For the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army, the beginning of the year 2001 marked what the head of the Christian group's Russian operations, Kenneth Baillie, has called a "legal never-never land."

"As of two days ago, we do not exist in Moscow," Baillie told ENI in a telephone interview on January 3, referring to the refusal of the Moscow authorities to re-register the city's branch of the Salvation Army as a religious organization.

Under a controversial law on religion dating from 1997, local branches of the Salvation Army, together with many thousands of religious organizations throughout Russia that had registered under a more liberal 1991 law, had until December 31, 2000 to be re-registered with local authorities.

The Salvation Army did not have a registered central office in Russia and relied on local registration of its branches in various Russian cities where they successfully obtained re-registration. However, in February last year, the Moscow city justice department rejected the application of the army's Moscow branch. According to Baillie, the Moscow authorities argued that since the group's headquarters were in London, the Salvation Army could only open a "representative office" in Moscow.

The decision was subsequently upheld by a Moscow district court and by the city court on November 28.

"Since we have the word 'army' in our name, they [the court] said we are a militarized organization bent on the violent overthrow of the Russian government," Baillie said in an earlier interview.

To ensure its continued operation in the city, the Salvation Army applied, under a separate section of the 1997 law, for registration by Russia's federal authorities as a "centralized organization". In late December, the expert committee of the federal ministry of justice voted unanimously in favor of registering the group. In his interview with ENI on January 3, Baillie said that it was not clear how long it would take to obtain a federal registration, but that the justice ministry usually followed the recommendation of its expert committee.

If registration as a "centralized organization" is granted by the ministry of justice, the organization can go back to the city officials to ask them to issue a registration certificate, or the Salvation Army can appeal to the Supreme Court.

"We are in a kind of legal never-never land in Moscow," Baillie said. "We don't have the [registration as a] centralized organization yet, and the city registration has expired."

According to the letter of the law, any religious organization maintains full rights until the justice ministry office files for a liquidation and wins a court decision in its favor. But Baillie said that the organization had already started to feel the effects of the Moscow court's decision.

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In recent weeks, two landlords said they would terminate property leases with the Salvation Army, and a social services department in one of Moscow's districts abruptly cancelled a joint "meals on wheels" program which delivered food to the elderly.

According to Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer and director of the Institute for Religion and Law, the problems facing the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army are not unique. He told ENI that many Russian Orthodox parishes, Muslim groups, and Protestant churches, most of them in distant regions of Russia, had ignored the requirements of the law or waited too long to re-register. Others faced obstructions from local authorities and were engaged in lengthy legal battles.

By July last year, only 56 percent of about 17, 500 religious organizations which had been registered under the 1991 religion law had been re-registered. No statistics were available for the second half of the year, but religion rights lawyers estimated that many groups had not met the deadline.

Local branches of bodies recognized as "centralized organizations", such as the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church or the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, may be able to register this year as new organizations.

But small churches and religious organizations new to Russia, sometimes described as "sects", are likely to lose the status of legal entities and be downgraded to "groups". They would thereby lose their right to hold services in public places, distribute literature, own property or invite foreign guests to Russia.

Pchelintsev predicted that by the summer, Russia would see many such cases. "It is a dangerous situation," he said.

Related Elsewhere

Visit the homepage of the Institute for Religion and Law.

Visit the Salvation Army homepage, where contact information for the SA office in Moscow is available.

Previous Christianity Today stories about religious freedom in Russia include:

Will Putin Protect Religious Liberty? | Freedoms may be in danger in the new Russia. (July 26, 2000)

A Precarious Step Forward | Loosened rules in Russia may mean better times for religious freedom. (Feb. 3, 2000)

Russia's minority churches welcome liberal ruling on religion law | 1997 ruling against 'sects' upheld, but religious groups claim victory. (Dec. 30, 1999)

Stepping Back from Freedom | The new law restricting religion is part of Russia's struggle to redefine itself. (Nov. 17, 1997)

New Religion Law Fraught with Potential for Abuses | (Nov. 17, 1997)

Jehovah's Witness Verdict Stalled | (April 26, 1999 )