BELARUS: Ideology official attempts to disband church camp
A regional Ideology Department official in Belarus has tried to break up a family holiday camp for members of a Minsk charismatic church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Oleg Bobrik demanded that all religious activity and distribution of religious literature cease, church member and lawyer Dina Shavtsova told Forum 18, "even though there wasn't any literature." The local district executive committee [local council] had given written permission for the family holiday camp, but Bobrik claimed that the camp did not conform to either the Religion Law or an Education Ministry instruction regulating health camps. Bobrik then issued an order – handwritten in ballpoint pen on plain paper – ordering the camp to be closed down unless certain points were resolved. These included a list of participants being provided, but "no one is prepared to give him [Bobrik] a list of participants, as that is unlawful," Shavtsova told Forum 18. "And we'll carry on the camp, of course." The family holiday camp continued as planned. Bobrik has refused to answer Forum 18's questions about his actions.
The official, Oleg Bobrik of Volozhin [Valozhyn] District Ideology Department (Minsk Region), refused to respond to Forum 18's questions on 16 July. "Well, I've never seen you," Bobrik remarked to Forum 18, before maintaining that he could not give information by telephone. A senior religious affairs official similarly refused to comment to Forum 18 on 17 July.
On 10 July, Bobrik arrived at the annual summer holiday camp run by Minsk-based charismatic Jesus Christ Church. He demanded that all religious activity and distribution of religious literature cease, church member and lawyer Dina Shavtsova told Forum 18, "even though there wasn't any literature." Claiming that the camp conformed neither to the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, nor to a December 2002 Education Ministry instruction regulating health camps, she said, the ideology official then issued an order – handwritten in ballpoint pen on plain paper - for it to be closed down by 11am on 11 July.
The order, signed by Bobrik and seen by Forum 18, states that the camp may resume only after the resolution of a number of points. These include providing a list of all participants – including children – and receipt of official permission from Minsk's Department for Religious and Ethnic Affairs.
"No one is prepared to give him [Bobrik] a list of participants, as that is unlawful," Shavtsova told Forum 18 on 10 July. "And we'll carry on the camp, of course – it's been planned over six months, and we've been doing this for 11 years." The ideology official's handwritten instruction carries no legal force, she added.
The Jesus Christ Church's annual camp, with some 200 participants, takes place in woodland near the village of Rakov, approximately 20 km. (12 miles) north-west of Minsk. Organised as a summer holiday for church members, Forum 18 visited the camp in July 2006. Then – as in previous years – it did not experience state disruption.
This year, according to Dina Shavtsova, several routine check-ups were undertaken by the local Sanitation and Emergencies departments after the camp began on 30 June. These resulted in a small fine of 62,000 Belarusian roubles [165 Norwegian Kroner, 21 Euros or 29 US Dollars] for what the organisers acknowledged to be a valid hygiene criticism. Then, on 7 July, Oleg Bobrik conducted a further check-up of the camp, citing an instruction received by district executive committees [local councils] throughout Minsk Region on 6 July.
Despite promising on 10 July to return with his handwritten order in an official form the following day, Bobrik did not turn up on 11 July, Shavtsova told Forum 18. Church members noted an unfamiliar car with tinted windows standing near the camp entrance for approximately two hours that morning, she said, but there was no further disruption. The camp finished as planned on 15 July.
Volozhin District Executive Committee granted official permission for this summer's holiday camp for Jesus Christ Church members on 2 April, in a document which Forum 18 has seen. The church's pastor, Boris Chernoglaz, took a copy of this document to Minsk Region's top religious affairs official, Leonid Parkhimovich, on the afternoon of 11 July, lawyer and church member Shavtsova told Forum 18. Pastor Chernoglaz then visited Vladimir Lameko, deputy to the Plenipotentiary for Religious Affairs, with Vyacheslav Goncharenko, who heads the charismatic Full Gospel Association to which Jesus Christ Church is affiliated. Present at both meetings, Shavtsova told Forum 18 that while they were inconclusive, the authorities appear to have softened their approach as a result.
While recognising the situation near Rakov, Vladimir Lameko maintained that it was "nothing to do with us" when Forum 18 called on 17 July. Asked why the organisers had therefore turned to him following the attempt to close the camp down, he replied, "so what?" When Forum 18 responded that this at least suggested him to be competent to state whether or not the camp had taken place lawfully, Lameko insisted that he did not respond to media questions by telephone.
Volozhin District Executive Committee appears to be particularly diligent in controlling religious activity. Anatoli Kulak, who chairs the Committee's commission ensuring compliance with the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, issued a circular to the district's religious leaders in December 2006. This requested such information as the number of members in each religious organisation, the full names of Sunday school teachers, the number of their pupils and the nature of their timetable.
When a Baptist deacon spoke in a private capacity at an evening on married life held at a state-owned cultural centre in Volozhin in January 2006, Oleg Bobrik arrived to close down the "religious propaganda" meeting (see F18News 3 March 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=736).
Belarus' extensive religious affairs bureaucracy has continued from the Soviet era. It includes commissions ensuring compliance with the Religion Law attached to each district executive committee (see F18News 18 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=186). To the chagrin of senior religious affairs officials, however, the efforts of some of these commissions to control religious life are lax (see F18News 9 February 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=248). But Christians campaigning to change the country's restrictive Religion Law have been detained (see F18News 5 July 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=989).
In disruption to a similar holiday camp in Smorgon District (Grodno [Hrodna] Region) in 2006, soldiers deported families from a number of Minsk charismatic churches back to the Belarusian capital (see F18News 17 August 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=832). (END)
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=888.
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
5 July 2007
Belarusian police have, within two days, detained 19 Catholics and Protestants petitioning to change the harsh 2002 Religion Law. The detentions happened after signatures were collected at a prominent Catholic pilgrimage site, Budslav, and in the capital Minsk. One of those held, Sergei Lukanin, told Forum 18 News Service from Minsk's Frunze District Police Station that he and five other campaigners were "sitting in an office with three policemen who refuse to allow us to leave or to explain why we are here." Two of those detained, 16-year-old Feodora Andreyevskaya and 14-year-old Yuliya Kosheleva, were held as they collected campaign materials on freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Also detained was Denis Sadovsky, secretary of the Belarusian Christian Democracy movement. Much literature was confiscated by police and has not been returned. This included 7,000 newsletters and 500 copies of a booklet, "Monitoring Violations of the Rights of Christians in Belarus in 2006," detailing religious freedom violations reported by independent Belarusian media sources and Forum 18 News Service. Petitions to change the law require at least 50,000 signatures to be considered by the Constitutional Court, and over 25,000 signatures have so far been collected.
6 June 2007
When six KGB officers raided a prayer meeting of the Transfiguration Fellowship back in March at the home of Sergei Nesterovich in Gomel, this represented the first time to Forum 18's knowledge that adherents of the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate have been targeted for their religious activity in Belarus since the Soviet period. One Fellowship member present during the three-hour raid told Forum 18 News Service that the KGB told them openly the group was raided "because we were conducting unsanctioned religious activity – they said we were a pseudo-Christian sect engaged in the recruitment of members!" Nesterovich was issued with an official warning in April, but has appealed against it. Officials denied knowledge of the raid or the warning to Forum 18. "Yes, it is unusual, but this is Belarus, and our [Religion] Law is unique," the Fellowship member told Forum 18. The 2002 Religion Law lays down tight restrictions on all religious activity and – in defiance of international human rights commitments – bans unregistered religious activity, especially worship in private homes without specific approval. Protestants are the most frequent victims of these restrictions.
5 June 2007
One week after being fined for leading Sunday worship in John the Baptist Pentecostal Church in the capital Minsk, Pastor Antoni Bokun has again been punished for leading its 3 June communion service. The following evening (4 June), a court handed him a three-day prison term, making him the third person to be imprisoned in post-Soviet Belarus for religious activity. Local lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18 News Service that two police officers interrupted the Sunday communion service to arrest Bokun. In response to Bokun's second arrest, the imminent deportation of a Polish Pentecostal and other harassment of religious communities, 7,000 Christians attended a religious freedom prayer service on the evening of 3 June outside Grace Pentecostal Church in Minsk. Lukanin said the service was filmed from nearby buildings by people he assumed to be plain-clothes police. Participants drew up an appeal to President Aleksandr Lukashenko calling for the restrictive 2002 Religion Law to be brought into line with the Constitution. That same evening, state television channel ONT broadcast an item warning of the dangers of "neo-Pentecostal sects".