The Russian branch of the Salvation Army believes its legal problems in the Russian capital, where a local court described them last year as a "national security threat," may be coming to an end.

Captain Adam Morales, in charge of the church's financial and legal affairs in Russia and the former Soviet republics, told ENI that the Salvation Army had been registered by the federal justice ministry on February 20 as a "centralized" religious organization.

Under the 1997 law on religious organizations, which was sharply criticized in Russia and abroad by supporters of religious freedom, churches registered as "centralized" organizations have the right to issue certificates to their local branches. These certificates facilitate the registration of the branches which do not then have to prove that they have been present in the area for at least 15 years. Groups which failed to re-register before December 31 may face liquidation by court decisions later this year. This would mean losing their right to own and rent property, carry out services in public places, distribute literature and invite clergy from abroad to come to Russia.

"It means that we are not in a critical situation any more," Captain Morales said of the federal decision. "But the Moscow court decision is still outstanding and in force. If we don't overturn it, it will be a black stain on our reputation, and could cause us problems in the future."

Late last year, the city of Moscow's justice department refused to re-register the Salvation Army's local branch. The church took the case to court, but lost because the court ruled that it was a "militarized" organization and, as such, posed a "threat" to Russia's security. (Although the Salvation Army has a military structure, with members subject to strict discipline, it is a purely religious organization.)

The organization did not have time to engage in a legal battle with Moscow city authorities before the December 31 deadline, and the group's legal rights in the city are still severely limited.

The court's decision, as well as the reaction to it in the West, became an embarrassment for the federal government offices dealing with religious organizations, and they promised to speed up federal registration.

Captain Morales said that the group was still experiencing difficulties in the city. Landlords of two properties leased by the church had terminated the lease agreements. A district social security office in Moscow had also cancelled a joint program allowing the Salvation Army to deliver food to elderly Muscovites living alone.

"It was hard to find new office space," Captain Morales said. "People turned us down saying we were not registered and should go away."

No date had been set for a new court hearing over the status of the Moscow branch, he said. But federal registration might help. "At present it looks like the right hand does not know what the left is doing."

The Salvation Army operates in 14 Russian cities, and is fully registered in five of them: St Petersburg, Vyborg, Petrozavodsk, Volgograd, and Rostov-on-Don.

The Moscow court's decision must be overturned, Captain Morales said. Otherwise its ruling that the organization was "a security threat" would remain in circulation.

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of Russia's Salvation Army controversy includes:
Russia Recognizes Salvation Army as a Religious Organization | Officials say that doesn't restore status to the Army's Moscow branch. (Feb. 28, 2001)
Moscow Salvation Army Rejected | Without official recognition, ministry and the elderly suffer. (Feb. 13, 2001)
Salvation Army Closed in Moscow | Moscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity (Jan. 11, 2001)

The Salvation Army Russia site offers news on their plight, but hasn't been updated since mid-January.

Russia Religious News from the Stetson University Department of History not only links to articles about religion in Russia and the former Soviet republics, but also translates and reposts them.