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Howard’s End: Russia Shuts Down Sallies’ Threat

First it was the closed trial of alleged but now-convicted American spy, Edmond Pope, and now the Salvation Army has been told by a Moscow City court that it is plotting to overthrow the government because it has the word "Army" in its name. Russian judges seem to be a bunch of nutters. John Howard writes.

The Moscow Times is reporting that the organisation which brings thousands of lonely Russian pensioners together each afternoon for lunch and other activities - the Salvation Army - is plotting to overthrow the Russian government.

A Moscow City court decision handed-down on November 28, now means the Sallies may be unable to re-register as a religious organisation before a December 31 deadline, forcing it to shut its Moscow operations.

The Salvation Army resumed work in Russia in 1992 after being ousted by Soviet authorities in 1920 in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. During the reign of the communist government, Christianity was attacked with cathedrals and churches razed to the ground, and Judas was canonized. Closed trials and show trials of scapegoats were also a feature of the communists.

The trouble for the Sallies began in 1997, when parliament passed a law requiring any religious organisation that had been operating in Russia less than 15 years to register with local authorities.

The law was, and is, a clear breach of the UN human rights charters and even though Russia is a member of the security council, the UN has remained silent.

The Moscow branch of the Salvation Army filed its documents under the new law in 1999. Six months later, it received its first rejection.

Head of the Sallies in Russia, Colonel Kenneth Baillie said, " City officials told us that because our headquarters are in London, we were not entitled to register and could only open a representative office."

But that logic had already been shot down when the Jesuits were earlier granted registration.

In September 1999 the Salvation Army filed suit in Moscow's Presnensky court, which in July ruled in the city's favour. The appeal to the Moscow City Court was rejected November 28 of this year.

"Since we have the word "army" in our name, the court said we are a militarised organisation bent on the violent overthrow of the Russian Government," Baillie said.

He said that the Salvation Army intends to appeal to the Supreme Court but in order to do so they need to have the latest decision in writing. They had still not received the written verdict, which may not give them time to appeal by the 31 December deadline.

As a result of the 1997 law, the Salvation Army has incurred more than $20,000 in legal fees - money it would rather spend on humanitarian programs.

Back at the senior citizens centre people finished their exercises and sat down to sing folk songs blissfully unaware of the legal troubles. They wore broad smiles spoke about the effect the Sallies were having on their lives.

"When I spend time here I feel like this is my family," said Antonina Kuprina aged 75.

The head of the Moscow centre, Lyudmila Glushankova, said she did not have the heart to tell them the centre might have to close. " If we have to close they will lose everything and have nothing but their cold damp four walls," she said.

If I was the New Zealand Prime Minister I would be asking the Russian Ambassador to urgently visit my office on a please explain mission. And then I'd be on the phone to the UN humanitarian agencies to register New Zealand's protest.

But then, I'm not the PM and it probably won't happen. And that's a shame.


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