Washington, 7 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A Moscow court decided last week that the Salvation Army represents a security threat to the Russian government. That ruling may make it impossible for that international humanitarian assistance organization to reregister before the end of this month and thus force it to suspend operations in Moscow.
Kenneth Baillie, the head of the Army's Russian operations, said that the Moscow city court had reached this conclusion on November 28. "Since we have the word 'army' in our name," he said, the court said "we are a militarized organization bent on the violent overthrow of the Russian government."
The Salvation Army, of which Baillie is a colonel, was founded in the nineteenth century along military lines but without the usual military goals. Its members carry no weapons and have as their mission assistance rather than conquest. And their anthem is "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
This finding will make it impossible for the group to register as required by Russian law, and court officials said they would give its officers the official verdict only sometime within the next month -- a delay that might make it impossible for the Salvation Army to appeal to a higher court.
The Salvation Army has been present in Russia since the collapse of communism. In addition to Moscow, the group operates community centers in 13 other Russian cities which provide food, shelter, and clothing to the homeless, the elderly, and other less fortunate people.
One 85-year-old participant in the Salvation Army's Russian program told a Moscow newspaper on Wednesday that "this is the only thing that saves us lonely people. Here we get everything we need, love and human contact." And the leader of the Moscow Salvation Army office added that "if we have to close it, [the people who have been using it] will lose everything. They'll have nothing but their four walls.
The Salvation Army's current legal travails began in 1997 when the Russian parliament passed a law requiring religious organizations with less than 15 years of work in Russia to register with the local authorities. The Army's Moscow office filed documents in February 1999. In August of that year, Moscow officials refused to register the group.
At that time, the Moscow city officials said that the group could not register because its headquarters were outside of the Russian Federation and that it could have only a representative office in Moscow. In response, the Army filed suit which in July 2000 upheld the city's position. The current finding against the Army was the result of the group's appeal of that decision.
These legal appeals, the Salvation Army said, had forced it to spend more than $20,000 in legal fees, money that the group indicated it would have much preferred to spend on those in need.
Colonel Baillie told "The Moscow Times" this week that the Moscow court's latest action showed that the Salvation Army had been singled out, although he said that it was "unclear" as to why. But he acknowledged that there's a general wariness and suspicion of foreigners: "That's part of Russian culture and certainly part of the religious culture."
No court in any other region of Russia has taken such an action against the Salvation Army, but officials in this region are likely to be watching to see whether the finding against this group is upheld or overturned. If the court decision stands, many of them may also move against the group. If it is overturned, they are less likely to try to close the Army's operations.
But these regional courts are not the only ones who will be watching to see just what the Russian legal system does. The Salvation Army enjoys near universal support around the world for its longstanding efforts to help those in need regardless of nationality, religion, or political affiliation.
During this holiday season, when the Army's officers stand on the streets of major Western cities to collect money for its charitable activities, such a Russian move against the group will undoubtedly cause many people to draw new conclusions about the direction that Russian political life is taking.
But the Salvation Army has pledged to continue to work where it can because its officers have always insisted that they answer to a far higher court than any judicial assembly in any particular city or any particular country.