The Russian government’s determination that the Salvation Army was a “paramilitary” representative of a foreign power has been overturned, clearing the way for the Christian aid organization to regain official permission to operate there.

A new decision from the European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian government was wrong in assuming that Salvation Army members would “inevitably break Russian law in the process of executing The Salvation Army’s Orders and Regulations and the instructions of the Officer Commander.”

“There was no evidence before the domestic courts that in seven years of its existence the applicant branch, its members or founders had contravened any Russian law or pursued objectives other than those listed in its articles of associations, notably the advancement of the Christian faith and acts of charity,” the court said.

“The discriminatory action taken by the Russian government against the Salvation Army represented a serious and dangerous assault against religious freedom,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington-based law firm dealing with issues of Christianity.

He also serves as chief counsel for the European Centre for Law and Justice and the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, and those two organizations worked on the case to reinstate the Salvation Army’s opportunity to work in Russia.

“The European Court of Human Rights understood the importance of this case and in a unanimous ruling, rejected the Russian government’s action clearing the way for the Salvation Army to regain its humanitarian footing in Russian, providing much needed assistance and comfort to the people in that country,” he said.

He said the decision is a strong message that “religious freedom” is a part of the European Charter of Human Rights.

The Salvation Army had been denied recognition by the Russian government and forced to liquidate its assets because of the use of the word “army” in the name, as well as the corporate structure which recognized an international headquarters in London.

In fact, the government concluded the Salvation Army’s Book of Order and Regulations “leads one to conclude that the charter assumes that the members of the organization will inevitability break Russian law” even though the organization’s goals are to feed the poor and meet the needs of the homeless.

The court’s sweeping decision held for the first time that religious freedom and association – Articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights – must be considered together, the ACLJ said.

“Freedom of thought, conscience or religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life,” the court said.

“While this freedom is primarily a matter of individual conscious, it also implies freedom to manifest ones religion alone and in private or in community with others,” the opinion said.

The conclusion also was welcomed by Vladimir Ryakhovsky and Anatoly Pchelintsev of the SCLJ, who had worked extensively on the case. They said the ruling will “help restore justice.”

It’s not the first time the Salvation Army has faced government opposition in Russia. It worked there from 1913 through 1923, when it was dissolved as an “anti-Soviet organization.” It returned in 1992 when a group of Russian residents met to adopt rules and procedures.

The current problems began in 1997 when a new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations was adopted there, requiring all religious associations to re-register. That application was denied in 1999 because of the perceived military operations and loyalty to a group outside Russia.

The government’s rejection said, “Article 6 of the Charter provides that members of the Branch shall include supporters, soldiers, local officers and officers headed by the Officer Commanding appointed from London. Members of the Branch wear uniform and perform service, which means that the Branch is a paramilitary organization.”

The nation’s Ministry of Education also got involved in the criticism of the Salvation Army.

“In the Central part of Russia the international religious organization The Salvation Army is expanding its activities. Its followers attempt to influence the youth and the military. The Salvation Army formally represents the Evangelical Protestant branch of Christianity, however, in essence, it is a quasi-military religious organization that has a rigid hierarchy of management. The Salvation Army is managed and funded from abroad,” it said.

The court opinion noted that because of the application of such rules, the organization had to transfer the title to three properties, title and registration to 14 vehicles, create a new bank account, replace every employee contract and renegotiate 26 rental contracts. It awarded the Christian group about $10,000 in damages, and the ACLJ told WND work to re-establish its projects already has begun.

“In at least one neighborhood, the applicant branch’s mission of delivering hot meals to house-bound elderly persons had had to be stopped entirely because an official of the local administration had refused to work with the applicant branch as it had no official registration.”

Employees also had difficulty, since their employer had no official recognition, they were unable to obtain permits to live in Moscow.

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