In a significant challenge to Russia's 1997 Religion Law, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Russian officials wrongfully denied legal status to an outpost of the Salvation Army. The October verdict levied a fine of 10,000 euros, payable to the evangelical church's Moscow office.
The Salvation Army initially registered with the state in 1992. After the restrictive Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations passed in 1997, however, Moscow's city government rejected the church's re-registration application. The government raised several minor objections to the application, all of which the ECHR deemed petty. Officials also accused the Salvation Army of being a "militarized organization."
In early 2002, the Salvation Army's Moscow office was forced to suspend its activities for some months, before being allowed to continue work while still unregistered.
"Russia remains extremely problematic from the point of view of freedom of religion," said Michael Bourdeaux, founder and president emeritus of the Keston Institute, Oxford, which monitors religious freedom in Communist and former Communist countries. "Basically, the 1997 legislation continues to be a disaster. … [It] publicly proclaims that Protestants and Catholics enjoy a lower level of rights than the Russian Orthodox Church."
The ECHR decided unanimously that the government overstepped its bounds when it attempted to determine whether the Salvation Army's "beliefs or the means used to express them were legitimate." Furthermore, the court criticized a key provision of the 1997 law that disallows foreign nationals from founding religious organizations.
Russia signed onto the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998 after joining the Council of Europe in 1996. Articles 9 and 11 of the convention guarantee freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. Yet some Russian policies appear to be moving further and further away from such civil liberties.
In mid-October, the national government introduced legislation to more closely monitor the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Dozens of foreign aid groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, had to suspend work while awaiting approval of their registration applications.
"It's just one further sign of the tightening that's going on," said Russian Ministries president Anita Deyneka, "and the increased control and restrictions under Putin."
Such restrictions have a long history in Russian governance, Deyneka pointed out, during both Communist and Tsarist times. "What's alarming right now is that they're reverting to that pattern." Deyneka said a proposed addendum to the 1997 law—which could prohibit some kinds of evangelism (see "The God Who Lives and Works and Plays in Russia," November, p. 32)—is another sign of the country's steady regression on religious rights.
Still, Bourdeaux stressed that the religious situation in Russia is far from uniform. He said many areas enjoy religious freedom similar to that of Western nations. The embarrassment of the ECHR ruling, he said, may cause the government to reexamine its policies.
A hint about the government's long-term intentions could come within days. It has until January 4 to appeal the ECHR decision.
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Portal-credo.ru reported on the situation from Russia after an October 25 press conference on "The European Court of for Human Rights and the Salvation Army in Russia."
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has a case note on the court decision.
Previous Christianity Today stories on the Salvation Army's troubles in Russia include:
Russia: Salvation Army Eyes Registration Victory | "After a long legal battle in Moscow, the Army gets hope that there is justice." (April 22, 2002)
Russia: Moscow Bans Salvation Army | Embattled ministry appeals judicial ruling (November 12, 2001)
Russia: Salvation Army Rejected | Without official recognition, ministry and the elderly suffer. (March 5, 2001)
Federal Ruling May Mean Salvation Army's Moscow Problems Are Over | "Church able to register as centralized religious organization, but leaders say Moscow decision must still be overturned" (March 1, 2001)
Russia Recognizes Salvation Army as a Religious Organization | Officials say that doesn't restore status to the Army's Moscow branch. (February 1, 2001)
Salvation Army Closed in Moscow | Moscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity (January 1, 2001)
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