London (CNSNews.com) - Moscow city authorities are continuing their campaign to shut down the Salvation Army's operations in the capital, six months after the federal government approved the religious and charitable organization's legal status nationally.
On September 11, a district court will hear a case brought by the branch of the Justice Ministry which oversees Moscow, which wants to liquidate the Salvation Army branch in the capital.
The 136-year-old Protestant organization runs projects in the city helping the needy, neglected children, elderly, prisoners, AIDS sufferers and drug addicts.
Last year it was denied registration - required by a 1997 religion law critics say was intended to entrench the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. It sued the city authorities, but lost, and also lost a subsequent appeal.
It has since taken the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, where it has been accepted for consideration.
A Justice Ministry official was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the case was a legal issue, and that no group had been rejected for ideological reasons.
But according to a source close to the case Friday, much of the problem relates to the perception that the group, with its militaristic name, uniform and hierarchy, has a hidden agenda.
In fact, the judge who threw out the Salvation Army's earlier appeal against Moscow's decision not to register it accused it of seeking to overthrow the state.
The Salvation Army believes those arguments don't wash. In its application for national status as a "centralized religious organization," which was approved by the federal government last February, some of those same questions were settled to the government's satisfaction.
A committee of experts convened by the government to examine that application concluded that there was no truth to fears that the Salvation Army was a military organization.
"The analysis of the faith and organizational structure of the Salvation Army shows that the term 'warriors of Christ' is only used in the context of the realization of the purposes and principles which are stated in the charter of this religious organization and which are incompatible with violence, and incompatible also with the activity of military formations in the worldly meaning of the word 'military,' " the committee found.
"At present there is no known participation of the Salvation Army in any violence whatsoever," it added.
"The fact that The Salvation Army followers have special ranks and insignia cannot be interpreted as belonging to any militarized organization."
The experts also upheld the organization's claim to political neutrality, and could find no case in which it had become involved in political activity.
The committee did recommend that, because the uniforms and rank structure "cause some Russian citizens to think that this is a militarized organization," the group's publications should make it very clear that these attributes did not mean it was a military organization.
The committee's findings have been brought to the attention of the Moscow officials, but to no apparent avail.
A source in Moscow said it may be that the Salvation Army has been caught in a power-struggle inside the Justice Ministry, between officials responsible for the capital, and others.
The Salvation Army's case before the European Court of Human Rights has been brought by the Strasbourg-based non-profit association, the European Center for Law and Justice, and its Moscow counterpart, the Slavic Center for Law and Justice. Both are arms of the Virginia Beach-based American Center for Law and Justice.
ECLJ executive director Joel Thornton said the case was "a classic example of government officials improperly denying the religious liberties they are sworn to protect."
"This case could redefine the right of religious organizations to exist in the face of governmental prejudice."
The ECLJ and SCLJ have asked the European court to find the Russian actions in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and to determine that the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army is a legitimate religious group under Russian law.
If the Moscow authorities succeed in shutting down the organization's activities, "the people they serve every day will be left without help," said Vladimir Ryakhovsky, a lawyer with the Slavic Center for Law and Justice.
The Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy this week voiced concern about the plight of the Salvation Army in Moscow.
"The Salvation Army, through its charitable work, often brings about stability in areas where basic human needs are not being met due to poverty, addiction, natural disasters, violence, and lack of education," said the institute's president, Joseph K. Grieboski.
"For this reason, I believe that the continued presence of the Salvation Army in Moscow and all of Russia will contribute to the strength of the Russian government and society."
Of the belief that the organization is a military one seeking to overthrow the government, Grieboski said: "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Col. Kenneth Baillee, the head of the Salvation Army in Russia, was traveling in Georgia Friday, and could not be reached for comment.
See Earlier Stories:
Salvation Army Loses Official Status In Moscow (Jan 2, 2001)
Hostility, Red Tape May Force Salvation Army To Retreat from Moscow (5 Dec.