Beliefnet
MOSCOW, Dec. 4 (RNS)--An appeals court decision against the Salvation Army here appears to be an ominous sign for dozens of religious organizations withlinks to the West, just as they face a year-end deadline for registeringwith the Russian government.

The decision, announced Nov. 28, could well force theSalvation Army to relocate its headquarters, move five congregationsinto home churches and shut down operations that include providing about6,000 meals a month to the city's homeless and poor.

"In terms of the legal processes, it is the end of the road," saidColonel Ken Baillie, an American who commands the Salvation Army'soperations in Russia and four other former Soviet republics.

"We've had registration here for six years. Never a problem. Withthe new law, we had to re-register," he said, adding that an appeal toRussia's Supreme Court was unlikely.

The appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that the SalvationArmy is a foreign-based "military association" and therefore ineligiblefor registration as a full-fledged religious organization. Under acontroversial 1997 law, the registration is necessary for religiousgroups to function as legal entities with the right to enter intocontracts, open bank accounts and hire employees.

According to the most recent statistics from the Justice Ministry,about 60 percent of the religious groups required to register by Dec. 31have completed the process. Failure to do so could result incourt-ordered "liquidation" under a law adopted earlier this year thatextended the original deadline by one year.

In addition to the Salvation Army, local congregations ofevangelical Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses across Russia havesought court orders forcing the Ministry of Justice to re-register themafter initial denials.

Jehovah's Witnesses lawyer John Burns said the fast-growing faithwon court decisions in Tartarstan but is still fighting for recognitionin Chelyabinsk, where a local television station aired accusations theJehovah's Witnesses store chemical weapons.

One of Russia's top religious freedom lawyers, Vladimir Ryakhovsky,said he worries the decision against the Salvation Army bodes ill forother minority faiths based outside Russia, including Mormons, RomanCatholics and various Protestant groups.

Ryakhovsky, who has also helped Jewish, Muslim and Old BelieverOrthodox communities fight for registration, said Pentecostal Protestantgroups typically have the most problems.

"These are big churches and very active. They will have severalthousands parishioners, young people, professionals," said Ryakhovsky,adding that in small, provincial towns such a congregation stands out."Of course, someone doesn't like this. And, often the local [Russian] Orthodoxpriest will put pressure on the Ministry of Justice."

Leaders of the 80-million member Russian Orthodox Church, thecountry's most dominant and politically connected faith, consistentlydeny meddling in the process but, at the same time, vow to vigilantlyprotect their faithful from what they consider to be dangerous sects.

Of the up to 16,000 religious organizations that must re-register,those affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church are the most numerous.

Ryakhovsky speculated that if enough of them fail to make thedeadline, "there will be a lot of pressure to extend it" a second time.

Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church is further strengthening itsties to various government departments, often assigning a patron saint,ranging from St. Barbara for the Ministry of Defense's Rocket Corps toWednesday's naming of St. Matthew for the much-dreaded Tax Police.

Aside from the re-registration requirement, other aspects of the1997 law are causing problems. For example, the head of a religiousorganization must be a Russian citizen or permanent resident. Thisrequirement means that the foreign bishops of two of Russia's four RomanCatholic Apostolic Administrations--dioceses answerable directly tothe pope--cannot register as legal entities.

Both bishops had their initial applications for Russian citizenshipdenied earlier this year and are now hoping the Holy See can work out adeal through diplomatic channels. A Vatican diplomat in Moscow who askedthat his name not be used said Rome has made a formal request to RussianPresident Vladimir Putin that the bishops be granted citizenship.

Citizenship is vastly preferable to permanent resident status forthe highly mobile bishops, because permanent residents in Russia mustreceive government permission every time they want to leave the country,a process that can sometimes take weeks.

In a telephone interview from his seat in Irkutsk, a Siberian citylocated five time zones east of Moscow, Bishop Jerzy Mazur said thatwhen he spoke to local officials about becoming a citizen, they"explained that I can achieve citizenship by marrying a Russian woman."

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