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28 February 2007

BELARUS: Reports that US citizens deported for religious activity "a misunderstanding"

Illegal religious activity is not the reason why a group of US English-language teachers were deported from Belarus earlier this month, Forum 18 News Service has been told. According to recent media reports, unauthorised religious activity led to one of two police warnings that formed the grounds for their deportation. An Interior Ministry spokesman even told one news agency that students were found singing religious songs and with Bibles on their desks when police raided what was supposedly a seminar in conversational English at a Baptist church in Mogilev. The region's religious affairs official, however, has told Forum 18 that the Americans did not violate the 2002 Religion Law. The head of the charity which invited the group also insisted to Forum 18 that its activity was not religious and that teaching took place at the church simply because there was no rental fee. Elsewhere in Mogilev region, an Israeli rabbi is trying to overturn the state's decision not to renew his religious work permit.

12 January 2007

BELARUS: Why were Catholic priests and nuns expelled?

Seven Polish Catholic priests and five nuns were forced out of Belarus at the end of 2006, Forum 18 News Service notes. Fr Mariusz Iliaszewicz told Forum 18 that his high level of activity, including youth and alcohol rehabilitation meetings open to all, was responsible for the expulsion decision. Another expelled priest, Fr Jaroslaw Hrynaszkiewicz, expressed similar thoughts to Forum 18. Fr Mariusz commented that "They don't want priests who work and try to develop their faith. Anything a priest says is considered political – if he talks about the lack of truth or freedom in Belarus he is immediately considered an opponent of the system. But there are grave violations of human rights in Belarus." Speaking of a protest hunger strike – which has now stopped - Fr Mariusz noted that he was astonished by the parishioners' own initiative. "They overcame fear - solidarity is beginning even in these little villages." A parishioner told Forum 18 that a Belarusian parish priest was now in the parish and that local Catholics have been given "no reasons, no answers," for the expulsion. However, Forum 18 was told "we all support" their expelled priest. The Belarusian Consulate in Warsaw has warned priests on short visits "not to engage in any religious activity."

20 December 2006

BELARUS: Mixed state response to Catholic and Protestant protests

Catholics in Belarus have halted a hunger-strike, after receiving endorsement for church construction from the Grodno city administration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Parish priest Fr Aleksandr Shemet stressed to Forum 18 that the Church has not received permission to build, but permission to "gather documents" and "ask for final permission from the President." Parishioners are praying for all Belarusian churches without a building – including Minsk's New Life charismatic Church - and for the 12 Polish Catholic priests and nuns refused permission to work in Belarus after 31 December 2006. "We want not only the Catholic Church, but all Christians to be able to practise their religion freely," Fr Shemet remarks. "So we will pray that believers are not afraid to demand their rights." The 12 priests and nuns have been denied permission to continue working in Belarus, despite appeals from 12,000 people including Catholic bishops. New Life Church is supporting the Catholics of Grodno and praying for a forthcoming court session, on whether moves to terminate New Life's land rights and force the sale of its building are lawful.

14 December 2006

BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, December 2006

"Killing a frog by warming up the water very gradually" is how one Protestant describes Belarus' religious policy in Forum 18 News Service's survey analysis of religious freedom. President Aleksandr Lukashenko has brought religious believers back to the late Soviet period, legally unable to practise religion in community without explicit state permission. State registration does not guarantee religious freedom, as has become increasingly clear in the spheres of youth activity and building and hiring places of worship. The state's tendency to harass religious communities for alleged "irregularities" means that some communities are voluntarily restricting or even stopping religious activity. A major reason for the state's eagerness to control religious communities is its preservation of an extensive Soviet-era secret police, religious affairs and ideology bureaucracy. Recently, the state has started focussing upon Protestant evangelicals as a political threat, one of whom notes that "it is not Jesus' example to sit down and accept what happens in your community." As state pressure steadily mounts, Forum 18 observes that religious believers are increasingly putting aside confessional differences in organised resistance.

29 November 2006

BELARUS: Faith-based political opposition emerges

When Catholic parishioners in Grodno announced a hunger strike to begin on 1 December if officials fail to overturn their decade-long refusal to allow them to build a new church, they took their inspiration from protests by New Life Church. This Minsk-based charismatic congregation held a high-profile hunger strike in October to try to prevent the authorities seizing their church. "We are grateful to the Protestants for giving us courage," Fr Aleksandr Shemet declared. Forum 18 News Service notes that - after exhausting other methods of negotiation with the state authorities – some religious believers are adopting tactics more usually associated with secular political activism in their pursuit of religious freedom in the country that has the tightest controls on religious activity anywhere in Europe. Forum 18 also notes that mainstream opposition activists are in turn drawing on religious ideas.

3 November 2006

BELARUS: Court to review charismatic church's case

Belarusian authorities are giving contradictory signals about their attitude towards the embattled New Life Church in the capital Minsk, Forum 18 News Service has found. In an indication that the authorities may be about to reverse their position, Higher Economic Court chairman Viktor Kamenkov has cancelled an earlier Minsk City Economic Court decision against New Life and called for the case to be heard again. A new hearing has been set for tomorrow (Saturday 4 November) at the Higher Economic Court. Kamenkov's latest actions follow a high profile campaign by New Life - including a hunger strike and international protests - and a senior state official urging New Life's Pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, to appeal again to the Higher Economic Court. But in a contradictory signal, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence has published a prominent attack on New Life, claiming – amongst other highly contestable statements - that "neo-Protestant sects" are a threat to national security. Two nights after the Defence Ministry made its attack, graffiti reading "No to totalitarian sects!" was daubed on the wall of New Life's building.

31 October 2006

BELARUS: Lutheran communities, real and imagined

Developments within Belarus' complex and fragmented Lutheran community are hampered by the country's Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Law's strict registration requirements – coupled with officials' arbitrary application of them - artificially preserve organisational arrangements that no longer exist. The two Lutheran associations with state registration appear to be defunct, but they are supposed to account for almost all the country's 26 parishes, so officials are reluctant to register any new groupings. Association status is not just an optional extra, but needed to found missions and seminaries. Shown that the state authorities allow some Lutheran associations to breach legal requirements strictly applied to others, one religious affairs official asked Forum 18 for suggestions as to what should be done about it. A pastor in one unregistered Lutheran association commented to Forum 18: "Officials need to understand that the Church lives not according to their decisions, likes and dislikes, but God's will."

26 October 2006

BELARUS: Believers pressured to withdraw registration signatures

Belarusian state officials, with local Moscow Patriarchate priests, are pressuring Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) parishioners to withdraw their signatures from state registration applications, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Unregistered religious activity is illegal. Part of the registration procedure is that at least 20 Belarusian citizens must sign applications and give personal data. If even one signature is withdrawn, the application process has to start again. Officials have apparently given Moscow Patriarchate priests and parishioners, in the city of Brest, details of the signatories on ROCA parish registration applications. "Very great pressure is put on them," ROCA Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) of Odessa and Tavriya told Forum 18. Baptists and Pentecostals have described to Forum 18 similar pressures on their new communities. One Baptist described how local state officials typically threaten all 20 names on the list of founding members of a new church. "In rural places people need something from them – wood, peat or a horse for ploughing - they are afraid to lose this, so they withdraw their names."

20 October 2006

BELARUS: Government to make U-turn on charismatic church?

Belarusian authorities may be preparing to reverse their position towards New Life Church in the capital Minsk, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A senior state official has stated that President Aleksandr Lukashenko was aware of New Life's situation, regarding them as "a normal church in need of assistance." The official then made a "strong recommendation" to New Life's Pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, that the church try another appeal to the Higher Economic Court. New Life has now done this, but the church's lawyer, Sergei Lukanin, stressed to Forum 18 that the congregation will continue public protests until it has the legal return of its land and building and the right to worship there. Previous state promises to resolve the situation have been broken. New Life's high-profile public protests over the past two weeks – including hunger strikes throughout Belarus, daily services, and international support - appear to be responsible for the president's sudden attention. New Life has been fined for meeting, as have other churches in Belarus - such as a Baptist church in Minsk, which was fined this month.

18 October 2006

BELARUS: Foreign religious workers out?

While tight restrictions on the religious freedom of foreigners who live in Belarus were enshrined in the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, foreign religious workers invited by local religious communities are increasingly being barred from the country, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The State Committee for Religious Affairs – which has to approve all such invitations and agree that such visits are "necessary" - denied the charismatic Full Gospel Union permission to invite Nigerian pastor Anselm Madubuko to preach in three of its churches in August. One church had "no basis" for inviting him as it was not registered, while the visit to another was "inexpedient", officials declared. A foreign citizen pastoring a congregation founded a decade ago did not have his annual religious work permit renewed in early 2006, while twelve Polish Catholic priests and nuns have been told their visas will not be renewed at the end of this year. The Hare Krishna community is among those unable to invite foreign citizens as they do not have the required ten registered religious communities.

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