Could the Salvation Army be plotting to violently overthrow the Russian Federation? Some Moscow Justice Ministry officials are worried.
A geopolitical irony: shortly after terrorist attacks on America, as the Salvation Army mobilized aid for New York and Washington, a Russian judge punctuated ongoing legal wrangling by ordering its Moscow branch closed.
Many Americans know the Salvation Army from disaster relief, Christmas collections or thrift shops. It seems that Moscow justice officials are concerned with the Salvation Army's "military" trappings: it calls itself an "army;" members are called "soldiers" and "officers;" they wear uniforms.
The fact that the organization is a Christian church and helps the needy, serving soup, feeding the homeless, visiting cancer patients, doesn't seem to impress these officials.
The New York Times reports that the Justice Ministry had argued, "We believe the use of the word 'army' in the name of a religious organization to be illegitimate." One court had agreed: "There are all the signs that the branch is a military organization." The recent closure order involved strict registration laws.
Could those friendly shopping mall bell ringers actually be paramilitary subversives?
Kenneth Braillie, who oversees the Salvation Army's Russian work, says, "We are evangelical Christians. We serve suffering humanity without discrimination." The Times reports that last year, the Army's Moscow operation served about 80,000 meals, helped the sick over 7,000 times, made over 1,900 visits to shut-ins and counseled over 9,900 citizens. Pretty dangerous stuff.
The Army has been helping the needy for over one hundred years and in one hundred nations from Argentina to Zambia. Founded in the nineteenth-century England by William Booth, a Methodist minister, this work to help the poor grew slowly until he discovered a rallying point: a great "war" for the good and against evil.
Booth and his followers adopted military uniforms and organization, not to fight shooting wars but to battle human suffering. In Booth's day, military uniforms were popular among working class men. The uniformed Salvation Army "soldiers" and "officers" fit right in. The troops began to grow.
The Russian Salvation Army blends physical and spiritual care. They have been called "the church with its sleeves rolled up," communicating a spiritual message about God's love while showing love through actions and professional aid. Members believe the biblical declaration that "Jesus is Lord" and that people can know Him personally. They put their faith to work by helping the needy.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should reveal that the Salvation Army's USA magazine has run one of my columns and plans to run another. So I am not unbiased. However, the magazine is called The War Cry. Am I an unwitting contributor to clandestine insurgency?
Actually, the Russian federal Ministry of Justice has already set matters straight. It appointed a committee of experts, which thoroughly investigated the Russian Salvation Army and concluded it was a legitimate church. The Army received federal approval to work in Russia.
But the federal finding is not binding on local Moscow leaders. The Moscow Justice Ministry has rejected 248 of 449 church applications for approval to exist in Moscow. All this is part of following laws in a civilized society, claims one city Justice Ministry deputy.
Civilized? Perhaps. But lots of needy Muscovites will remain needy if this faith-based organization closes shop.
Rusty Wright is an author and university lecturer who has spoken on six continents
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