BELARUS: Catholic priest expelled and pressure on Baptists mounts
Catholic priest Fr. Robert Krzywicki, who was ordered with another priest in mid-December 2005 to leave Belarus by the end of the year, left the country on 27 December. He had served as a priest in the town of Borisov [Barysaw], north-east of the capital Minsk, for 12 years, and his supporters gathered with flowers and gifts on the steps of the parish church to see him off. No reason was given for the decision and Fr. Krzywicki told Forum 18 News Service that "I committed no crime." Baptists from across the country have told Forum 18 that pressure has also begun to mount on their congregations. In western Belarus for example, a member of a small village congregation told Forum 18 from Brest that "there are incidents all over the place. We don't know why things changed for the worse, but we don't believe the pressure has ended." Church members have appealed to the authorities in Brest and the capital Minsk against violations of their rights.
According to the local website myborisov.net, by the day of his departure more than a thousand signatures had been collected on a petition for the authorities to change their mind and allow him to stay. It said no reason had been given as to why the visa extension had been refused. Fr. Krzywicki was himself not given a reason for the decision and told Forum 18 News Service that "I committed no crime."
Meanwhile, members of the Council of Churches Baptists have told Forum 18 that pressure has also begun to mount on their congregations across Belarus. In eastern Belarus, the congregation in Bobruisk [Babruysk], Mogilev [Mahilyow] region, has protested at the official campaign of fines and harassment conducted against the congregation and one of its families. The official primarily responsible has denied this to Forum 18, claiming to have "excellent relations" with the church (see F18News 6 January 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=712).
In western Belarus, "pressure was stepped up about six months ago," one member of a small village congregation told Forum 18 from Brest region on 5 January. "There are incidents all over the place. We don't know why things changed for the worse, but we don't believe the pressure has ended." Church members have appealed to the authorities in Brest and the capital Minsk against violations of their rights.
Pastor Valeri Ryzhuk, who leads the Council of Churches Baptist congregation in the town of Drogichin [Dragichyn] in Brest region, agrees. "Since last summer pressure – including warnings, threats and fines – has increased," he told Forum 18 on 5 January. "The authorities keep trying to force us to register, but this is against the Bible and against our consciences. It represents interference in our church life and is a violation of our human rights. When the law of God and the secular law diverge we have to follow the law of God." He says he and his colleagues always refuse to pay fines imposed for religious activity as they are not guilty of any crime. Congregations of the Baptist Council of Churches refuse on principle to register with the state authorities in post-Soviet countries.
But Pastor Ryzhuk insists that he and his fellow Baptists are loyal citizens. "We pray for our country's authorities," he told Forum 18. "We simply want to worship God in accordance with our principles."
"Recently, persecution of believers is increasing in our country," members of the Baptist Council of Churches congregation in Malorita in Brest region wrote on 21 December. "We are being accused of breaking the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations, which limits the freedom to preach the Gospel and live according to the Word of God. In addition, it requires churches to undergo compulsory registration, to which we cannot agree."
The Malorita church complained of orders "from above" to ban churches from meeting in private homes. It cited a 1 December summons to Pastor Vladimir Burshtyn to attend the local police station, where a statement was drawn up accusing him of leading an unregistered congregation. On 13 December an administrative commission fined him 10,000 Belarusian Roubles (30 Norwegian Kroner, 4 Euros or 5 US Dollars) under Article 193 of the administrative code.
When Pastor Ryzhuk in Drogichin in Brest region was fined 51,000 Belarusian Roubles (154 Norwegian Kroner, 20 Euros or 24 US Dollars) on 9 June 2005 for leading an unregistered service, he refused to pay the fine, considering that he had done nothing wrong (see F18News 28 September 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=661). He told Forum 18 that two court executors visited his home on 2 December and seized an oil heater worth 140,000 Belarusian Roubles (427 Norwegian Kroner, 54 Euros or 65 US Dollars), more than double the value of the fine.
The authorities in Brest region have shown concern about their failure to stamp out unauthorised religious activity. An 18 January 2005 report by the region's top religious affairs official Vasili Marchenko, on the religious situation in the region during 2004 clearly showed how upset he was that officials were not in his view active enough in breaking up worship services and in other ways harassing, fining and controlling religious communities and believers (see F18News 18 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=691).
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus 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.