Russian court lifts Salvation Army ban

Russia's supreme court struck a blow yesterday for religious freedom when it overturned rulings banning the Salvation Army from operating as a charity and a religious organisation.

After years of legal tussles, the Salvation Army was banned from Russia in September on a bureaucratic pretext.

Under controversial 1997 legislation, all religious organisations in Russia were required to re-register - a process critics say has been abused by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to curb the activities of rival churches through the influence it wields in the Russian government and bureaucracy.

The ruling from Russia's constitutional court means that the movement does not need to take its case to the European court of human rights, as it intended following the setbacks last September.

"Naturally we're very pleased," said Sarah Miller, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army.

Colonel Kenneth Baillie, the Canadian officer who heads the organisation in Russia, said: "We are thankful to God that our ministries have not been closed down. We only want to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and serve suffering humanity. Now we think we can continue in the great city of Moscow."

The Orthodox church is currently embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Vatican after Pope John Paul II decided to establish full Roman Catholic dioceses in Russia.

The Orthodox leadership accuses the Vatican of proselytising and encroaching on its territory and has blocked all attempts by the Pope to come to Russia.

Banned from Russia under the communists, the Salvation Army has been operating in the country since 1992.