Russia's Supreme Court has confirmed that children can be removed from their parents if they involve them in banned social or religious groups, in a move said by local media to be aimed against the outlawed Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Kommiersant daily said the ruling, confirmed in October, would "greatly extend" existing rules on the deprivation of parental rights, which was previously possible only in cases of "direct threats to life or health". It added that membership of suspended religious sects had thus been placed on a par with "prevention of basic education, and incitement to gambling, begging, vagrancy, theft, prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse", and would clearly affect the Witnesses, who are still awaiting a European Court of Human Rights appeal hearing against their prohibition as an "extremist organisation".
Police began seizing places of worship belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses after their 395 branches were outlawed by the Supreme Court last April. The move was condemned by human rights groups and the US, British and German governments, as well as by Russia's small Catholic Church, whose spokesman, Mgr Igor Kovalevsky, said there were "strong misgivings" Catholics could now also face "new acts of discrimination and limits to freedom of belief".
However, it was welcomed by Russia's predominant Orthodox church, whose foreign relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, described the Witnesses, who have around 175,000 Russian members, as a "totalitarian, harmful sect" propagating "false teachings", which did not "believe in Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, or recognise the doctrine of the Trinity".
Russia's Italian-born Catholic archbishop, Paolo Pezzi, told Germany's Catholic.de agency last week he had faced "no disadvantages or problems in everyday life" as head of the Church's Moscow-based Mother of God archdiocese, and said he believed Catholic-Orthodox ties were "continuing to develop positively" in the country.
PICTURE: The history of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, illustrated in the museum of the Russian administrative centre of Jehovah's Witnesses based in the town of Solnechnoye ©PA