Sect in Ukraine Recalls Troubles

KIEV, Ukraine - Jehovah's Witnesses in Ukraine on Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of their deportation to Siberia by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, reviving painful memories of the expulsion.

Armed soldiers broke into houses at night, ordering the people to gather their belongings, said Roman Yurkevych, head of the U.S.-based church's Ukrainian bureau.

The deportation occurred on March 27, 1951, though a round table conference marking the event was held Thursday. Some 2,020 families comprising 6,140 believers were deported from Ukraine - about 70 percent of Jehovah's Witnesses taken to Siberia from across the former Soviet Union.

They only allowed a family to take 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of belongings, put people into cattle wagons and took them to Siberia, Yurkevych said at the round table, according to the Interfax news agency.

He said most Jehovah's Witnesses refused to sign a document renouncing their beliefs, which could have allowed them to stay.

Jehovah's Witnesses were ready to accept sacrifices and trials but preserve their beliefs, Yurkevych said, adding that more than 1,000 of those deported to Siberia from Ukraine are alive today.

The church was officially registered in Ukraine in February 1991, just months before the Soviet collapse, and today its followers number about 115,000 people, Interfax reported.

Jehovah's Witnesses have been registered in other former Soviet republics as well, but still suffer persecution and harassment including a spate of recent attacks in the Caucasus nation of Georgia and court cases initiated by regional authorities in Russia.

AP-NY-04-19-01 1531EDT

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.