MOSCOW, Feb. 26 (RNS) -- A court ruling in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses, one ofRussia's fastest growing and most controversial faiths, is being hailedhere as an important victory for religious freedom at a time when therights of minority faiths are under increasing threat.

"This has great significance as a precedent because a lot of peoplewere watching both here and abroad," said Anatoly Pchelintsev,co-chairman of the Moscow-based Slavic Center for Law and Justice and anexpert on freedom-of-conscience issues.

"If it had gone against them, then the next day prosecutors acrossRussia would have opened cases against the Jehovah's Witnesses," hesaid.

Friday's ruling came 2 1/2 years after city prosecutorsfiled suit in a district court seeking to deny legal registration toJehovah's Witnesses in the Russian capital, where they have about 10,000active members.

The prosecutors argued the sect instigates "religious enmity" byclaiming to be the only true religion, endangers members' lives througha prohibition on blood transfusions, and fosters "breakdown (of)families" by placing unreasonable demands on adherents.

The legal arguments are based on Russia's vaguely written law onreligion, which was adopted in 1997 over the objections of Westerngovernments, the Vatican and religious freedom advocates. Under the 1997law, religious groups must be registered by the government in order tolegally open bank accounts, rent property or hire employees.

Judge Yelena Prokhorycheva did not explain her decision Friday, buta written decision is expected by the end of this week.

Prosecutor Tatyana Kondratyeva told the Interfax wire service thatshe would make a decision on whether to appeal after reading the judge'sdecision.

Although the ruling came from a lowly municipal court, it willresonate far and wide in Russia, a country of 145 million peoplespanning 11 time zones.

"We were keen to fight in Moscow as hard as we could because theprosecutor herself said she hoped that the Moscow decision would lead toa banning throughout Russia," said Paul Gilles, a Jehovah's Witnessspokesman, in a telephone interview from the group's nationalheadquarters outside St. Petersburg. "Everybody still looks to Moscow toset the standard."

In theory, because the 1997 law includes ill-defined provisionsdenying legal status to faiths that are "harmful to society," theJehovah's Witnesses were vulnerable to dissolution by the court.

To help the Moscow court sort out just what kind of religion theJehovah's Witnesses have, in March 1999 Prokhorycheva delegated acommittee of two linguists, two religion experts and one psychologist touse the Bible and Jehovah's Witnesses literature in determining whetherthe faith causes "religious discord," destroys families or should beconsidered a religion at all.

After conducting two years of research, four of the five expertsweighed in against the Jehovah's Witnesses. The judge, however,evidently chose to ignore the experts' opinions in ruling against theprosecutor, whose office the judge ordered to pay the experts' fees ofabout $560 each.

The prosecution's undoing, said Pchelintsev, was to focus on thenature of the Jehovah's Witnesses as a faith.

"The court works on a legal basis, not on a theological one," saidPchelintsev, a lawyer who argues religious freedom cases across Russia.

The Jehovah's Witnesses' victory comes at a time, Pchelintsev added,when religious freedom news in Russia is generally gloomy. Pchelintsevsaid 30 of Russia's 89 regions are currently in various stages ofadopting legislation aimed at curtailing minority faiths' activity. Hecited a draft law making its way through the local legislature in theBelgorod region of western Russia that would forbid missionary activityand require minors who wanted to attend a religious service bythemselves to get written parental permission.

"It was not even like this in Soviet times," Pchelintsev said,attributing the wave of restrictive legislation to tighter and deeperlinks between the country's dominant 80 million-member Russian OrthodoxChurch and the government.

Yelena Ryabinkina, a leader of the Moscow-based Committee for theRescue of Youth which first asked prosecutors to take legal actionagainst the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, said she hopes the prosecutorwill appeal Friday's verdict. With no paid publicity, no fax oranswering machine and no paid staff, Ryabinkina said, her group getsabout hundred complaints a year from Russia and Ukraine, mostly aboutthe Jehovah's Witnesses.

"These are all people who have relatives who are suffering," saidRyabinkina, a retired engineer.

According to Gilles, the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia have 115,000active members -- called "publishers" -- who devote an average of 10hours a month to spreading the faith. Russia currently has 1,072Jehovah's Witness congregations as compared to 554 for the entire SovietUnion 10 years ago, he said.

Because of members' insistence on conscientious objection tomilitary service and their high-profile, door-to-door missionary work,the Jehovah's Witnesses have taken part in numerous court battlesthroughout the former Soviet Union to win legal status.

On Feb. 22, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the SupremeCourt upheld the revocation of the legal registration of two Jehovah'sWitnesses groups. Gilles said the Witnesses have 15,000 publishers inGeorgia, an impoverished country of 5 million in the Caucasus.