London (CNSNews.com) - The Salvation Army, one of a number of foreign religious organizations facing growing hostility in Russia, may have to shut down its work in Moscow, where its attempts to register have been turned down by a city court.
If the organization is unable to have the decision overturned, it will no longer be able to operate legally after December 31.
The Salvation Army, which was kicked out of the Soviet Union in 1923, resumed its charitable work in Moscow in 1992, as a registered organization. But a controversial 1997 law required all religious groups to re-register with the justice ministry and attempts to do so have been denied.
The organization, founded by a British preacher in the 19th century and sometimes called "the church with its sleeves rolled up," is today involved in countries worldwide, helping the needy and preaching the gospel. It is working in 14 Russian cities, and registration has been approved in five of them. Others are pending.
Exactly why the justice ministry has denied the Moscow application is unclear. The action appeared to be arbitrary, said Colonel Kenneth Baillie, who oversees the organizations work in Russia and the CIS.
"Other religious groups have been granted registration, some without anything like the worldwide reputation we have for service to God and people. We cannot understand it," he said in a statement.
Baillie said the organization was applying separately for national registration, which if approved by federal authorities could resolve the Moscow problem.
In the meantime, however, time and resources are being wasted on bureaucracy and legal battles rather than spent in helping Moscow's poor, sick, prisoners and orphans.
Adam Morales, a former California resident now responsible for the Salvation Army's legal affairs in Russia, said Monday the justice ministry's arguments "don't hold water."
It had argued that as an international organization, the Salvation Army should only be allowed to have a representative office and no more, he said in a telephone interview from Moscow.
Yet organizations such as the Mormons, Jesuits and Jehovah's Witnesses had all been registered, even though they were clearly international organizations.
The second argument was that the organization was a charitable, rather than religious one, and could not therefore register under the religion law. But anyone reading its publications or knowing anything about its work could see this was obviously not the case, said Morales.
A view that had come up in an earlier court case, he said, was that the Salvation Army was a "militarized"- even "fascist" group.
"Most people here know that's not the case. But someone, somewhere doesn't like us."
Morales said the Salvation Army was planning to appeal this latest, "shocking" court decision, but even that was being hindered by the court. The written ruling should be made available within three days, to enable an appeal to be filed within ten. But the court has indicated it will only hand over the written judgment in one month's time.
Under former President Boris Yeltsin, Russia passed the 1997 law compelling religious groups to register under pressure from the Orthodox Church, which feared a loss of influence as other churches' activities spread.
The law aims to protect "traditional" faiths like Orthodoxy, Islam and Judaism.
Earlier this year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed grave concern after President Vladimir Putin announced that all religious groups not registered by the year's end would be liquidated.
Last month the Keston Institute, a British organization monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, reported that the Russian education ministry was disseminating to educational institutions a letter alleging that 700 "foreign" religious groups were involved in military espionage and were encouraging separatist activity.
The letter said the groups concerned were encouraging splits within "traditional" Russian faiths, and that foreign missionaries were trying to wipe out Russia's collective memory of its "thousand-year statehood."
Keston noted that the letter was characterized by old, Soviet-style rhetoric, and that it failed to back up its claims by citing a single court decision. The claims are attributed merely to anonymous experts.
Translating from the original, Morales Monday quoted from the letter. It said in part that the Salvation Army "tries to spread its influence on young people and those serving in the military. The Salvation Army represents itself as an evangelical Protestant branch of the Christian church, but in reality it is a militarized religious organization with a vertical hierarchy."
Morales said what would happen if registration could not be acquired by the end of the year was unclear. Exactly what "liquidation" would entail was not known, although he assumed it would be a legal liquidation that would require a court order.
"They might just come on January 1 or 2 and seize everything ... so we can't do any more work officially."