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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Salvation Army Ranks Grow in Russia

Dressed in dark blue uniforms, one by one the young men and women approached the commander, saluted and received their new rank as a banner was unfolded and a brass band sounded.

However this ceremony did not take place in a military academy, but at a hall in Moscow's Izmailovo hotel, where 20 new Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan and Georgian officers of the Salvation Army were ordained as ministers of this Protestant denomination Saturday.

"It is my privilege, on behalf of the general, to commission you as officers, and together we all pray that the ordination of the Holy Spirit be upon you," said Commissioner Earle Maxwell, chief of staff of the Salvation Army, who came for the occasion from London, where the worldwide Christian movement is headquartered.

The Salvation Army is a branch of Evangelical Christianity, which was started in 1865 by the founding "general," William Booth, and has since spread to more than 80 countries. The group, which rejects sacraments and places its emphasis on social work, made its first inroads into Russia before the 1917 Revolution, but, like many other foreign missionary groups, was expelled in the 1920s. In 1992, it returned to Russia.

The 20 new lieutenants ordained Saturday just completed a two-year theological course at the Salvation Army College in Finland.

They join a growing number of native officers to carry on the work of the Salvation Army inside Russia.

Salvation Army Colonel Kenneth Bailie, who runs the ministry's operation in Russia and the CIS, said that today more than half of the group's 103 officers in the CIS are native. As is the case with many other foreign mission groups, the organization intends to increase the number of local ministers. Turning their ministry over from foreigners to natives is at the core of the Salvation Army's strategy throughout the world, he said.

Resentment of foreign missionaries was one of the motives behind the controversial 1997 law on religious organizations, which aimed to restrict the activities of many newcomers. After the law was passed the Salvation Army felt threatened and thought it might not be allowed to continue to spread its religious message or charity work in Russia.

As a result of the law, the organization had to curtail its activities for a while. Tamara Kufyrina, a middle-aged "soldier" from St. Petersburg, says her "corps" - as congregations are known in the Salvation Army - had to stop visiting a local orphanage where they met with the children, entertaining them with handicrafts as they exposed them to their version of Christianity. Now that the St. Petersburg branch of the group has re-registered as a full-scale "religious organization," it is allowed once again to hold public worship and conduct charitable activities.

Bailie said that the organization aims to receive a license in two other cities, which would allow it to become registered by the Justice Ministry as a "centralized" religious body by the end of 1999, as is required by the law. He said that the organization operates today in about 20 cities throughout Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

"We are not here to compete with other churches, we are here to complement their work," Bailie said. After establishing churches in northwestern and central Russia, the group is moving south and is now establishing branches in Rostov-on-Don and Saratov.

Although many members of the Russian Orthodox Church view the Salvation Army as a "sect," today it is rarely singled out for particular criticism by Russian Orthodox priests and lay activists. Kufyrina recalls how the attitude toward her unusual uniform has changed over years in St. Petersburg.

"When we started [in the early 1990s], people would say I had sold out to foreigners for this uniform. Now we don't see that happening," Kufyrina said.

Captain Alexander Kharkov, who was one of the first native Russian officers commissioned by the Salvation Army several years ago, said that the group, which has five "corps" in Moscow, conducts several charity programs throughout the city. It feeds the homeless at Paveletsky and Kursky stations, visits the Butyrskaya and Lyublino detention facilities, provides assistance to the elderly, and collects and distributes secondhand clothes to the needy.