London (CNSNews.com) - The Moscow branch of the Salvation Army is as of this week an unregistered organization, its religious and charitable activities devoted to the city's neediest curtailed as the result of a court ruling late last year.
The head of the organization in Russia, Colonel Kenneth Baillee, said Tuesday some of the consequences of reaching the new year without registration had been immediate.
A landlord has given notice on offices used by the Salvation Army, while another, who has rented the organization as a venue for Sunday church services, has told it to get out, Baillee said by telephone from Moscow.
"It was rather sad to have to tell people [at Sunday's service]: 'This is our last day here, we don't know where we'll be next week. If we can find a place, we'll telephone you and we hope you can all find where it is.' It's just really sad."
"Where we have some offices, the landlord has given an eviction notice, and our people haven't found any place to go. They don't know what to do."
Meanwhile one of the charitable programs, the provision of hot meals three times a week to elderly, frail Muscovites in their homes, has come to a sudden halt.
"This had been [carried out] in cooperation with the district social service office," Baillee explained. "They gave us the names and addresses of the people most needy and we bought the food and organized the volunteers to deliver it. The district supervisor called up ... and said: 'We understand you're not going to be registered so we can't cooperate with you.' The seniors were just cut off abruptly."
The organization's other charity work includes helping prisoners, the lonely, drug and alcohol addicts, neglected children and people with Aids.
The Salvation Army worked in the Soviet Union until it was kicked out by the communists in 1923. It returned to Moscow in 1992 as a registered organization. But a 1997 law required all religious groups to re-register with the justice ministry by the end of 2000.
It has managed to register its work in St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk, Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don and Vyborg. In Moscow, however, all attempts to fulfill the legal requirement have been stymied by the local justice ministry.
Part of the problem seemed to relate to officials' concerns about the militaristic terminology used historically by the 135-year-old organization, which in one 2000 court case was described as "militarized" and "fascist."
Finally last November 28, the Moscow city court turned down a Salvation Army appeal against the refusal to register it. The court also failed to hand over the written ruling immediately, making it impossible for Salvation Army lawyers to file an appeal in the stipulated time.
Baillee said lawyers believed the legal situation now was "murky."
"We have entered a kind of legal never-never land. We do not have registration but the legal entity known as the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army continues to exist and will do so until the city applies in the courts to have us liquidated. That will take months, we are told."
In the meantime, it was unclear whether this would enable it to continue functioning in any way.
"Russia is a land not always ruled by the niceties of the law. It remains to be seen whether landlords, government bureaucrats or whatever will be guided by what the law says or by what their fears and worries may be."
Baillee said the Salvation Army was pinning its hopes on a separate application for registration nationally, as a "centralized religious organization."
That application had just before the New Year passed a major procedural hurdle in receiving the unanimous backing of a government committee. It is now in the hands of the federal justice minister.
If the national application is approved, Baillee said, the Salvation Army may be able to apply again for registration in Moscow itself.
"This is Russia, it's a murky thing. But what we'll probably do is reapply in Moscow, using the wording of the national charter, and hope Moscow will see fit to reverse the essence of the earlier decision. But of course it's not a certain thing."
Foreign Groups Targeted
The 1997 law was widely viewed as an act taken by the government under pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been critical of other churches' efforts to win converts in territory it regards as its own.
Numerous other religious groups, especially those considered foreign in origin, were also affected by the re-registration requirement.
Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer with the Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow, said he was certain many would not have been able to register in time.
"According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, only 56 per cent [of] groups passed the registration process," Pchelintsev said in response to queries. "The new religious group[s] will find themselves in most unfavorable situation."
He predicted "dozens of court cases" next spring as groups which failed to meet the Dec. 31 deadline faced dissolution by court order.
"Over the last year [the] religious freedom situation in Russia deteriorated," Pchelintsev said. "Plenty of complaints by believers and court cases prove that. In fact, some local authorities use the re-registration deadline to harass and dissolve groups that are considered unnecessary."
Itar-Tass reported on December 31 that more than 9,000 groups - or about 60 per cent - had been registered since the 1997 law came into effect.
It said the number of "religious confessions" in Russia had risen from about 40 a decade ago to 60 today.
Among the "new" movements that had appeared, Itar-Tass said, were the Salvation Army, Bahai, "Church of the Last Testament" and the Unification Church.
See Earlier Story:
Hostility, Red Tape May Force Salvation Army To Retreat From Moscow (5 Dec. 2000)