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11 January 2008

BELARUS: "I don't write the laws, I just implement them"

A regional religious affairs official in Belarus has defended the legality of a fine, imposed on Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk in mid-December for unregistered religious activity. "Just like in any other country," the official in the western city of Grodno, who declined to be named, insisted to Forum 18 News Service, "all religious organisations must be registered in order to have the right to function." In defiance of international human rights standards, Belarus is the only country in Europe making state registration compulsory before religious activity can take place. Asked why registration was needed, the official remarked that this was not a question for him. "I don't write the laws, I just implement them," he explained to Forum 18. "Here in the Republic of Belarus we have our own laws, whether good or bad. We think they're good, other people might think they're bad." Meanwhile, on 10 January the charismatic New Generation Church in Baranovichi won in court as officials tried yet again to seize their church building from them.

17 December 2007

BELARUS: "To pray to God they must have a registered place of worship"

Pastor Dmitry Osyko was fined about two weeks' average wages on 14 December for leading a worship service in November in a private home in the western town of Baranovichi, a court official told Forum 18 News Service. The two homeowners, Stepan Paripa and Nikolai Pestak, were each fined more than one month's average wages. Their Baptist congregation refuses to seek state registration and officials arrived at the service to declare it illegal. "They can't use a private home as a place of worship," local ideology official Ruslan Krutko, who interrupted the service, explained to Forum 18. "You couldn't use a private home as a public toilet, could you?" He said the church members need a registered place of worship to be able to "pray to God". Church members insist that Belarus' Constitution and Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantee their right to meet for worship freely with others. Pastor Osyko is the latest of many religious leaders to have been fined for leading unregistered worship.

7 December 2007

BELARUS: Parish to "lose nothing" when veteran priest expelled?

A religious affairs official in the south-eastern region of Gomel is dismissive of the rights of the parishioners of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in the town of Rechytsa. He claimed to Forum 18 News Service that they will "lose nothing" when their veteran parish priest, Polish citizen Fr Grzegorz Chudek, is forced to leave Belarus. The priest was ordered to leave by 1 December, but his visa has now been extended by two months. During this period he is "of course" not permitted to work in his parish, the official said. He repeatedly refused to tell Forum 18 how Fr Chudek had broken the law. "No one has told me if or when he might have to leave, let alone why," Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek told Forum 18. But Fr Chudek appears not to have had his annual visa renewed due to his description of social malaise in Belarus given to a Polish newspaper earlier in 2007. More than 700 local Catholics have appealed to President Aleksandr Lukashenko for the decision to be withdrawn. Foreign religious workers invited by local religious communities are under tight state control and need permission specifying where they will work. An increasing number of Catholic and Protestant religious workers have been barred from Belarus.

22 November 2007

BELARUS: Fined for harvest festival service in private yard

Gennadi Ryzhkov, pastor of a Council of Churches Baptist congregation in Osipovichi in the eastern Mogilev Region, has failed in his appeal to have a fine for leading unregistered worship overturned, a court official confirmed to Forum 18 News Service. He is now due to pay the fine of nearly one month's average wages for leading his church's harvest festival. Mikhail Sotnichenko, in whose yard the September service took place, told Forum 18 that the church does not agree with the state's action. "We are still holding services, of course." But the local Ideology Department head defended her actions. "Under the law a church must register, but they refuse registration," Anna Zemlyanukhina told Forum 18. "I don't agree that it's persecution. Let them meet - but they must register first." Forum 18 notes that while the number of such fines in Belarus has fallen in recent years the level of fines is often much higher. Meanwhile, the nationwide petition to change the restrictive 2002 Religion Law has gathered nearly 40,000 signatures, its spokesperson Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18.

11 October 2007

BELARUS: Charismatic pastor warned for "illegal" worship

"If the law doesn't allow believers to pray and serve God, then we will sooner obey God than a person or law restricting our rights," Dmitri Podlobko, the pastor of a charismatic church in Belarus, has insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Pastor Podlobko was speaking after he was given an official warning to stop "illegal" religious activity by a district Public Prosecutor in the south-eastern regional centre of Gomel. The warning followed an attempt by local state officials to prevent Sunday worship by the 100-strong Living Faith Church at private premises on 30 September. State officials stated that the worship was illegal as it broke the restrictive Religion Law, under which "services, religious rites, rituals and ceremonies" taking place outside designated houses of worship must have advance permission from the state. Offences may be punished with a warning, a fine of up to 30 times the minimum wage, or 25 days' imprisonment. Gomel Region's senior religious affairs official, Mikhail Zhukevich, declined to answer Forum 18's questions.

1 October 2007

BELARUS: How serious is official call to phase out foreign clergy?

The Catholic Church is unsure about the implications of remarks by Belarusian Vice-premier Aleksandr Kosinets about foreign clergy. With about 190 foreign priests plus more than 100 nuns, the Catholic Church is by far the religious community in Belarus which relies most heavily on foreign clergy. Kosinets told a 19 September round table with Belarus' religious leaders that the Catholic Church should end the use of foreign clergy over the next few years. However, Forum 18 News Service has been unable to clarify whether this is a recommendation or an order. "The Vice-premier's words arouse questions and perplexities rather than outright concern," a senior Catholic told Forum 18. Religious affairs official Aleksandr Kalinov, who was also present at the round table, refused to tell Forum 18 if action will be taken if the Catholic Church does not end the use of foreign priests, but insisted: "No-one is preparing to expel them." The Catholic Church – like the Orthodox Church – also has a number of foreign-born bishops, while other religious communities – including Jews – have foreign religious leaders.

27 September 2007

BELARUS: Top official says "no change" to harsh Religion Law

As a mass petition to amend the harsh 2002 Religion Law reaches 30,000 of a targeted 50,000 signatures, Vice-premier Aleksandr Kosinets has categorically rejected any changes to it. He was speaking at an unprecedented round table of religious leaders in Minsk on 19 September. "The Protestants suggested amendments, but he said that this is the law we have and it must be applied, it's final," Yakov Basin of the Religious Association of Progressive Jewish Communities, one of those present, told Forum 18 News Service. "It's clear that the state doesn't want to lose control over the religious life of the people." Kosinets also rejected the suggestion to introduce a category of "religious group" which would not need state registration. The law's stipulation that all religious activity without registration is illegal has led to raids, fines and detentions.

14 September 2007

BELARUS: Baptist fined for church family holiday

A state official has defended as lenient a fine of almost two weeks' average wages imposed on the Baptist Viktor Orekhov for organising a church summer holiday. "What European country would tolerate a group of people doing what they like, completely ignoring the state and law, not responding to the authorities' comments?" religious affairs official Vasili Marchenko told Forum 18 News Service. Baptists in the south-western Brest Region were denied permission to rent leisure facilities they had used in earlier years. After they went ahead in June with a camp on private land, police invaded the camp to question the children and threatened to close it by force. Orekhov was fined on 24 August for the creation or leadership of a religious organisation without state registration. "We are to blame, it seems, for being believers," Orekhov pointed out. "This is why I was prosecuted and fined." This is the first significant fine in over a year to be handed down to a member of the Baptist Council of Churches in Belarus. In July an ideology official tried to break up a charismatic church's summer camp.

17 July 2007

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.

5 July 2007

BELARUS: Religious freedom campaigners detained

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.

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