Russia – Religious Freedom
Recent rulings of Russia’s upper and lower houses regarding religious groups have endangered The Salvation Army’s presence and ministry in that country.
According to the new legislation of the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association law, by the year 1999, all religious organizations must have 10,000 members, and must have been recognized as legal entities in Russia for the past 50 years. If they don’t, they cannot own or rent property, conduct bank transactions, hire employees, publish religious publications, conduct training schools, or invite foreign religious nationals to speak or preach.
“The Salvation Army cannot meet those requirements,” reports International Secretary for Europe Commissioner Brigetta Nilson, “nor can many others. That’s a problem for us.”
At the time of the voting, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was attending the G7 summit in Denver, Colo. While there, he was informed by Christian leaders, including Salvationists, that the West looks at this with alarm. He vetoed the legislation in early August, and it has been returned to the Duma which can override the President’s veto by attaining a two-thirds majority vote. In that event, the only recourse the churches would have is to the constitutional court.
If this does become a reality, The Salvation Army will have to draw up a strategy,” Nilson says. “Its work would focus on prayer groups meeting in homes of soldiers. Cell groups are successful in many places in the world.”
Currently, there are 37 corps and eight outposts in Russia and the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), with more than 1500 Junior and Senior soldiers.
While the work in Russia has a high visibility, the Army also has a fine work in the CIS, and strong potential in former Eastern European countries. “If we had the money, we could open 10 corps in (the former) East Germany, and 25 in Latvia,” the Commissioner notes.
She tells the story of an old lady in Riga, Latvia, who faithfully came by bus to the Salvation Army meetings and sat in the front row. She didn’t speak English or Swedish, but her face, conveying her emotions, spoke for her “She was a venerable, aged lady, and one day asked me, ‘When are you coming to my town?’ I had to tell her, ‘We have no resources’.”
Army operations began in St. Petersburg in 1913 as an extension to the work in Finland. For a brief time the work flourished and became a distinct command, with reinforcements arriving from Sweden. After the Communist Revolution, at the end of 1918, the foreign officers had to be withdrawn. Forty Russian and Finnish officers remained under severe hardship until the Army was finally banned in 1923. In 1991, Salvation Army work officially reopened under the oversight of the Norway, Iceland and Faeroes Territory, becoming a distinct command in November 1992. Work was extended to the Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in 1993.