Russia's Constitutional Court has handed down a liberal interpretation of a much-disputed law from 1997 that governs religious activity in the country.

The ruling from Russia's highest legal authority will make it easier for some religious groups to operate in Russia. However, the court also upheld the principles of the 1997 law, which is intended to restrict the activities of sects and foreign religious groups.

The ruling was made November 23, following a complaint made in October 1998 by a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Yaroslavl, Central Russia, and a Pentecostal group in Abakan, Western Siberia. In Yaroslavl the local prosecutor had tried to close down the local branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that the group did not have papers to prove it had been there for at least 15 years, as the 1997 law requires. Under the new ruling, they will be able to continue operating.

"To some degree, it is a victory for the Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious organizations," Albert Polanski, a spokesman for the complainants, told Reuters news agency. But he added that smaller religious organizations would still have difficulties.

When the new law was enacted in 1997, it was criticized by many religious groups, human rights advocates and Western governments as discriminatory.

The law, backed by Russia's biggest religious organization, the Orthodox Church, created two classes of religious associations. The first category was that of "religious organizations" with full rights, such as the Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish faiths; organizations in the second category—that of "religious groups"—are those that have been in Russia for less than 15 years. These "religious groups" are not allowed to own property, organize worship ...

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