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Salvation Army may be forced out of Moscow

The Salvation Army, best known to Americans for its bell-ringing volunteers seeking charitable donations, is not having a very merry Christmas season in Russia.

The Christian goodwill organization, which feeds 6,000 Russians per month, might be forced by Moscow officials to shut down its social programs in the capital on Monday.

"We've been told they will not register any foreign army on Russian soil. (They apparently think) we are a militarized organization bent on the violent overthrow of the Russian government," said Kenneth Ballie, head of Russian operations for the Salvation Army. "But that's just nonsense. We have definitely been singled out."

This is the latest in a series of crackdowns on foreign religious groups, including Baptists and Pentecostals, resulting from a 1997 law passed with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. Church officials have often voiced concern that they have been losing too many congregation members to foreign religions.

The law recognizes four official faiths _ Russian Orthodoxy along with a few other Christian denominations, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism _ and requires other religious organizations to register in order to operate here.

These other groups have until Monday to receive their registration. If they don't, local officials have the right to liquidate the assets of their operations and it becomes illegal for their members to congregate for religious purposes.

The Salvation Army, which returned to Russia in 1991 after having been expelled by the Bolsheviks in 1923, sees the law as unfair. The group works in 14 Russian cities, running Christian worship services and social programs such as soup kitchens and hospice centers, and it has successfully registered in five towns.

Ballie hopes to get national registration, a parallel process allowed under the 1997 law that would supersede decisions by municipalities and allow his group to operate in any Russian city. This decision is expected from the Ministry of Justice in late February.