Prague, 5 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Moscow branch of the Salvation Army has won a skirmish in its long battle with the Moscow city administration.
The Keston News Service, a London-based agency covering religious issues, reports that the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has overruled lower court rulings that would have liquidated the Christian charity in Moscow.
Regional Salvation Army commander Kenneth Baillie said last November that Moscow court rulings threatened confiscation of Salvation Army real estate worth $1.5 million. The rulings also hampered the group's efforts to feed the poor, visit the elderly, and perform other services in Moscow.
The Constitutional Court's finding stipulates that the previous legal rulings now are "subject to reconsideration."
The Keston service says the Constitutional Court handed down its ruling last month, and the Salvation Army has just made the findings public. This is the first significant positive development in a three-year long controversy between the Moscow city administration and the Christian group.
Earlier, in the midst of the legal tangles, a discouraged Baillie confessed to being mystified by the city of Moscow's enmity: "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 wears the trappings of a military organization. Its ministers wear uniforms and carry military ranks -- Baillie, for example, is a colonel. But its activities are anything but military. It operates feeding programs and shelters for the homeless, sends volunteers to visit and assist the homebound elderly, and conducts religious services.
The U.S. State Department human rights report for 2001, issued yesterday, specifically mentions the Salvation Army's tribulations in Moscow. The report says that the group has stated its intention to continue its work through its federally registered Russian organization.
"However," as the State Department report put it, "at year's end, officials were preventing the transfer of key properties from the local chapter to the centrally registered organization."
The Constitutional Court decision could have the effect either of permitting the transfer or of making it unnecessary.
Part of Baillie's confusion over the Salvation Army's problems in Moscow last year, he said, stemmed from his organization's general acceptance in other jurisdictions. The Moscow headquarters commands Salvation Army activities in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, and 16 locations in Russia. In all those other locations, he said, the Salvation Army's programs appeared to be welcome.
"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 registration 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 recent developments do not necessarily mean that the group's problems are over in Moscow.
The Constitutional Court ruled only that failing to reregister by the December 2000 deadline was insufficient ground by itself to liquidate a religious organization. The ruling says, however, that a group may be liquidated if it has ceased its activities or has violated its constitutional obligations.
Vladimir Zhbankov, deputy director of the Moscow city justice department, said last November that the case was clear cut. The Salvation Army broke Russian law, he said, by failing to reregister. He declined to discuss the group's efforts to reregister, blocked by his own department.
The Salvation Army has continued to operate in Moscow through various legal technicalities, managing some activities through its own federal entity and others through partnerships with registered groups. But Baillie says his preference is to operate openly and in cooperation with local authorities.