BELARUS: Religion law stunts church growth
As last year's religion law confines the activity of a religious organisation to a defined area (often a single village, town or region of the country), Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal and Catholic leaders are among those to have expressed their concern. The law's provisions inevitably "make it difficult to organise new churches", Baptist pastor Viktor Zdanevich complained to Forum 18 News Service. As an autonomously registered congregation, his church is banned from creating a mission. The chairman of a Greek Catholic parish council in Polotsk, Mikola Sharakh, noted that the law did not allow for development and effectively created a "reservation" for the church. One Roman Catholic agreed, telling Forum 18: "People might argue that the churches are open, but what freedom is that? It is a silhouette."
Speaking to Forum 18 in his Pentecostal church in Grodno on 17 September, Naum Sakhanchuk outlined the implications of this provision. "If my church is registered in the city of Grodno, for example, I have no right to operate elsewhere," he said. As assistant bishop, however, Sakhanchuk is able to minister in the other registered Pentecostal churches in Grodno region, he continued, since they come under the registered regional Pentecostal association, "but if there is no church in a particular place, I have no right to evangelise there". Should church members distribute literature on the street two or three times, added Sakhanchuk, their organisation is liable to liquidation by court order.
As an autonomous Baptist congregation, Pastor Zdanevich's church appears worse off than Sakhanchuk's, since it does not come under the auspices of an umbrella organisation. Registered in the city of Brest, it cannot function outside the city limits.
The regional official in charge of religious affairs, Vasili Marchenko, confirmed this to Forum 18 on 16 September. According to the 2002 religion law, he maintained, the territory of the activity of an organisation is where it is registered. "So Brest city if it is registered in Brest city."
Zdanevich's church is also unable to create a mission. Marchenko pointed out that, according to the new law, missions may be founded only by regional or republic-wide religious organisations. Asked whether this did not restrict autonomous communities, Marchenko insisted that "none of our autonomous ones have a mission".
Zdanevich told Forum 18 that his church has not submitted documents for reregistration as its elders are currently considering those points in the law they believe run against Gospel teaching. "For me, the Gospel comes first and the law comes second," he remarked, "whatever country I am in." Ultimately, however, Zdanevich said he was not concerned by the potential affects of the new law: "We have been through the underground already – they can oppress individuals, but not the church."
Zdanevich also pointed out to Forum 18 that the law's provisions inevitably "make it difficult to organise new churches". One attendee at meeting to discuss the 2002 law hosted by the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk on 12 September maintained that this also proved to be of some concern to the Belarusian Orthodox Church, whose representatives raised the issue of how close localities needed to be to constitute neighbouring territories – could a parish be formed by small groups of believers living in disparate hamlets? According to this source, the issue was not resolved at the meeting. Interviewed by Forum 18 on 23 September, however, the Orthodox dean of the central district of Vitebsk city Fr Aleksandr Rakhunok denied that this issue posed any problems for his Church. "78 per cent of Belarus is Orthodox, it never happens that we have fewer than 20 parishioners in one locality."
Sakhanchuk told Forum 18 that problems organising new churches predate the 2002 law on religion. In Brest region, he said, no new Pentecostal churches have been registered for two years and in Grodno region for three years. Sakhanchuk also described a practice in which state pressure was exerted on some of those listed as founding members in a registration application. "People who have lived through persecution don't care, but these are all new converts – if one turns away then the application is rejected."
Speaking to Forum 18 on 19 September in Minsk, head of the charismatic Full Gospel Association Aleksandr Sakovich said that this phenomenon might take place in rural areas, but "they don't use those methods in big cities". However, he did report a practice in which a local authority sometimes requested details of the premises a newly formed religious community seeking registration planned to rent. "Then they contact and put pressure on the organisation offering its premises, and then the community is refused registration as it has nowhere to meet."
While Zdanevich maintains that the provisions of the new law restricting mission are aimed particularly at Protestant churches, Forum 18 found that some Catholic representatives were also concerned about them. The chairman of St Paraskeva Greek Catholic parish council in Polotsk, Mikola Sharakh, noted that the law did not allow for development and effectively created a "reservation" for the church.
"Any Christian church must preach and evangelise, but this law permits it to preach only to whoever entered the church building, so that the church becomes a passive organisation," a Roman Catholic source who preferred not to be named similarly remarked to Forum 18. "People might argue that the churches are open, but what freedom is that? It is a silhouette."
10 October 2003
Oguljan Jumanazarova, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer serving a four year sentence in the women's labour camp in the northern town of Tashauz, was freed early on 20 September, the Jehovah's Witness centre in St Petersburg has told Forum 18 News Service. Jumanazarova, from the town of Seydi, was sentenced in July 2001 on fraud charges that the Jehovah's Witnesses insist were imposed in retaliation for helping fellow Jehovah's Witnesses with their legal problems. "Nothing more is known about the terms of her release – only that she has been freed," a Jehovah's Witness spokesman told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses – like all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities – have been denied registration and are treated as illegal.
8 October 2003
Religious communities often face difficulties building new places of worship or recovering those confiscated during the Soviet period, Forum 18 News Service has learnt as part of an extensive investigation into how religious communities function under restrictive laws and regulations. With ten Full Gospel churches unable to meet for worship in the capital Minsk, church leader Aleksandr Sakovich planned to build a social centre where services could also be held. "But in May 2002 – at the very last minute – we were refused permission," he told Forum 18 News Service. The 20,000 US dollars the church had spent on plans were not returned. Greek Catholics in Brest were forced to build a church as a private house, only turning it into a church as it was finished. "If we had proceeded according to the law, we wouldn't have got anywhere," Fr Igor Kondrasev told Forum 18.
8 October 2003
With all outdoor religious events requiring advance permission from the local authorities, some regions allow them while others are hostile. "If our relations are OK with the local authority we write a request for permission to perform an outdoor baptism," Pentecostal assistant bishop of Grodno region Naum Sakhanchuk told Forum 18 News Service. If not, he added, there was no point in writing. "I'll be refused – they'll say that the river is polluted, or that swimming is prohibited in the lake." Since being banned in the capital Minsk in 2000, the Catholics' annual Corpus Christi procession has to take place away from main streets "to make sure it is not seen", yet in Grodno region the Catholics report no difficulties obtaining permission for such processions. The difficulty of renting public venues varies – in 2002 all cinemas in Grodno were banned from renting to religious groups.