BELARUS: Calvinists kept quiet
Although the Reformed Church's history in Belarus goes back to the 16th century, the authors of the 2002 religion law "forgot about the Calvinists", the presbyter of Minsk's present-day Reformed Church has told Forum 18 News Service. The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the only Protestant body described as "inseparable from the common history of the people of Belarus" in the 2002 religion law. The Minsk Reformed Church managed to hold an international conference to mark this year's 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Belarus, but faced much official obstruction. Following the conference, the Reformed Church has been told it needs to obtain official permission to hold worship services, but has yet to received any response to requests. Forced to find another location for services, the community has effectively been prevented from advertising them. The presbyter told Forum 18 "We cannot say that this Church exists, preaches Jesus Christ and doesn't bite."
Finally registered on 18 June 2001 after a "very long and complicated" two-year process, the 50-strong Minsk Reformed Church chose to mark this year's 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Belarus with an international conference on the subject in early April, Aleksei Frolov (Alaksiej Fralou) told Forum 18 on 21 September. While the event went ahead, he added, it did so only with difficulty.
Three months before the conference, the Church arranged to rent a 350-seater hall at the Central Palace of Veterans in central Minsk. Approximately a month before the event the Calvinists learnt that under current legislation on mass meetings and demonstrations (see F18News 8 October 2003) they were obliged to request the permission of the local Central District administration in order to hold an event at a public venue. Concerned at having received no reply to their request just one week before the conference - which was due to be attended by guests from the Netherlands, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, South Africa and the Czech Republic - the Church again turned to the district authority. The latter refused to allow a religious event in a cultural establishment, said Frolov, "even though the genre of conference is a priori not a religious event."
On subsequently contacting the Minsk city authorities, Frolov maintained that the official in charge of religious affairs in the city, Alla Ryabitseva, told the Calvinists that they had no right to conduct an international conference since their organisation was not a republic-wide religious association. While a local Baptist pastor offered the use of his church for the conference at the last minute, continued Frolov, the Calvinists were unable to advertise the event in the overwhelmingly state-owned press since it took place on an unofficial basis.
Forum 18 has received no response when telephoning Alla Ryabitseva. Article 29 of the 2002 religion law states that religious organisations – which include both communities and associations – have the right to invite foreign citizens to participate in gatherings and other events.
The Reformed Church's difficulties did not end with the conclusion of the conference. While discussing the event's arrangements, municipal religious affairs officials made a note of where the Calvinists worship, said Frolov, and shortly after the conference two of them visited the Church during its Sunday service at the Francysk Skaryna Belarusian Language Centre. The pair reportedly informed the Calvinists that they needed to obtain official permission from the local Partisan District authority in order to hold such meetings. Responding to the Church's request, the district authority at first demanded that it stipulate the precise dates and times of its services "and not just 'on Sundays'," Aleksei Frolov told Forum 18. (Last year New Life Full Gospel Church received the same response from a different Minsk district authority: See F18News 8 October 2003). After receiving no further response – even a written refusal – "we understood that it was useless trying to do anything," Frolov remarked. "They could give us any reason for refusal, such as insufficient fire precautions."
After state pressure was apparently exerted upon the proprietors of the Francysk Skaryna language centre - where, Frolov noted, social organisations continue to hold meetings unhindered – the Minsk Reformed Church was forced to seek another location for its services. As with its conference, the Church has not been prevented from functioning, he acknowledged to Forum 18, but is now effectively unable to advertise its presence in the Belarusian capital: "We cannot say that this Church exists, preaches Jesus Christ and doesn't bite."
30 October 2003
The Greek Catholic Church has no registered central body in Belarus under the 2002 religion law, so officially its two monasteries "do not exist", Forum 18 News Service has been told. Under the same law, the church's 15 registered parishes are not considered to have any legal relationship with each other. Also, because the church's centre is not in Belarus but in the Vatican, the law prevents central registration and the current head of the church being its head, because he is not a Belarusian citizen. Even if the Greek Catholics had a registered central body, its monasteries still could not legally exist because they do not have the legal minimum number of fully professed monks. The local state official commented to Forum 18 that only fully professed monks could legally count because "Novices might leave at any moment, or their mummies could come and take them home".
13 October 2003
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."
13 October 2003
With last year's religion law criminalising "the attraction of minors to religious organisations and also the teaching of religion to them against their will or without the agreement of their parents or guardians", Forum 18 News Service has learnt that local authorities are demanding that religious organisations supply the names and dates of birth of all their Sunday school children. "We believe this to be a violation of believers' rights," complained Pastor Pavel Firisyuk of Salvation Baptist Church, "as well as of Christ's commandment: 'Let the little children come to me.'" However, State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs vice-chairman Vladimir Lameko defended the move, telling the Baptists only that officials should have explained better why they needed the information.