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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jehovah's Witnesses Win Key Court Case

A Moscow court has thrown out a prosecutor's case attempting to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses, a decision hailed by a defense attorney as a strong move for religious tolerance.

Applause and tears broke out in the crowd of about 50 people who listened Friday to the reading of the decision, which also called for the prosecutor's office to pay 18,000 rubles ($650) to experts who had been called in the case.

"We are crying tears of happiness," said a Jehovah's Witnesses member who did not give her name. "I lived through the period when we were banned. … I did not want to repeat it."

The Moscow city prosecutor's office had been trying to outlaw the Moscow branch of the U.S.-based church, using a provision in the Russian law on religion that allows courts to ban religious groups found guilty of inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.

The trial began in September 1998, but was recessed six months later to give an expert panel a chance to study the group's publications.

The panel was instructed to search for evidence to back up the prosecutors' claim that the group destroyed families, fostered hatred and threatened lives. But the city's Golovinsky district court refused the prosecutor's request.

"We have a clear statement by the court that the courtroom is not a place for theological debate," said John Burns, an attorney for the Jehovah's Witnesses. "It shows we have hope for an independent judiciary in Moscow because this court has come down with a very strong decision."

The court's reasoning in the decision was not immediately known. Only the basic decision was read out Friday, and defense attorney Galina Krylova said the defense team had not yet seen the full decision. Court officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The prosecutor's office has two weeks to appeal, but Interfax quoted prosecutor Tatyana Kondratyeva as saying she needed to study the ruling in detail, and "perhaps I'll agree with what's said there."

The Jehovah's Witnesses have alleged that the religion law has been used to restrict churches other than Russia's biggest, long-established faiths. The law enshrines Orthodox Christianity as the country's predominant religion and pledges respect for Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, but places restrictions on other groups, including the Salvation Army, which is fighting to renew its registration in Moscow.

The Russian Orthodox Church has rejected talk of oppression, saying the law is justified in stopping dangerous sects flooding the spiritual vacuum created by 70 years of Communist rule.

Interfax quoted Father Vsevolod Chaplin, representative of Moscow's patriarch, as saying the church had not initiated the court case, but still viewed the Jehovah Witnesses' work as "quite dangerous."

"A court verdict is a powerful thing, of course. But it is tricky to say whether we are talking about the final decision on this particular problem," Chaplin said. "In any case, this is a matter for state powers."

In the event of a victory for the prosecution, Moscow's estimated 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses would no longer have had the right to hold public services, rent property or distribute literature in the city.

(AP, Reuters)