29 June 2006
All Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) states are committed to "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," recognising that this is a litmus test of the state of human rights. OSCE commitments to human rights have been reiterated and enhanced. Yet some OSCE states, especially in the eastern part of the OSCE region where Forum 18 News Service works, repeatedly break their commitments and attack religious freedom. Examples include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which commit persistent and even worsening religious freedom and other human rights violations. Forum 18 here surveys the situation. The question facing the OSCE is: How, concretely, are its repeated commitments to free, democratic, tolerant societies which respect human rights to be implemented, faced with states whose concrete actions directly contradict their commitments?
13 June 2006
A Jewish kindergarten music teacher in Belarus, who celebrated the traditionally joyful Jewish holiday of Purim with Jewish children, has been threatened with criminal prosecution, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Lyudmila Izakson-Bolotovskaya is accused of "illegal and deliberate dissemination of religious dogma to young children, which could cause considerable harm to their world view, rights and legal interests." Public prosecutor Sergei Kopytov refused to talk to Forum 18 about his threat - one of several recent attempts, known to Forum 18, to restrict all religious activity to existing state approved places of worship. Minsk City Court has liquidated the Christ's Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, thus making it illegal. Earlier, its pastor, Georgi Vyazovsky, was jailed for ten days for leading worship in his home. The charismatic New Life Church in Minsk has been visited again by police, demanding confirmation of state permission to hold worship services. Also, three evangelical Christians were given official warnings for silently reading the Bible on Brest's central square, as an expression of solidarity with those arrested after March's presidential elections.
26 May 2006
In what seems to be an increasing trend, a Belarusian Pentecostal pastor has been fined for leading worship without state permission. "Divine freedom is given to us by God," Pastor Ilya Radkevich remarked to Forum 18 News Service, "but state freedom you have to pay for." Natalya Lutsenko, head of the administrative commission which fined Pastor Radkevich, totally refused to say why an individual had been punished for holding a peaceful religious service. Radkevich's fine is the latest to be imposed on some Baptist, Pentecostal and independent Orthodox groups, under a legal provision punishing violation of legislation on religion or the foundation and leadership of an unregistered religious congregation. The 2002 Religion Law bans unregistered religious activity, thus violating Belarus' international human rights commitments. A regional assistant bishop of a separate registered Pentecostal Union has told Forum 18 that the number of fines for worship by groups in private homes – which is illegal without state permission even for registered communities - would be much greater if such worship did not take place discreetly.
24 May 2006
The court case brought by Belarusian authorities to force the sale of the charismatic New Life church's worship building – a disused cowshed - has been halted, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Judge Aleksandr Karamyshev "promised to investigate our situation after he saw that the city authorities' arguments just don't stand up," New Life church administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18. "We feel that people's prayers are making a difference – we have reached a turning-point." During the court hearing, Aleksei Vaga of Minsk's Architecture Committee insisted under oath that city religious affairs officials have no influence over his committee. But in a letter which Forum 18 has a copy of, the Architecture Committee withdraws permission for the church to change the designated usage of its building, "taking into account a 24 November 2003 written conclusion from the Religious Affairs Department." In a separate development, New Life is also "very pleased" about the acceptance of their appeal against a refusal to review a decision upholding curtailment of the church's land rights. No date has yet been set for this hearing.
27 April 2006
Minsk city administration refused permission for the local Hassidic Jewish community to hold its 12 April Passover celebration at a state-owned Palace for Children and Youth on the grounds that a religious event could not be permitted at a venue frequented by children, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A spokeswoman for Minsk's Central District administration told Forum 18 she could not recall the precise details of the 31 March refusal, but surmised that it was probably because "it wouldn't be very good to have a religious event at a children's institution – I'm sure you understand." The Hassidic community then planned to join the celebration at a Jewish veterans' club, but that too was banned. A scaled-down celebration went ahead at a synagogue cafeteria. The community was similarly unable to obtain official permission for its Purim celebrations in March. Belarus' highly restrictive 2002 religion law requires all religious events taking place outside designated places of worship to obtain official permission as stipulated by the 2003 demonstrations law, with fines or imprisonment for those defying the restrictions.
18 April 2006
A Pentecostal leader in Belarus, Gennady Akhrimovich, is facing a fine for organising a Bible study group within his congregation, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, Tatyana Zhitko, head of the local Ideology Department, has refused to say why this is happening. "Why are you calling me?" she complained. "I don't know your publication and I'm not prepared to give you any information." Akhrimovich's New Generation Church is facing state threats to its place of worship, like the Minsk-based New Life Church which is now facing a forced sale of its worship building to Minsk City Property Department. Meanwhile, two Protestants jailed for illegal religious activity have been freed. And despite the expulsion of Catholic priest Fr Robert Krzywicki, Vladimir Lameko of the state Religious Affairs Committee has told Fr Robert's parishioners that "the state does not interfere in the activity of religious organisations."
27 March 2006
Following Baptist pastor Georgi Vyazovsky's completion of a 10 day jail term, religious freedom lawyer Sergei Shavtsov has been jailed, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Shavtsov organised a Christian business leaders seminar, after being denied official permission, and was detained after police raided the seminar. His wife Dina Shavtsova told Forum 18 "Why shouldn't they hold a seminar? All it was about was a Biblical view of history." Dina Shavtsova said that her husband's sentence – although on identical charges – is not directly connected with Pastor Vyazovsky's. "But the authorities are punishing the same kind of activity – unapproved religious events." Vitali Misevets, head of the Frunze district Ideology Department, claimed to Forum 18 that "It's not absurd to deny permission for such a meeting. How do we know what 35 people were going to be discussing?" Fears have been expressed that Pentecostal Bishop Sergei Tsvor will be jailed on similar charges.
13 March 2006
In the wake of his 13 March release from prison in the capital Minsk after completing a ten-day sentence, Baptist pastor Georgi Vyazovsky said fellow-prisoners and warders were "amazed" he had been locked up for conducting worship in his own home. "They'd never had such a case before – one of the staff remarked that the judge must have gone crazy," he told Forum 18 News Service. Some 30 Protestant supporters who had gathered at the prison to welcome him on his release were roughly moved away, as 20 special police stood by. To Forum 18's knowledge, Pastor Vyazovsky is the first person to have been imprisoned for religious worship on the territory of Belarus for some twenty years, but at least one further prosecution appears imminent. Pentecostal bishop Sergei Tsvor is facing the same charges of conducting illegal services although his congregation in Minsk has official registration.
13 March 2006
Pulat Nurov, the Islamic affairs specialist of the state Religious Affairs Committee, has told Forum 18 News Service that, in a planned new religion law, "it will clearly be stated that registration of religious organisations is compulsory." If this proves to be the case, Tajikistan will join Belarus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in breaking international human rights obligations by making state registration compulsory. Nurov was speaking to Forum 18 about "inconsistencies" in the current 1994 Religion Law in relation to the continued closure of an Islamic religious school in northern Tajikistan. This madrasa is being barred from operation by the authorities, even though there is no legal basis for the government to do this. Nurov admitted to Forum 18 that registration of the madrasa is not compulsory and that no existing state agency can control the teaching of Islam. "These are the annoying defects of the Religion Law adopted back in 1994," he complained.
6 March 2006
To Forum 18 News Service's knowledge, the ten-day prison term handed down on 3 March to Pastor Georgi Vyazovsky of the Minsk-based Christ's Covenant Reformed Baptist Church for conducting religious worship in his own home is the first time for some twenty years that religious worship has incurred a prison sentence on the territory of Belarus. "We expected that my father would be found guilty," the pastor's son Yaroslav Vyazovsky remarked on the day of the trial. "What we did not expect at all is the punishment for his 'crime'. This was a real shock to all of us who were present." The church tried and failed to get re-registration under Belarus' highly restrictive 2002 religion law, which in defiance of international human rights conventions bans all but occasional religious worship in private homes. District administration leaders sent officials several times to raid Vyazovsky's church "with the aim of exposing religious organisations without registration".