BELARUS: Baptists demand end to "persecution" of family
The congregation of a Baptist Church in Bobruisk, in eastern Belarus, has called for an end to the "persecution" of members of the Yermalitsky family, who host the church's services in their home. The family has faced a series of fines and other harassment from state officials, much of which has been personally orchestrated by Aleksandr Markachev of the town administration. Markachev has defended his actions to Forum 18 News Service, claiming that "a private home is not designated for religious worship," and that "their services are illegal." He also alleged that the church services caused the risk of a fire and health problems, but dismissed Forum 18's suggestions that if church members believed they were at risk of fire or health problems they could choose not to attend. The congregation has also called for worship services to be allowed to take place freely, and the cancellation of fines imposed on the Yermalitsky family.
Markachev, who has personally led much of the harassment of the congregation, insists that the church must comply with the religion law, which against international human rights standards makes registration compulsory. He also alleged that church services in his home risked causing a fire and health problems. Markachev dismissed suggestions that if church members believed they were at risk of fire or health problems they could choose not to attend.
However, Markachev denied that the authorities are restricting the rights of the church members, insisting that he maintains "excellent relations" with the church's pastor, Aleksandr Yermalitsky.
While refusing to discuss the specifics of successive fines on the Yermalitsky family on the grounds that "the courts are independent", he insisted the authorities are right to bring the family "to responsibility". Asked what the authorities will do when the church continues to worship, as it has promised to do, Markachev said further legal cases will be inevitable. He rejected absolutely all suggestions that church members' rights to profess their faith freely are being violated, insisting that a number of registered churches exist locally that believers could attend.
Pastor Yermalitsky was reluctant to discuss the pressure on his church. "We're going to take our complaints to the procuracy here and the courts," he told Forum 18 from Bobruisk on 5 January. "We want to resolve these problems here at home."
The Yermalitsky family in Bobruisk has long faced pressure for its religious activity. After religious literature he was displaying at a street library was confiscated in September 2005 (see F18News 15 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=688), Aleksandr Yermalitsky was summoned to a meeting with Markachev at the town administration, where the official insisted that Pastor Yermalitsky register the church. The Baptists told Forum 18 that Markachev threatened to use all "levers" at his disposal to "close down" the house where the church meets, which is also where the family lives.
On 21 November the Lenin district court of Bobruisk fined Yermalitsky 145,000 Belarusian Roubles (442 Norwegian Kroner, 56 Euros, or 67 US Dollars) under Article 193 of the Code of Administrative Offences, which punishes founding and leading an unregistered religious congregation. However, on 25 November the case was cancelled, and two days later the confiscated literature was returned.
In the evening of 25 November, as a prayer meeting was underway, Markachev led a nine-strong group of town officials and police in an inspection of the Yermalitsky's home. Among the officials were a Fire Inspector, a member of the Commission for Children, a doctor from the Hygiene Service, the Education Department and the local police officer. Those attending the prayer meeting were detained for an hour. On 28 November, in the wake of the raid, Yermalitsky's wife Lyudmila was summoned to the Hygiene and Epidemiological Centre "for verification of the technical conditions". An official of the Emergencies Service visited the house the following day. Late on 1 December the basement of the house was broken into and items stolen.
Markachev of the town administration again summoned Yermalitsky on 6 December to a meeting also attended by Mikhail Kovalevich, deputy head of the town administration, who the Baptists accuse of being "the main inspirer" of the harassment they have faced. Yermalitsky was again threatened at the meeting that things would "end badly" for him if the church continues to violate the law. The following day Markachev and five other officials again visited the Yermalitsky home for an alleged "fire inspection". When the family protested that such an inspection had already been carried out on 29 November, officials maintained that had been "insufficient".
On 12 December, Yermalitsky was summoned to the Emergency Situation Department where Senior Inspector Yuri Migas fined him administratively 28,000 Belarusian Roubles (85 Norwegian Kroner, 11 Euros or 13 US Dollars) for allowing his house to be remodelled for use as a place of worship without approval of the plans.
The following day, the pastor was summoned to the police, where Senior Lieutenant A. Malakhov warned him that the church had to register according to the demands of the religion law. Another police officer warned him: "Either you register or the church will not be allowed to exist at this address."
On 27 December, Lyudmila Yermalitskaya was fined 580,000 Belarusian Roubles (1,767 Norwegian Kroner, 223 Euros or 270 US dollars) under Article 167 part 1 of the administrative code, which punishes violations of the law on religious and other gatherings with fines of up to 150 times the minimum monthly wage or imprisonment of up to 15 days. Officials claim that children were present "against their will" and "in the absence of their parents", something banned by the country's religion law. The average wage in Belarus is estimated to be between 100 and 150 US Dollars per month.
Markachev of the town administration insisted to Forum 18 that nine children had been present without their parents during the service raided on 25 November. Repeatedly asked by Forum 18 whether these children had been present without the knowledge of their parents and against their wishes, he declined to answer.
Church members claim "suspicious vehicles" are regularly outside the house. In a 1 January 2006 statement, they call for appeals for their congregation to be able to meet freely for worship, an end to the "persecution" of the Yermalitsky family and the cancellation of the fines.
For more background information see Forum 18's religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=478
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru
22 December 2005
Two Catholic priests from Poland who have served in Belarus for more than a decade have been ordered to leave the country by year's end 2005 as their religious visas have not been renewed. Fr Robert Krzywicki, priest of the Descent of the Holy Spirit parish in Borisov north-east of the capital Minsk, insists to Forum 18 News Service that he committed no crime. He attributes his expulsion to his work with young people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and his active role in ecumenical and charitable events in the town. He says such expulsions make it hard for the Catholic Church to provide clergy who understand their parishioners. "It takes about five years for a foreign priest to learn the language, the culture and the situation," he told Forum 18. "When a new priest arrives from abroad he doesn't understand these."
15 December 2005
In the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections, the state authorities appear to be seeking religious organisations' support by exempting their land and property from tax. While a long list of eligible religious organisations includes those denied compulsory re-registration but not yet liquidated by court order, the administrator of New Life Church joked to Forum 18 News Service that this would be of little use to his community as its property is due to be confiscated by the state authorities. Although the country's top religious affairs official has rejected recent US allegations that Belarus restricts religious freedom, some religious communities continue to be fined or warned for worshipping in private homes. A new amendment to the Criminal Code allows the state to imprison participants in unregistered or liquidated religious organisations for up to two years.
7 December 2005
The embattled charismatic New Life Church in Minsk now looks set to lose its property via the courts, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, the church having failed to overturn the state's decision to confiscate its building and land. New Life has been worshipping at a disused cowshed it owns since September 2004, having repeatedly been denied permission to rent other premises in Minsk. In an appeal against an Economic Court decision to uphold the Minsk City Executive Committee's decision to force the church to sell its cowshed, New Life points out that, amongst the grounds on which the decision can be challenged, the Court ignored the fact that the church cannot use the cowshed as a cowshed as keeping cattle is illegal within city limits, and the Executive Committee has not made any legal case for withholding permission to redesignate the cowshed. Also, in a move related to the church's struggle, the head of a city department – church member Lyudmila Yakimovich – has been told that she will be fired at the end of 2005 and that her November wages will be cut by 30 per cent. New Life has announced that it will begin monthly prayer meetings for victims of injustice on Friday 16 December.