the ban on a group that does not celebrate occasions marked by most of the rest of the population.

Wire reports

Japan Today, Thursday, June 17, 2004 at 07:48 JST

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