Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Col. Kenneth Baillie
Commanding Officer - Salvation Army-Moscow, Russia


From Moscow I direct Salvation Army work in five east European countries. First I will briefly comment on our religious registration situation in each of the five, then comment at more length on our one major problem.

In Georgia there is no law requiring religious registration. In order for the Salvation Army to conduct ordinary business, i.e. hold title to a vehicle, open a bank account, sign a rental lease, etc., we are registered as a charity.

In Moldova and Ukraine we have full nationwide registration as a religious group. In both cases we were present in the countries for several years, doing our ministries and establishing our reputation, as a result of which in the year 2000 we were granted our registrations, for which we are thankful.

In Romania we began our ministries over two years ago. Admittedly we are not yet well known. In our first attempts to register our own law firm did not understand us well enough, and consequently tried to register us as a >charitable foundation=. When we corrected that misinformation and tried to register as a church (a church which, as an expression of its faith, does a variety of social ministries) we encountered apparent difficulty in using the word >church=. It seems only some in Romania can use that word. But we were told that the alternate title >Christian mission= may be acceptable. That is all right with us, so we are pursuing that possibility at present. An interesting historical footnote: in late nineteenth century England where the Salvation Army began, our legal name prior to ‘The Salvation Army’ was ‘The Christian Mission’. So we are returning to our roots.

In Russia as of February 2001 we are registered nationwide as a centralized religious organization (‘CRO’). We had applied for CRO in September 2000 but we did not know what was happening with our application until three months later. That was when the media had a field day with the Moscow city denial of our local city registration. It was an entirely separate issue, of course, but the worldwide publicity did not make a careful distinction, and consequently misdirected criticism redounded to the federal ministry though the real problem was with the city ministry. The federal ministry of justice did take up our case. There were meetings of the federal >committee of religious expertise=, the report endorsing us was drafted promptly, further meetings were held with federal ministry of justice officials, and we were awarded our CRO in early February 2001. Another historical footnote: the CRO registration renews the comparable status we in 1922 until >liquidated= by the Bolsheviks. We are very grateful for the federal ministry’s positive actions on our behalf.

The city of Moscow is another story. We returned to Moscow in late 1991 and were well received by numerous public officials. We obtained registration as a religious organization in 1992. We have worked in Moscow ever since, with never a hint from any official of any dissatisfaction with our ministries. On many, many occasions we have worked in cooperation with officials to distribute humanitarian aid. Our records show involvement with over 800 government departments, orphanages, hospitals, prisons, etc. Never had anyone in the city government voiced any criticism or raised any questions.

In response to the 1997 federal law we applied for re-registration of our Moscow branch, never imagining it would be anything but pro forma. Over a period of weeks from November 1998 to late January 1999 we worked with a staff person in the city Ministry of Justice. Through numerous meetings and phone calls we fulfilled requests for additional documents, changes in wording, etc. until everything was deemed satisfactory. On 18 January 1999 the staffer called to say we should have our signed and stamped registration on Friday, two days hence. On Friday, however, the same staff person called to say in rather sheepish voice, “There’s a problem.”

It is now nearly three years later, and to say the least there is still a problem! On 19 or 20 January 1999 someone in the Moscow Ministry of Justice (‘MMJ’) took an ideological decision to deny our application. That is abundantly clear. Three years of meetings, documents, media statements, and legal briefs all point to an arbitrary, discriminatory, secret decision. To this day we do not know who made the decision, or why.

At first MMJ’s B.S. Saliukov said he had received our application but would not act on it. He gave no reason though such is required by law. Our lawyer insisted he tell us what requirements of the law we allegedly had not fulfilled. In discussion Saliukov told our lawyers what needed to be changed in our application documents. We agreed, and submitted the changed documents. Saliukov’s response was to say again that our application would not receive any consideration. This time he gave two reasons: his department was not competent to judge whether we are a religious group, and our documents were not in order according to the law. This second reason was a contradiction to what he had said in requiring various changes, to which we had agreed. Now evidently there were more aspects ‘not in order’ but he did not give specifics.

In regard to the first reason (‘not competent to judge’) Saliukov said our case was being sent to the city’s ‘committee of religious expertise’ (‘CE’) for the purpose of determining if we are a legitimate religious group with a favorable reputation. However, in April we learned Saliukov had not in fact sent our case to the city CE. In reality, there was no city CE. Instead, Saliukov now asserted that in the absence of a CE he could function in the CE’s role. There is no provision for this in the law. To the contrary, the law established the CE precisely to keep government bureaucrats from making decisions about religious matters for which they have inadequate competence. This was what Saliukov acknowledged in his earlier letter, but now, contradicting himself and asserting a power he did not possess, he said he would conduct the ‘expertise’ himself.

In June our lawyers complained that no answer had been received within the three months maximum time allowed by law. Under the law when a case is referred to CE up to six months is allowed so that the CE has time to function. But it was improper for the ministry to claim it was a CE, and to claim the CE did function. The effect was to waste six months of our time. No CE was ever done. The ministry has not produced any findings of the CE as required by law (as apparently there are none). Six months to the day V. N. Zhbankov issued a flat denial of our application. It was clear to us, however, that the decision had been taken six months earlier. But now we had six months less time before the expiry deadline.

Zhbankov gave four reasons for denial. Three of them were misapplications of the law. (1) He said our governing board had only five members present when it approved the new proposed charter while there are actually six members of the board. But the existing charter under which the board was functioning clearly specifies a quorum as four. (2) He claimed that ten Russian citizens would have to form the religious organization. But to construct this assertion he extracted a sentence from article 8.3 of the law, having to do with forming an original, new organization. There is no mention of the number ten in article 8.1 having to do with making changes to an existing charter. (3) He claimed that photocopies of the visas of non-Russian members of the governing board were not submitted, therefore the vote on the charter revision was invalid. But the law does not state that visas must be submitted. Six months earlier the MMJ had asked for photocopies of passports, and these were supplied by our lawyers, but MMJ never asked for visa photocopies. Further, MMJ staff had said in February 1999 that all necessary documents were to hand. And further still, when our lawyers submitted our application documents the cover letter specifically said that if any further documents were required that we would supply them. Nonetheless, Zhbankov failed to ask for visa copies, waited an improperly long six months, then blamed the Salvation Army for not having submitted the copies he never asked for, and the law doesn’t require!

The fourth alleged reason for denial was significant. The Salvation Army is a worldwide organization with headquarters in London, England. Zhbankov claimed that we could only have a ‘representative office of a foreign organization’ in Moscow. There is provision for such in the 1997 law, but a ‘representative office’ status grants little or no opportunity for our ministries. The ‘representative office’ category would leave us unable to hold worship services, visit a hospital or orphanage, import humanitarian aid, operate our leaders’ training college, etc. The hidden injustice in this is that since 1992 we had a much higher category of registration, a ‘local religious organization’, which allowed our ministries to operate legally. Why the 1992 category of ‘local religious organization’ could not be renewed was not explained by Zhbankov. We can only conclude it was a veiled attempt to foreclose on our religious rights. Ever since Zhbankov has made statements to the media to the effect that we have “failed to meet the requirements of the law” or we are “trying to evade obeying Russian law”. This is disingenuous at best. What it really means is that we have refused to be forced into the ‘representative office’ category because it would deny virtually all religious rights, rights we have had since 1992.

Zhbankov would not discuss the three spurious legal claims or the injustice of the ‘representative office’ category so we had no choice but to sue in court. Ten months were wasted while two courts claimed lack of jurisdiction. Ultimately an appeals court directed the case back to the first court but the ten months lost time were never to be recovered, and the clock was ticking toward expiry of the existing charter.

The court trial of our case violated due process. The city failed to send its lawyer to the trial. Under proper procedure the judge should have issued a declaratory judgment in our favor. Instead, the judge permitted the city to submit a written brief after the trial date, and completely unknown to us! Any first year law student knows how wrong this is yet the judge not only permitted the city attorney to do this secretly but quoted the city’s brief at considerable length in the text of the eventual judgment. The Salvation Army’s lengthy verbal arguments and accompanying written brief were dismissed with exactly one sentence. The judge simply noted we had submitted arguments but did not address a single one of them, as required by proper procedure.

The city’s brief violated procedure by introducing new reasons for denial of our registration. Under proper procedure the city could only defend its original four reasons, not introduce new ones. But it did so, and the judge allowed it. For instance, the city argued that the Army’s documents did not make clear the religious beliefs of the Salvation Army. This cannot be true. The full statement of beliefs had been included in the 1992 charter and had sufficed for eight years. No explanation was given why the same statement was now deemed ‘unclear’.

In what became the focal point of media attention later, the city claimed the Salvation Army was a military threat to Russia. MMJ quoted at length from various Russian laws having to do with insurrection, subversion, militaristic formations and national security. Then, in a leap of illogic, the city asserted that since the Salvation Army has the word ‘army’ in its title then “it will be inevitable that members of the organization will break Russian law…” But no evidence was submitted. One would think that if we were a threat to Russia and were ‘inevitably’ going to break the law that after eight years of properly registered work in Moscow the city could cite at least a few instances in support of their charge. So a peace-loving organization, known and respected for its work in 107 other countries, was rendered a threat to Russia’s security by the pen of the city’s lawyer. Most lawyers would be embarrassed to submit such legal illogic. And most judges would toss it out of court.

Finally, the MMJ brought up the ‘representative office’ claim again. By this time, almost a year later, another similar case had worked its way to decision at Russia’s Constitutional Court. In that case the Jesuits had been denied registration because their ‘headquarters’ was in Rome. The Constitutional Court overturned the government denial of registration, noting that an article in the 1997 law specifically provided for foreign-based churches to be registered. Our lawyers noted the provision in the law, and the Constitutional Court decision with its direct parallel to our situation, but the judge ruled for the city.

We appealed the lower court decision. Three months later (November 28, 2000) the appeal was denied. Most of the lower court arguments were re-hashed but there were a few new arguments. (1) The governing board visa copies had been submitted in the meantime but now the court claimed that “a visa is not the document that proves [board members] are lawfully residing on the territory of the Russian Federation.” But these visas are precisely what the MMJ and lower court said, after the fact, were needed to prove lawful residency. Furthermore, if the visas would not prove legal residence then what would? There is nothing else! (2) In long and convoluted language the court asserted that the Salvation Army’s documents did not meet requirements of the law. But the MMJ’s own staffer had said they did. And if the staffer was wrong, why did the MMJ’s deputy minister take six months to say so? And why did it not spell out clearly in what ways the documents were supposedly at fault? In fact, MMJ gave only four reasons, each of which the Salvation Army challenged. Both the MMJ and the courts have continued – improperly – to invent new alleged reasons for denial. (3) Interestingly, the appeals court did agree that the MMJ and lower court were wrong in asserting that the Salvation Army is a military threat. But the MMJ’s Zhbankov has continued for almost a year to make the discredited charge in statements to the media.

Under Russia’s legal system there was no further automatic right of appeal for the Salvation Army. Reluctantly we took our case to the European Court of Human Rights. The case has been accepted and efforts are underway through diplomatic channels to achieve a resolution.

In the summer of 2001 the city’s MMJ took the matter much further by filing in court for ‘liquidation’ of the 1992 charter. This was a serious escalation of the situation at a time when city officials were giving assurances in diplomatic channels that the problem would be resolved soon. The MMJ claimed two reasons. (1) It said the Army had failed to re-register by the legal deadline. Yes, of course -- because the MMJ had refused to issue our re-registration. (2) The city claimed the Army had not filed a required annual report about its continued operations for three years. There is a provision in the law for liquidation of a religious group which becomes defunct, three consecutive years of non-reporting being the presumed proof. We admit we failed to report in two of the three years, a mistake we regret. But we did report in 1999 (we have conclusive proof) so the law’s requirement of three consecutive years (1998, 1999, 2000) cannot be sustained. And in any event, considering all the meetings and documents and correspondence which the Salvation Army had with the MMJ in the three year period, it is ludicrous for MMJ to assert that it doesn’t know of the Army’s existence any longer!

The case was heard in another Moscow court on September 11-12, 2001. On the first day, when about 30 media reporters were present with TV cameras, the judge appeared to be interested in receiving documentation to show the Army’s lawful presence in Moscow – tax audits, payment of employee taxes, correspondence with MMJ, etc. Court was adjourned one day so that the judge, as she said, could contact the tax authorities about us. By the next day media interest had turned to the terrorist attacks in America and only four print reporters returned to the courtroom. The judge refused to let the Army’s attorney speak at all, and refused to consider the Salvation Army’s many documents stacked on tables in front of her. She left the courtroom and within ten minutes returned to read out a lengthy, already-typed judgment for liquidation.

The written judgment was not given to the Army for twelve days though the law requires a maximum of three days. Right of appeal ends after ten days. The Army intends to appeal anyway, even though the late document theoretically precludes an appeal. The outcome is very uncertain.

A further concern is the threat by Mr. Zhbankov to confiscate Salvation Army properties and assets in Moscow. To protect our three properties we applied to transfer ownership from the old, expired city registration to the new national registration. But city property registration officials have required change after change, document after document, in a process that has gone on for months when it normally takes two weeks. We note that the deputy head of the city ministry of justice (Zhbankov), the property registration office, and the courts are all under the same ministry of justice.

In addition to dealing with the MMJ and the courts the Salvation Army has had to endure repeated public disinformation to the media by the MMJ’s Vladimir Zhbankov. He has repeatedly linked us with the Jehovah’s Witnesses when there is absolutely no connection. Around the world Jehovah’s Witnesses do not enjoy the same public recognition and respect as the Salvation Army. Zhbankov appears to be sowing seeds of doubt and distrust in the public mind by linking us to an unpopular religious group.

Zhbankov has claimed we have not brought our documents into line with the law. This is another way of making the Salvation Army seem at fault. What he doesn’t say is that he is attempting to deny our religious rights by forcing us to settle for the useless ‘representative office’ status. The only way we are not in line with the law is that we won’t bend to his discriminatory construction of the law.

He has called our lawyers foreigners, appealing to populist Russian fears of all things foreign. It is not true. At all times in the past three years our lawyers have been Russians.

He has called our lawyers ‘unscrupulous’ and ‘incompetent’. One of our law firms is a major international law firm with a large Moscow office. Our second law firm has established itself with a national reputation for matters dealing with religious law. Zhbankov’s un-lawyerly characterizations are regrettable. But he has privately and publicly demanded that the Salvation Army abandon use of our law firms and use a law firm which he (Zhbankov) ‘recommends’. We reject the demand, for obvious reasons.

He has claimed that we are not a legitimate religious organization but rather a military group bent on the violent overthrow of the Russian government. The federal government’s committee of religious expertise ruled otherwise almost a year ago, and anywhere else around the world people know better. But Zhbankov has continued to make the charge to the media.

We have offered again and again to negotiate revised wording of the proposed registration, changing it to the precise wording already approved by the federal ministry for our CRO. But Zhbankov has refused, and then given statements to the media that we “refused to bring the documents into line with the law”.

In conclusion, we believe the Salvation Army has been discriminated against by the Moscow city Ministry of Justice. Moscow courts have followed the MMJ line. And Zhbankov has manipulated the popular understanding of the issue through propaganda and disinformation.

The federal ministry of justice has failed to intervene with the city though we understand it should do so in order to uphold Russia’s constitution and any number of international treaty obligations. We continue to hope federal officials will step in soon to resolve the situation.

We remain hopeful that various high level contacts and diplomatic efforts may still prompt federal officials to resolve the matter. But if all such efforts fail then we believe the European Court of Human Rights will eventually establish justice where it has been denied.

We are saddened to have been drawn into this situation. It is not something we have experienced elsewhere. We do not normally resort to the courts. We just want to be left alone to do our ministries. We regret the embarrassment and ill will the Moscow situation has brought upon Russia, which is particularly ironic when it was the federal ministry whom we commend and thank for having granted us full registration. We desire harmonious, cooperative relationships with government officials. We have such relationships in other countries, and in fifteen other Russian cities where we minister. Despite all that has happened we still wish to have good relationships in Moscow, and look forward hopefully to the day when that may be so.