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Russia: In Moscow, Salvation Army's Days May Be Numbered

  • Don Hill

Around the world, the Salvation Army works like a military organization to fight for people who are hungry, sick, homeless, or lonely. But bureaucrats in the Moscow city justice department are made uneasy by the Christian group's name, the military titles of its leaders, and the brass buttons on its uniforms. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill says the group these days finds itself in double trouble.

Prague, 9 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Salvation Army has never been easy for Russian officials to understand.

Russia's Bolsheviks booted the Christian organization out of Leninist Russia in 1923 and the communists kept them out for nearly 70 years. The Army only came marching back in 1991 near the end of Mikhail Gorbachev's time in power.

In 1997 -- six years after the breakup of the Soviet Union -- Russia adopted what it called a "freedom of conscience" law. It established, among other things, that religious organizations outside of Russia's four main religions -- the Russian Orthodox Church, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism -- must renew their registrations with federal and local authorities. By this time, the Salvation Army had established itself in 14 Russian cities and towns.

Vladimir Ryakhovsky, a lawyer with the Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow, tells RFE/RL that at the federal level and in all but one of those communities, re-registering the Salvation Army was a routine exercise. In Moscow, however, it was anything but routine:

"The court in Moscow decided that the activities of this kind of group are illegal. They ruled it is a representative office of a foreign religion. These are some of the problems the Salvation Army ran up against in Moscow. In other cities we haven't seen problems of this kind."

The Salvation Army's double trouble is this: If it is a religious organization, as the Salvation Army insists it is, then it must register or endlessly violate the law with any religious activities. But the Moscow authorities will not permit it to register, giving among other reasons that it appears to be a military organization rather than a religious one.

When Methodist minister William Booth established the Salvation Army in 1865 in London's impoverished East End, he said he intended the group to be a Christian denomination whose mission would be to follow the command of Jesus Christ to feed and clothe the poor and give succor to the sick and helpless. To emphasize its recruits' dedication, he gave them military titles and simple uniforms and required them to sign what he called "Articles of War."

Ordained ministers were "officers" with titles like captain, major, and colonel. Ministers-in-charge were "commanding officers." And he organized the group in "corps, divisions, and territories."

The organization's activities, however, are anything but traditionally military. It distributes food and clothing, organizes visits and long-term care for shut-ins, and conducts religious services with emphasis on joyous singing, instrumental music, hand clapping, and free prayer.

The Slavic Center's Ryakhovsky, who represents the Salvation Army in its legal battles with the Moscow city administration, says it is incredible that anyone would think the group constitutes a military security threat:

"I do not understand how anyone could confuse this group with a military organization. This is just absurd."

In some places in Russia, the ability of religious organizations to re-register is determined by local religious expert committees. In Moscow, the city justice department is the authority. Justice department deputy Vladimir Zhbankov says he does not care that a federal expert committee has ruled that the Salvation Army is a legitimate religious denomination. He also says that the issue is not whether the Salvation Army is militaristic. It is that they call themselves an army. As he puts it: "They are a military organization in form. Such organizations have a special status under the law."

Some foreign evangelical religious organizations have offended Orthodox Church authorities by the aggressiveness -- and success -- with which they proselytize for converts. But the Salvation Army commander in Moscow, Colonel Kenneth Baillie, says that is not how his organization operates. He said, "We are careful about preaching to needy people when all they want is a bowl of soup."

A reporter for "The New York Times" in Moscow called recently on shut-in Tatyana Medvedeva, a Salvation Army beneficiary. One of the organization's "soldiers" regularly does her shopping, fetches her medicine, and visits with her to relieve her lonely days. She was incredulous when told of the group's legal troubles, saying: "God save us from people who don't know what they are talking about."

Time appears to be running out for the Salvation Army in Moscow. Although the lawyer, Ryakhovsky, says he still is exploring legal avenues, the group has exhausted the immediately available options there. The Moscow city court last month denied their appeal against a ruling that it had applied too late to register and failed to meet the criteria for an independent religious organization:

"Certain bureaucrats in Moscow's justice department decided to refuse registration to the Salvation Army, the ones that said this organization will never be registered in Moscow. It was purely an ideological, purely a political decision."

The Christian group has taken its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, charging that the Moscow bureaucrats are violating both Russia's Constitution and its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. If the court takes up the case, the burden could shift to Moscow to explain its stand.

(RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier contributed to this feature.)

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