(Washington) - United States Helsinki Commission leaders today reacted to a recent municipal court ruling in Moscow effectively banning the religious activities of the local community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian capital. The decision will not be enforced while the Jehovah’s Witnesses pursue an appeal with the Moscow City Court.
“The Moscow authorities have doggedly pursued the case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in a manner reminiscent of the Brezhnev days,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “The prosecution is an embarrassment to the new democratic Russia, flies in the face of Russia’s commitment to religious freedom as an OSCE participating State. Hopefully the decision will be overturned on appeal and the prosecution dropped.” Under the Soviet system, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities were forced to worship underground and faced criminal penalties for practicing their faith.
“I urge the Moscow authorities to respect the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess and practice their faith in the Russian capital. This case should set off alarm bells for members of other religious minorities in Moscow and beyond,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO).
“I wish Moscow city authorities would devote similar energies to protecting religious freedom, instead of impeding it,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD). “This court case dates back to 1998, although one would expect it to have been instituted in 1978. If this verdict holds, it may have devastating effects for any religious denomination whose beliefs don’t have the government’s stamp of approval.”
It is unclear upon what grounds the court reached its decision on March 26. As reported by Forum 18, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were originally charged with “inciting religious hatred,” “forcing families to disintegrate” and encouraging on religious grounds the refusal of medical aid to the critically ill. The heavily criticized 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience allows for the liquidation of a religious community’s legal status for failing to meet registration requirements, and the law enables authorities to ban organizations deemed a threat to society, thereby prohibiting their ability to operate legally.
Over the past six years, the case has seen two different judges, numerous “expert studies” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their religious materials, and repeated appeals and counter appeals. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in Russia since the late 1800s. Persecuted during the Soviet era, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially registered at the federal level by the Ministry of Justice in March 1991.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.