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Jehovah’s Witnesses battle Russian ban

Sect official denies charge it converts minors without OK

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MOSCOW — A two-year courtroom battle on banning the Jehovah's Witnesses resumed in Moscow on Tuesday, a key test of a 1997 law criticized by the United States as undermining religious freedoms in Russia.

The organization denies charges of breaking up families, fomenting national discord, restricting individuals' rights and freedom and converting minors without their parents' permission.

It also rejects allegations that it has put lives at risk by opposing blood transfusions because the organization believes it is contrary to God's law.

The Golovin district court case was brought by the Committee to Protect Youth from Totalitarian Sects under article 14 of Russia's Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association.

The controversial act established Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity as the recognized mainstream faiths besides Russian Orthodoxy. All others must register with local and national authorities to work in Russia.

The court case against the sect — which says it has 280,000 members in Russia, including 15,000 in Moscow — has been postponed several times as prosecutors sought more time to gather evidence.

"I think all the accusations are baseless," Vasily Kalin, chairman of the managing committee of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, told Reuters.

"The prosecutor is trying to show how the Bible should be interpreted, but I think that is not a matter for the general prosecutor's office," he said.

Kalin said 361 groups had already won registration in Russia and that problems had been experienced only in Moscow. "I think this is a first attempt by our opponents, the opponents of freedom and democracy in Russia, who want to have us closed down in Moscow and then at the federal level," he added.

The departments which launched the action, the Moscow Mayor's office in charge of religious affairs and the Russian Orthodox Church, were not available for comment on the case.

As well as restricting the activities of established churches, the 1997 religion law has put other groups in legal limbo, including the Salvation Army which is also battling to retain its registration.

Critics say the legislation was a step backwards to Soviet-era restrictions and denounce it as a license to harass groups unpopular with the Russian Orthodox Church, which campaigned loudly for the measure.

Former President Bill Clinton stressed the importance of religious and other freedoms during a June 2000 summit with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Leading figures in the U.S. Congress have said the law makes religious freedom in Russia tenuous at best and an illusion at worst, a charge rejected by the Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Alexiy II has justified the measure, saying that after 70 years of Soviet rule, when religious observance was suppressed, Russia needs protection from proselytising by other Christian groups and sects.

Founded in 1872 in the United States, the Witnesses are so called for their belief that Jehovah is the true name for God.

Believers refuse to salute the flag of any nation or serve in the armed forces but are perhaps best known for the blood transfusion ban.

The sect's goal is the establishment of God's kingdom which they believe will emerge following Armageddon, a teaching based on their reading of the apocalyptic books of the Bible.