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 an outdoor feeding program run by the Salvation Army. Ruslan, 11, explained how they had arrived six months ago in Moscow after a weeklong train ride from their native Kazakhstan in Central Asia. They had planned on building a new life in this city of 10 million but things didn't work out that way.

Instead, they pay about $1 a night to sleep together on a bench in a railway station and spend their days collecting redeemable bottles. The Salvation Army's daily hot lunch frees up money for necessities other than food. "We need to buy me a coat. It'll cost about 200 rubles," said Ruslan, a bright-eyed boy in a dirty denim jacket, as he stood on the edge of a group of about 100 Salvation Army patrons, most of them homeless, poor or alcoholic.

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

Now, the programs here in the capital are under threat of possible closure. A Moscow court ruled last year that the Salvation Army is a "military association" and, consequently, a potential threat to Russia's national security. With their legal appeals nearly exhausted, Salvation Army leaders are incredulous at the prospect of a court-ordered liquidation of their Moscow operations. "We are not a dangerous sect. We are not a military presence dedicated to provoking revolutions. We are peace-loving Christians dedicated to serving the Lord," said Gen. John Gowans, the London-based head of the Salvation Army during an October visit to Moscow. "I don't see why the Salvation Army can be appreciated in Lahore and Tokyo, Brasilia, Oslo and Santiago and 108 countries in the world but in Moscow they don't want it."

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

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

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

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

The Witnesses, who have proven themselves scrappy litigators in regional courts throughout Russia, defeated a similar attempt here in February. Jehovah's Witness spokesman Jaroslav Sivulskii said Wednesday that he expects the second trial to resemble the first, which lasted for 35 days and included 45 witnesses and experts who grappled with weighty issues like the difference between a religion and a cult. The stakes are high for the Witnesses in Moscow, where Sivulskii said they have 75 worship 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 a bastion of progress, prosperity and relative tolerance. Sivulskii speculated that the powerful, 80-million member Russian Orthodox Church'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 as a dangerous cult. The center's director, Alexander Dvorkin, will testify on behalf of the prosecution, the prosecutor in the case said Oct. 30.

While Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Alexii II frequently condemns the activities of foreign missionaries and calls for curbing nontraditional faiths, a church spokesman denied any link to the ongoing court cases. "The church is not taking a (official) position on this," said Viktor Malukhin, adding that the legal actions were not "initiated by the church."

Salvation Army leaders, while more circumspect in blaming the Russian Orthodox Church for their woes, also believe there is some sort of link. On behalf of the Salvation Army, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, sent a letter to Alexii asking for help, Gowans said.

The legal problems of both the Salvation Army and the Jehovah's Witnesses stem from a controversial 1997 Russian law that mandates the registration and regulation of religious groups. In recent months, Russian government officials, academics and think tank operators have been debating proposed changes to the law that would make it more restrictive.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, discussion is intensifying as concern grows about Islamic extremism among Russia's estimated 15 million to 20 million Muslims. On Oct. 31, the Russian government convened a 12-person working group of religious experts representing different faiths to start the formal process.

The machinations of Russia's legendarily complex bureaucratic apparatuses are a world away from the small park near the Kursk Railway Station where the Salvation Army serves lunch daily. Here, diners have only a vague idea of the Salvation Army's legal quandary, said feeding program coordinator Nikolai Kosmiadi, adding that he didn't expect anyone to starve if the daily lunches were stopped. "If this program were to be closed, then these people would go to the railway station and quickly empty your pockets," he said, half in jest. "If they are being fed, they are still thinking about how to get money, but not how to steal it. ... When people are hungry they can become angry and cruel. So, it is better to give them food than to make them angry."

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