Moscow--On a recent autumn day that was just chilly enough to give an ominous hint of the long winter to come, Ruslan Akhambayev and his mother slurped vegetable soup and nibbled hunks of white bread at anoutdoor feeding program run by the Salvation Army. Ruslan, 11, explained how they had arrived six months ago in Moscowafter a weeklong train ride from their native Kazakhstan in CentralAsia. They had planned on building a new life in this city of 10 millionbut things didn't work out that way.

Instead, they pay about $1 a nightto sleep together on a bench in a railway station and spend their dayscollecting redeemable bottles. The Salvation Army's daily hot lunchfrees up money for necessities other than food. "We need to buy me a coat. It'll cost about 200 rubles," saidRuslan, a bright-eyed boy in a dirty denim jacket, as he stood on theedge of a group of about 100 Salvation Army patrons, most of themhomeless, poor or alcoholic.

The Salvation Army's charitable activities in 15 cities acrossRussia -- including programs for the elderly and the disabled -- helpprovide a small cushion for the 33 percent of Russia's 146 millioncitizens who fall below the poverty line, set by the government at amonthly income of $44.

Now, the programs here in the capital are under threat of possibleclosure. A Moscow court ruled last year that the Salvation Army is a"military association" and, consequently, a potential threat to Russia'snational security. With their legal appeals nearly exhausted, SalvationArmy leaders are incredulous at the prospect of a court-orderedliquidation of their Moscow operations. "We are not a dangerous sect. We are not a military presencededicated to provoking revolutions. We are peace-loving Christiansdedicated to serving the Lord," said Gen. John Gowans, the London-basedhead of the Salvation Army during an October visit to Moscow. "I don'tsee why the Salvation Army can be appreciated in Lahore and Tokyo,Brasilia, Oslo and Santiago and 108 countries in the world but in Moscowthey don't want it."

The simple answer is that the city's ministry of justice, citingimproper paperwork, denied the Salvation Army in 1999 the registrationit needs to operate here. The Salvation Army then had the temerity totake the ministry of justice to court. Things went downhill from there.The Salvation Army's hopes are now pinned on two appeals: one toRussia's Constitutional Court and the other to the European Court ofHuman Rights in Strasbourg, France.

The Salvation Army has achieved registration without any problems inthe other Russian cities in which it operates. Earlier this year, iteven won the much-coveted recognition from the federal government as a"centralized religious organization," giving the Salvation Army addedclout with provincial bureaucrats.

Gowans and the Moscow-based head of the Salvation Army's EasternEuropean operations, Col. Kenneth Baillie, have been lobbying diplomats,Moscow city officials and Kremlin representatives to try to halt thelegal process that began two years ago. In theory, Russia's judiciary isindependent from the elected branch of government. In practice, however,judges have proven themselves supple when powerful political andbusiness interests are at stake.

Among foreign-based religious groups working in Moscow, theSalvation Army is not alone in facing a legal predicament. On Oct. 30, alegal team from the Jehovah's Witnesses started defending theBrooklyn-based faith against Moscow prosecutors who are seeking to banthe religious group in the capital city for allegedly inciting hatredand division in Russian society.

The Witnesses, who have proven themselves scrappy litigators inregional courts throughout Russia, defeated a similar attempt here inFebruary. Jehovah's Witness spokesman Jaroslav Sivulskii said Wednesday thathe expects the second trial to resemble the first, which lasted for 35days and included 45 witnesses and experts who grappled with weightyissues like the difference between a religion and a cult. The stakes arehigh for the Witnesses in Moscow, where Sivulskii said they have 75worship communities and more than 10,000 members--called "publishers"--who devote an average of 10 to 12 hours a month to church work.

Like the Salvation Army, the Witnesses' biggest problems are,paradoxically, in Moscow, which, compared to the rest of Russia, is abastion of progress, prosperity and relative tolerance. Sivulskiispeculated that the powerful, 80-million member Russian OrthodoxChurch's headquarters in the capital is a factor. "Maybe we are just too close to the Head Church, as it is called,"Sivulskii said. "Maybe (the Orthodox church) is the biggest reason."

A church-sponsored, cult-fighting organization, the Moscow-based St.Irenaeus of Lyons Center, lists the Witnesses along with the Mormons asa dangerous cult. The center's director, Alexander Dvorkin, will testifyon behalf of the prosecution, the prosecutor in the case said Oct. 30.