BELARUS: Why was Protestant bishop deported?
The Ukrainian founder of one of the largest charismatic churches in the Belarusian capital Minsk was deported on 16 October due to his religious activity, he has suggested to Forum 18 News Service. If so, Veniamin Brukh – a bishop in the Full Gospel Church – will be the 22nd foreigner barred from Belarus for religious activity since 2004. Previous cases have involved both Protestants and Catholics. Under the restrictive Religion Law, foreigners require special state permission – on top of a valid entry visa – to perform a leading role in a religious community. Only registered religious umbrella associations have the right to invite foreigners to conduct religious activity. Even if the state's highest religious affairs official decides that religious work by a foreigner is necessary, stringent controls still apply to that person's activities. Asked for the reasons for Bishop Brukh's deportation, a KGB secret police spokesman told Forum 18 that "The person who is supposed to know knows. I'm not supposed to know." The KGB closely monitors religious communities' activity.
If so, Brukh – a bishop in the Full Gospel Church – will be the 22nd foreign citizen to be barred from Belarus for religious activity in the four years since 2004. Previous cases have involved Protestants and Catholics (see most recently F18News 17 May 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=958).
International human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief do not differentiate between the rights of citizens and non-citizens legally present in a country. In Belarus, however, foreign citizens require special state permission – on top of a valid entry visa – to perform a leading role in a religious community. Under the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, only religious associations – made up of at least ten registered religious communities, including at least one active on the territory of Belarus for at least 20 years – have the right to invite foreign citizens to conduct religious activity.
Should Belarus' top religious affairs official, the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, deem religious work by a foreign citizen necessary, stringent controls apply. The Plenipotentiary can refuse religious associations' applications without explanation. Foreign citizens may conduct religious work only within places of worship belonging to or premises continuously rented by an association's affiliate organisations. The transfer of a foreign religious worker from one religious organisation to another – such as between parishes - requires additional state permission, even for a single worship service. Under the latest decree regulating religious work by foreign citizens, they must also attest knowledge of Belarus' state languages, Belarusian and Russian (see F18News 20 February 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1090).
No reasons for deportation were given to Bishop Brukh, when he flew into Minsk Airport from the United States on the evening of 15 October. A deportation document issued by the Belarusian Border Police, seen by Forum 18, stipulates only that the reason is "other" than the absence of a valid travel document. A stamp placed in Brukh's passport states simply "Entry Denied", he told Forum 18. "It doesn't even say to what country!"
Border guards maintained that they did not know the grounds for the deportation, continued Brukh, since their computers stated only that he was barred, but not for how long or what reason. After several hours under guard in a cramped, filthy room in the airport, Brukh was deported in the early hours of 16 October, he told Forum 18. At his own request, he flew to Vienna and on to Riga.
Border guards suggested to Brukh that the authorities in Minsk District (Minsk Region) - where he was registered - would know the reason for his removal. At Minsk District Migration and Citizenship Department on 18 October, however, officials insisted to Sergei Shavtsov, Brukh's lawyer, that they were not responsible and knew nothing about the deportation, he told Forum 18 the same day.
Bishop Brukh lived in Minsk Region between 2005 and late 2007, working with a company he part-founded importing items such as children's playground facilities and wheelchairs. While the state authorities took issue with the business, Brukh and Shavtsov insisted to Forum 18 that he has not violated the law in this area.
Instead, Brukh believes his continued active involvement in the 500-strong Jesus Christ Church, which he founded in 1991, was noted by KGB secret police surveillance. Also a participant in the late 2006 high-profile hunger strike in defence of New Life Church's Minsk worship building (see F18News 20 October 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=858), Brukh gave media interviews on that campaign, including to US media, he told Forum 18. "The KGB probably saw that."
Minsk Regional KGB's Information and Public Relations Department directed Forum 18 to the KGB headquarters in central Minsk on 20 October. Answering its Confidential Line, a spokesman told Forum 18 that the reasons for Brukh's deportation would not yet have been released, but provided contact details for the headquarters' Information and Public Relations Department. On querying whether this would have information if it had not yet been released, the spokesman remarked only: "The person who is supposed to know knows. I'm not supposed to know." At the headquarters' Information and Public Relations Department, a spokesman apologised that while he understood Forum 18 was not in Belarus, he was not prepared to discuss anything with journalists not accredited with the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.
Bishop Brukh believes that the late 2006 introduction of the joint Belarus-Russian Federation migration card made it easier to track his movements, and that he was also noted by the religious affairs authorities. He recalled that at the time of the hunger strike in defence of New Life Church's building - a former cow barn - a local pastor was asked by Alla Ryabitseva, Minsk city's top religious affairs official, "what Brukh was doing in the barn." Ryabitseva has been hostile towards New Life Church (see F18News 7 February 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1084).
Ryabitseva told Forum 18 on 20 October that she knew nothing about Brukh's deportation. It bore no relation to her as he was not in the city of Minsk, she insisted. "I haven't met with Brukh since he left for the USA."
In a 28 March 2000 letter viewed by Forum 18, Vladimir Lameko of the then State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs rejected the Full Gospel Church's request to invite then Pastor Brukh to perform religious work, explaining that Jesus Christ Church "already has highly qualified religious personnel, so there is no need to invite a foreign citizen to engage in religious activity in that community." On challenging this decision in court, Brukh won the right to stay a further six months in Belarus, he told Forum 18, but moved to the USA in 2001 to pursue theological study.
Religious communities believe the KGB secret police keeps a close eye on their activity. In late 2004, for example, KGB officers arrived at a Baptist church in Ratomka (Minsk Region) during a service at which two US citizens were filling in for the local pastor, fining them for having invitations to Belarus from an unrelated organisation. The source for this information suggested to Forum 18 that an informer must have been planted in the congregation for this to happen, since the local pastor had announced in advance when the two Americans would preach, and the KGB officers immediately picked out both them and the piano player for questioning – who that day was a Belarusian but is usually an American (see F18News 12 May 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=560).
Similarly, after Polish citizen Fr Antoni Koczko led a single Mass without state permission in Minsk's Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helena (known locally due to its brickwork as the Red Church) in September 2006, a man and woman in plain clothes present in the congregation approached him in the sacristy and informed him that he had violated Belarusian law covering religious activity. Responding to a weblog entry of the incident, a Minsk Catholic commented that the pair "are always sitting in our church. You can't fail to spot them – I even bumped into one of them at a demonstration once" (see F18News 3 October 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=849).
Orthodox believers have also complained of KGB intimidation at worship services (see F18News 18 September 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1187). (END)
For a personal commentary by Antoni Bokun, Pastor of a Pentecostal Church in Minsk, on Belarusian citizens' struggle to reclaim their history as a land of religious freedom, see F18News 22 May 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1131.
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=888.
Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Belarus can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=16.
A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=806.
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru.
25 September 2008
Belarus has banned a Christian music festival, initiated by Catholics, minutes before it was due to begin, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The organisers had obtained written state permission for the festival. But, ten minutes before the first concert was to begin, local Ideology Department head Lyudmila Gornak arrived at the festival and announced that it was banned. Gornak refused to explain to Forum 18 why the event was banned, claiming – falsely – that she had told the organisers of unspecified "mistakes." Asked repeatedly by Forum 18 for examples of the "mistakes," she would not name any. During a recent visit to Belarus, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone gave the government the thanks of Pope Benedict XVI "for the religious liberty that Belarus enjoys," and praised the 2002 Religion Law as "a good law." However, Belarusian Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant human rights defenders have collected a 50,000 signature petition against the Law. Taking note of the human rights defenders' concerns, the European Parliament passed a resolution observing that the 2002 Law "contravenes international principles of religious freedom and human rights, including those laid out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)."
18 September 2008
Fr Ioann Grudnitsky – who has already been fined for conducting services without state registration – faced further intimidation when he conducted the funeral of a parishioner in the village of Ruzhany, he told Forum 18 News Service. Village Council leader Leonid Moskalevich showed him an order from the KGB secret police banning him from leading the funeral as his parish – he is under the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad Provisional Supreme Church Authority – is not registered. However, he went ahead while Moskalevich and a police officer observed. "After working our whole lives in factories and on collective farms, sacrificing our health and receiving a tiny pension, we've reached a point where we have to ask permission from the local KGB secret police to organise a funeral!" the parishioners complained in an open letter to the President. "The local KGB has no right whatsoever to interfere in the life of the church." Moskalevich denied to Forum 18 that the document had come from the KGB or that it was a ban. Meanwhile, Grodno-based Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk is the latest pastor to be fined for leading unregistered worship.
25 July 2008
Officials have tried to stop three different Protestant communities in Grodno Region, north-western Belarus, from conducting peaceful religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the small town of Svisloch, a planned open-air baptism has been banned, despite the attempts of Pentecostals to negotiate with the authorities. Bishop Fyodor Tsvor told Forum 18 that "they just don't want to allow it." In the nearby town of Mosty, a Pentecostal pastor was fined nine months' minimum wages for leading a small unregistered church. The court verdict notes as evidence of wrongdoing that "at meetings they read the Gospel, discuss questions of religious faith, sing songs and conduct religious rites." In Grodno itself, Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk was summoned by the senior state regional religious affairs official, Igor Popov, who told him that his leadership of a worship service in a private home violated the Administrative Code. His case has now been sent to the city's Oktyabr District Court. All three communities point out that the state's actions violate the Belarusian Constitution.