Russia's refusal to register Salvation Army is illegal, court rules

Strabourg, France - Russia's refusal to register a Moscow branch of the Salvation Army violated the religious organization's rights to freedom of religion and association under Europe's human rights convention, a European court ruled Thursday.

The European Court of Human Rights said the Moscow authorities "did not act in good faith" when they refused to register the Salvation Army in 1999, and awarded the organization €10,000 (US$12,700) in damages.

The Moscow branch of the Salvation Army was officially registered as a religious organization in 1992. But after a new Russian law on religious associations took effect in 1997, the Moscow Justice Department did not re-register the branch on the grounds that its founders were foreign nationals.

The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 by English Methodist minister William Booth and has its international headquarters in London.

A Moscow district then ruled on the Salvation Army's appeal, saying the branch should be denied registration as a religious body because it was a 'paramilitary organization' whose members wore uniforms and served in an 'army'.

The human rights court ruled there was no reason for Russia to treat foreign nationals differently from Russians when it comes to their ability to exercise freedom of religion.

It also ruled that although members of the Salvation Army — an organization best known as a charity — wore uniforms, "it could not be seriously maintained" that it was a paramilitary organization advocating violence or undermining the integrity or security of the state.

The European Court of Human Rights deals with violations of civil liberties under the European Convention of Human Rights, a treaty legally binding on all 46 members of the Council of Europe.