NEWS STORY: Jehovah’s Witnesses win recognition in Russia

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

MOSCOW _ The Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of Russia’s fastest growing faiths,scored a surprise victory this week by winning nationwide government recognition as an authentic religion.

The move will help smooth the way for the registration by local authorities of 900 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations across Russia by year’s end, the deadline established under a controversial and restrictive 1997 religion law.

Russian opponents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses _ who stress biblical literalism, apocalyptic beliefs and aggressive evangelism _ have sought restrictions on the group, which they regard as a cult. “Now we can say that they did a thorough examination of us on a federal level and they found us to be a legitimate religion,”said Judah Schroeder, a spokesman for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based group that claims 250,000 adherents in Russia, a country of 146 million people.”And this establishes us not as a new religion but as an established one.” The Wednesday (May 5) decision by the Russian Ministry of Justice is even more significant because Moscow prosecutors are currently seeking to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city for allegedly endangering members’ lives by prohibiting blood transfusions and destroying families by placing unreasonable demands on adherents.

Both Schroeder and one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses most vocal opponents,Alexander Dvorkin, agreed it is too early to tell what effect the Ministry of Justice’s decision would have on the court proceeding.”I don’t know how the judge will react,”said Dvorkin, who heads a Moscow-based, cult-fighting organization tied to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The judge in the case is waiting for a ruling from a committee of academics charged with determining the sect’s religious legitimacy and compatibility with Russian society.

The 1997 law recognizes Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism as”traditional”faiths and provides other religions with varying degrees of privileges.

The next highest level is that granted the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In recognition of having existed in Russia for 50 years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were given the right to use the term”Russia”in their official name _ the Administrative Center for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.

Other religious groups with indisputable claims to an even longer tenure in Russia have been denied this status. The Jesuits, for example, were rejected recently in their bid for registration, in part because Justice Ministry officials claimed the Roman Catholic order lacked sufficient longevity in Russia. A lawyer for the Jesuits, Galina Krylova, said she has submitted such documentation, including Tsar Paul I’s praise of the Jesuits’ educational techniques in Russia in 1800.

In the 18th century, under the reign of Catherine the Great, the Jesuits found refuge here at a time when they were suppressed throughout Europe by Pope Clement XIV.

Krylova, a specialist in religious freedom issues, was scornful Friday (May 7) of the Justice Ministry’s rejection of the Jesuits’ registration application. “The reasoning is absurd and it contradicts the Russian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights,”said Krylova, who is appealing the initial decision.

Father Stanislav Opiela, the former superior of the Jesuits’ 40-member Russian Region, said the order could easily win registration as part of the Roman Catholic structure already recognized in Russia. However, that would violate the Jesuits’ worldwide independence from local diocesan structures, he said.

Other Roman Catholic orders in Russia, including the Conventual Franciscans and the Silesians, have opted to not register as religious orders under the law.

Krylova praised the Jesuits for confronting the law head-on:”They have taken the most open, lawful way.” On a federal level, the 1997 law generally has not proven as dampening on religious freedom as critics predicted. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints _ also denounced as a cult by opponents in Russia _ successfully registered with the Justice Ministry last year, aided in part by a low-profile visit of two Mormon U.S. senators to Justice Ministry officials.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness _ the Hare Krishna movement _ was helped in its registration bid by support from the Indian government.

But in outlying areas of Russia, minority faiths, especially those with foreign links, are sometimes the targets of apparent discrimination by local authorities invoking the 1997 law.

In the eastern city of Magadan, closer to Alaska than Moscow, a thriving Pentecostal congregation with supporters in the U.S. and Canada has endured months of harassment by local nationalists, repeated police raids and a court action seeking the church’s closure. Earlier this year, 402 members of the congregation applied for political asylum in the United States.

Tolerance of foreign-based faiths has been further eroded by the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, an action portrayed by ultra-nationalist Russian Orthodox leaders as an attempt by the West to destroy Eastern Orthodox Serbia.


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