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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jehovah's Witnesses Meet as Planned

Despite apparent pressure from the Moscow city government, the annual congress of Moscow region Jehovah's Witnesses opened Friday in Moscow's Olimpiisky Sports Complex.

"Jehovah, our graceful God!" prayed a preacher from the podium in the middle of the stadium as thousands of neatly dressed people prayed along, bowing their heads. "We are grateful to you for this regional congress which is taking place in this beautiful hall!"

Vasily Kalin, the St. Petersburg-based leader of Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses, said the group was told last week it would be denied access to the stadium, despite having a contract.

Kalin said that in early August, the organization obtained a letter from the Moscow city government's branch in charge of relations with religious organizations, saying there were no obstacles to holding the congress .

But last week, the stadium's administration told the group the congress could not be held because it received a "serious demand" from the Moscow city government that the stadium - a privatized company - lock out the group, Kalin said. After days of talks, which involved foreign human rights activists, the congress received a go-ahead only at 8 p.m. Thursday.

"We did not have the physical capability to tell 15,000 to 17,000 people, 2,000 of whom have come from outside Moscow, that the congress was canceled," Kalin said.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, a group begun in the United States in the 19th century, are decried as a "totalitarian sect" by the Russian Orthodox Church. The group sometimes clashes with authority because its members refuse to take oaths or do military service.

Last fall, a prosecutor of Moscow's northern district went to court in an attempt to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses' Moscow organization, claiming that the group stirred up religious enmity, causing family breakdown and even placing lives at risk by the group's doctrinal prohibition of blood transfusion. After several hearings, it was sent for expert review. "The case is in a dormant phase now," said Alexei Nazarychev, the groups' spokesman.

Vladimir Kozyurev, deputy director of the sports complex, said the administration was not against holding the Jehovah's Witnesses congress. He said he did not know where the order was coming from.

"Perhaps someone somewhere above did not want this to happen," Kozyrev said. "But such things don't happen in the form of a written order."