RUSSIA: Shut-Down Begins of Salvation Army Programmes

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 22 December 2000

With just seven working days in Russia until the expiry of its legal status, the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army is experiencing the beginning of the shut-down of its programmes, while its religious services in the Russian capital are threatened. Moscow city social services department has already terminated the agreement under which the Salvation Army provided meals on wheels and the programme has come to a halt, commanding officer Colonel Kenneth Baillie told Keston News Service on 21 December. Baillie said no other programmes have yet been affected.

The Moscow branch has also encountered problems renting premises. The landlord from whom they rent office space has said that he will not renew the contract after the end of the year and they must get out by then. The hotel where they rent space for Sunday worship told them they can only rent week by week and the landlord has not yet said if they can continue to rent into the New Year. They are still meeting there for the moment. ‘In any given week we might not be able to use the premises if he were instructed not to lease them to us,’ Baillie reported. ‘How can you run a church week by week?’ Both landlords gave the branch’s failure to gain reregistration as the reason for the changes.

On 28 November the Moscow branch lost a court battle to overturn the rejection of its the reregistration application (see KNS 30 November 2000). Unless the Salvation Army receives legal status as a centralised religious organisation in Russia ‘very quickly’, explained Baillie, the Moscow branch will enter ‘legal never-never land’ on 1 January 2001: ‘On the one hand our 1992 registration expires, on the other, we will still exist until the city decides to file for liquidation.’

The Salvation Army has successfully reregistered in five other Russian cities with charters identical to that deemed unacceptable in Moscow. Three of these branches - St Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd - make up the three local religious organisations required for the Church’s application for the status of centralised religious organisation. According to Baillie, however, this was submitted only in September 2000, since ‘an awful lot of time and energy went into getting those five cities’.

A response from the federal registering organ is only due, therefore, ‘no later than late February’, Baillie told Keston, which could come too late for a newly-formed centralised religious organisation to act as an umbrella to the Moscow branch. A decision does not appear imminent, as the application has been referred for expert analysis. ‘We have been asked whether we are Christians and how we can prove it,’ remarked Baillie. ‘You don’t get asked that in London or New York every day.’

On 20 December head of department for reregistration of religious organisations at the Ministry of Justice Viktor Korolyov sounded surprised when Keston asked whether the Salvation Army had yet received the status of a centralised religious organisation. They had not, he replied: ‘We are examining their documentation in accordance with the law.’

Baillie told Keston that the federal religious experts have also queried the Church’s military metaphor. Although the Moscow branch’s legal appeal against the 16 August 1999 reregistration refusal challenged only the reasons cited by the main Moscow municipal department of justice, said Baillie, the Presnensky District Court which eventually dealt with the appeal ‘started injecting other reasons for denial’. One of these was a constitutional provision which prohibits the creation of ‘militaristic formations’.

Baillie does not feel that, after having two appeals denied in recent months, the Moscow court system could provide a solution: ‘We feel poorly done-by by the court system.’ In its 5 July 2000 verdict, for example, Presnensky District Court went beyond its legal remit of considering whether the reasons for rejection of reregistration are lawful by judging the original 1992 registration of the Moscow branch to be invalid: ‘in the light of which the demand that it be reregistered should not be satisfied.’

Ultimately, however, Baillie does not believe the affair to be a legal matter, as indicated by the fact that five other Russian cities have taken the opposite decision about reregistration: ‘This has nothing to do with changing the language in yet another clause or supplying yet another document. If it were, they would have asked and we would have been happy to do so. It is about a decision taken against us for reasons never made public.’

On 10 November assistant head of the main municipal department of justice Vladimir Zhbankov wrote to Keston that the 1997 law on religion ‘does not require the registering organ to divulge information concerning religious organisations which have and have not been reregistered’. He was not available for comment when Keston rang on 22 December.

Baillie has no idea why the Salvation Army has been refused reregistration in Moscow. He referred to pressure from the authorities on the Church to register as a charity rather than a religious organisation: ‘But first and foremost we are Christians - we preach the gospel, using words if necessary.’ The branch intends to continue its fight for the legal right to function in Moscow. ‘We have no intention of simply packing up and leaving. Our ministry is important and people depend on it.’ (END)