Officers of the Salvation Army, a Christian religious denomination best known for its charity work, are ordained ministers who pride themselves on cooperating peacefully with local governments everywhere in the world that they operate. They have official blessings on their good works for the poor and hopeless in 15 cities in Russia and in four nearby countries. In Moscow, however, the city justice department has placed them under siege. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill provides a dispatch from the latest skirmish in Moscow's war on the Salvation Army.
Prague, 22 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- From their headquarters in Moscow, Salvation Army troops march peacefully on the road to good works in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, and 15 cities in Russia -- but not in Russia's capital itself.
In Moscow, the 136-year-old Christian charity lies under siege. Says regional commander Colonel Kenneth Baillie: "We are operating under our national charter which the federal government -- the Russian government -- gave us in February. The city government -- city of Moscow -- has denied us registration. And that makes us very uncomfortable, because the Salvation Army normally wants to be in cooperative and partnering relationships with any government where we work."
Baillie says he is bewildered. Why should anyone object to a charity that shelters the homeless, feeds the hungry, calls on the lonely, and offers religious succor to those who seek it?
"Interestingly enough, we have national registration in Moldova and Ukraine. There is no national registration system in Georgia. We are applying and are close to obtaining national in Romania. Even in Russia, we have national registration from the federal government and we operate in 15 other Russian cities than Moscow without any difficulty. The one and only problem is here in Moscow."
The Salvation Army's right to operate in Moscow has expired and the city refuses to extend it. The group maintains its operations now through legal technicalities -- continuing some city centers under its national charter and running at least one charity kitchen through a partner.
A new threat has developed as well. Vladimir Zhbankov is deputy director of the Moscow Justice Department and has led the charge to deny the Army renewed registration. This summer, he went to court to dissolve the organization's 1992 charter, which already has expired. Baillie says this could mean the eventual confiscation of as much as $1.5 million worth of Salvation Army real estate.
Baillie says that in three years of legal maneuvering, he has never been told why the Moscow authorities are opposed to the presence of the Salvation Army: "Oh, there are many theories. I mean, this is a three-year-old story and I've heard every kind of political and religious and financial and sociological theory as to what's going on. But the honest truth is, I don't know. No one has ever explained what is behind this."
The Salvation Army commander says the latest event only deepened the mystery. "The most recent action, the one threatening to dissolve our 1992 charter, was held at the Tadensky District People's Court. That would be a first-level court in the legal system in the neighborhood that happens to be closest to our headquarters building."
He says the local court convened a hearing on short notice on what turned out to be a fateful day. It was early on 11 September. The cramped neighborhood courtroom was packed with three TV crews, and hordes of newsmen. The judge seemed sympathetic. She asked for documentation, continued the hearing for one day, and spoke of investigating the group's good standing with such officials as the tax authorities.
Baillie says the atmosphere was drastically different the next day. Reporters, distracted by the terrorist attacks in the United States, were elsewhere. The judge forbade the Salvation Army's lawyer to speak, she refused to accept documents offered by Baillie and she said no more about investigating the organization's standing. She read a prepared order dissolving the original charter. The Salvation Army is appealing to a higher court.
Baillie says the organization is not considering for a moment pulling its people and its good deeds out of Moscow. "You know, Moscow is so important to Russia. It's not just a capital city. It's a financial capital. It's an academic capital. It dominates Russian society. And there's no way that we can function long-term in the country if we have no presence in the major city. We've got to find some way to resolve this difficulty and stay here."
He says the Salvation Army does not wish to stay where it is unwanted. But, he says, it will always work hard to become wanted. "Oh, certainly. We want to find a resolution of this, and change the atmosphere from [one of] hostility and suspicion to one of cooperation and partnering."
Speaking to our correspondent in Moscow, Moscow Justice Department Deputy Director Zhbankov declined to be specific about the city's problem with the Salvation Army. "The Salvation Army broke the Russian law. They broke the law on religious organizations that operate in the Russian territory. They should have re-registered in the year 2001, but they did not pass the registration. This is the reason that the court in a first hearing decided to dissolve the organization. Now [it] is going to appeal against the [court's] decision in the city court. But there's no chance that [the Moscow court] will decide in their favor, since the Salvation Army broke the Russian law."
Zhbankov declined to say in what way the Salvation Army broke the law, or why Moscow's findings differ from those of the federal government.
(RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu contributed to this report.)