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Russia: Salvation Army Encounters Resistance

St. Petersburg, 30 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Winter has arrived in Russia. Temperatures in St. Petersburg already are plunging below zero. For the city's estimated 50,000 homeless men and women, there is no place to go. No shelters. A lucky one might find a damp, dirty, rat-infested basement.

Few care about St. Petersburg's homeless. Only a few non-government organizations have the motivation and means to offer relief to the homeless.

One of them is the Salvation Army, a Protestant church founded in mid-19th century England. It emphasizes faith in Christ with charitable works to society's outcasts. For a year, it has been bringing soup, coffee and clothing to the homeless near the Vitebsky train station. About 300 haggard people, mostly men, greet its workers.

In August, a short walk from the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, the Salvation Army opened Russia's first private social service center in a building that it bought for the equivalent of $200,000.

The center is unique in Russia. It offers material and emotional assistance to a range of needy people: those with AIDS/HIV, drug users, alcoholics, single mothers, ex-convicts, and the homeless.

Sveta Maznova, the center's director, told our correspondent that many of those who visit the center have nowhere else to seek help.

While the Salvation Army has been in Russia for a little over six years, it has a longer history in the country. The first Russian Salvation Army mission opened in St. Petersburg in 1913. The Bolsheviks closed it in 1923.

Just as the Army is reestablishing its roots in Russian soil, the Russian government is trying to restrict its work once again. A new law on religions that was written primarily for the advantage of the Russian Orthodox Church, categorizes other faiths, such as the Salvation Army, as non-traditional and forbids them from owning property, conducting charitable work, using state facilities, and holding Sunday schools for children.

Captain Joseph Smith, the Salvation Army's head of social services in northwest Russia, told our correspondent that he is not worried for now.

"The Russian Foreign Ministry invited the Salvation Army in 1991 to do charity work. We don't expect to have any problems caused by the new law," he says.

Nevertheless, based on the new law, the Salvation Army is being abruptly evicted from three state-owned halls that it has been renting for its church services in St. Petersburg. Smith said he considers these to be isolated incidents.

Officials at the state hospitals and prisons where the Army has been helping for years, have reassured Salvation Army leaders that they remain welcome. Dr. Yevgenie Voronin, director of the Federal Infectious Diseases Hospital in Ust-Izhor, told our correspondent that the Salvation Army's work with AIDS patients has been particularly valuable. She said the Salvation Army goes into action while most other organizations still are deliberating.

"The new law will not change our relationship with the Army. We want them to stay, and if necessary we will fight for them," she says.