London (CNSNews.com) - Two hundred members and supporters of the Salvation Army in Moscow have appealed to the city's mayor to help prevent the shutdown of the charitable Christian organization's activities there at the end of this month.
According to a 1997 religion law, any religious organization that has not been working in Russia since 1982 must re-register by December 31 this year or face either dissolution or a downgrading to a status that will restrict their right to meet in public places, own property or distribute material.
The Salvation Army has successfully re-registered in several other centers, but in Moscow came up against a bureaucratic brick wall. The Moscow City Court recently upheld an earlier ruling blocking registration.
"Since we have the word 'army' in our name, they said we are a militarized organization bent on the violent overthrow of the Russian government," said Colonel Kenneth Baillie, who heads the Russian operation.
In a letter to Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, delivered at his office on Wednesday, 200 Muscovites urged him to intervene in the matter, so Russian members and volunteers can "continue their good work among the citizens of Moscow."
The letter outlined the work being undertaken by the Salvation Army in the capital, where it both preaches the gospel and cares for people in need, including the elderly, sick, homeless, blind, mentally ill, needy and prisoners.
It acknowledged that the Army's military terminology could easily be misunderstood - members are called "soldiers" and branches "corps" - but assured Luzhkov that the organization had been called "the most peace-loving army in the whole world" and had even been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
"The Salvation Army uses the biblical metaphor of 'soldiers' of Christ; its weapons are the biblical ones - faith in God, truth, righteousness, salvation, prayer and the Word of God."
The Moscow Salvation Army has been trying to secure re-registration for a year. In an earlier court case, allegations were made that the organization was "fascist" and constituted a security threat.
Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer with the Law and Religion Institute, said the court decision was "illiterate" and predicted it would eventually be allowed to register.
The Salvation Army has won support from other quarters too. The English-language Moscow Times published an editorial saying the organization's commendable work had come up against the "typically ham-handed, xenophobic style that characterizes so much of the Russian bureaucracy."
The paper urged the Russian Orthodox Church to intervene, calling on the Patriarch himself to call the appropriate authorities and urge them to reconsider. The quasi-state Orthodox Church is widely seen as the instigator and primary beneficiary of the 1997 law.
It concluded: "The poor are under much greater threat from cold, hunger and loneliness than from foreign cults. Winter's cold is here. Christmas is coming. What other reason do we need to do what is right?"
A satirist writing in a different edition of the same paper wrote a letter to President Vladimir Putin, purportedly coming from the head of the FSB intelligence agency.
It told of an agent who had spotted suspicious activity - a man wearing a false, cotton-wool beard and red and white quit, ringing a bell and collecting money in a bucket bearing the name of "a hitherto unknown paramilitary force identified by the code name 'Salvation Army.' "
"An investigation involving hundreds of agents has revealed that [the suspect] was a member of a broad conspiracy of urban commandos who dress like officers from Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany," the letter said.
Putin was then urged to take decisive action: "It is therefore the unanimous recommendation of the state organs that this band of hymn-singing revolutionaries be denied legal religious status in Russia ... if we do not take action now, bearded men in red suits could end up on every street corner, ringing bells, panhandling, opening soup kitchens and fomenting revolution."
Other organizations at risk
With 10 days to go until the deadline, it remains unclear how many other religious organizations may face the new year without registration.
The Keston Institute, a British organization monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, said this week there were mixed reports from different parts of Russia.
Of those groups which had not yet re-registered, some had disbanded, others were awaiting paperwork from abroad, while some smaller ones had decided to settle for the more restricted status.
In Ulyanovsk, 550 miles east of Moscow, for example, justice officials said only 10-15 out of 215 religious organizations had not yet re-registered. In Kursk, south of Moscow, 14 groups had not re-registered while 282 had.
In Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, fewer than 20 of 166 organizations had not re-registered and would be liquidated, officials reported.
In Tomsk, on the other hand, re-registration was said to be "going badly," with ten organizations - six Catholic and four Muslim - not yet having applied. In Khabarovsk in the Pacific region, about 20 mostly Protestant groups had not re-registered.
Keston was unable to get any information from officials in Moscow, who said in response to queries that the 1997 religion law "does not require the registering organ to divulge information concerning religious organizations which have and have not been reregistered."
See Earlier Story:
Hostility, Red Tape May Force Salvation Army To Retreat From Moscow (5 6Dec. 2000)