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22 December 2005

BELARUS: Year-end expulsions for two Catholic priests

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

BELARUS: President woos religious believers while worship restrictions continue

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

BELARUS: Minsk Charismatic Church loses property confiscation challenge

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.

24 November 2005

BELARUS: "Just silence" reply to UN deadline

Belarus has not met a 12 November deadline, set by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, to report its correction of a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In a decision with implications for many religious communities, Belarus was found to have violated two Hare Krishna devotees' religious freedom rights by refusing to register a nationwide Hare Krishna association. Without registration the association's activity is illegal under Belarus's harsh religion law. One of the devotees, Sergei Malakhovsky, told Forum 18 News Service that the only reply the state had given them was "just silence. They were supposed to respond and publish what they had done within 90 days, but that period is over." The devotees have formally asked the Belarusian Supreme Court to review earlier court decisions violating their ICCPR-guaranteed religious freedom. The head of the UN Human Rights Committee's petitions department told Forum 18 that Belarus "will reply – they have said that they will – but they didn't give a specific date." Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18 that his body was "examining the issues."

18 November 2005

BELARUS: State losing its battle with religious believers?

A state report seen by Forum 18 News Service gives a rare insight into state attempts to contain religious activity, and official gloom at the state's failure. Vasili Marchenko, top religious affairs official in Brest region, is very upset that officials are not active enough in breaking up worship services and harassing, fining and controlling religious activity, writing of "an even more depressing situation." The report aims at "repairing defects" in controlling religious activity by 1 December 2005. Marchenko gloomily writes of the state's failure to return an alternative Orthodox community to the Moscow Patriarchate, failure to stop Baptists conducting two or three services a week, "freely and systematically distributing … religious literature," and conducting "an illegal water baptism" lasting over four hours with over 300 participants. Local authorities are also castigated by Marchenko for failing to stop Eastern-rite Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, Adventist and Pentecostal activity. Forum 18 has found an apparent link between Marchenko's report and subsequent increased action against religious communities.

15 November 2005

BELARUS: "Religious events should be in a house of worship, not on the street"

State authorities have insisted to Forum 18 News Service that religious literature was lawfully confiscated from a street library in eastern Belarus. Bobruisk City Executive Committee vice-chairman Mikhail Kovalevich told Forum 18 that the Baptists had both "ignored" and "violated" the legal procedure for holding religious events by acting without state approval. "Religious events should be in a house of worship, not on the street," he stated about the street evangelism. The Baptists have been told by the head of the local state Ideology Department that the confiscated literature - including copies of the New Testament - would be sent for expert analysis and might not be returned at all, and that a court will soon resolve the issue. In another recent case, a Baptist in Brest has been fined for leading an unregistered religious organisation. Local Baptists have protested against this, pointing out that, under Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association."

9 November 2005

BELARUS: Orthodox parish banned from worshipping

In what its priest, Fr Ioann Grudnitsky, has described to Forum 18 News Service as "the crudest violation of religious freedom," state officials in Belarus are refusing to register a Russian Orthodox Church Abroad village parish that has come into conflict with the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese. Activities of the parish are – against international human rights standards – illegal under Belarusian law. Non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Christian communities can only gain state registration with the approval of a local Moscow Patriarchate bishop, and state officials have told Fr Ioann's parishioners to attend the local Moscow Patriarchate Church instead. Belarusian authorities have imposed large fines for worship in private homes on four occasions this year, "but we will carry on praying no matter what the state does," Fr Ioann told Forum 18. In a telegram to both Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Patriarch of Moscow Aleksi II, Fr Ioann's parishioners have complained about state restrictions on their holding of "religious events," demanding to know "where is there a law banning us from praying?"

4 November 2005

BELARUS: Will UN decision help religious communities?

Belarus has yet to meet a 12 November deadline, set by the UN Human Rights Committee, for confirming the correction of a religious freedom violation against Hare Krishna devotees, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In a decision with implications for other religious communities (such as the New Life charismatic church), the UN Human Rights Committee found that Belarus had violated citizens' rights under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights by refusing to register a nation-wide Hare Krishna association. Two devotees, Sergei Malakhovsky and Aleksandr Pikul, complained to the Committee, which set a 90 day deadline from 23 August for correcting the violation. Aleksandr Kalinov, of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, initially claimed to Forum 18 that all Krishna communities had registration, but then, questioned about the nation-wide association, claimed it did not have the right to register. Sergei Malakhovsky told Forum 18 that Krishna devotees had taken the UN Committee's decision to the State Committee and other government departments, "but they just shrugged their shoulders and said nothing."

25 October 2005

BELARUS: Third massive fine for organising religious worship

The administrator of the Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church, Vasily Yurevich, has been fined a third time for leading unauthorised worship. The latest fine is the massive amount of 3,825,000 Belarusian roubles (11,645 Norwegian Kroner, 1,488 Euros or 1,780 US Dollars), which is well over 10 times the average monthly wage in Belarus. The official text of the local court decision, which has been seen by Forum 18, relies upon police testimony – which Yurevich and congregation members strongly dispute - identifying him as the organiser of a Sunday service "by his outward appearance." New Life's Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko – who has also been fined for unsanctioned worship – insisted that the church would continue to meet for worship. It has also been denied state permission to turn a disused cowshed it purchased into a church building, on the grounds that it is technically a cowshed. A number of other Protestant churches have also reported recent moves by state officials to limit their religious activity, on the basis of technical violations.

30 September 2005

BELARUS: Liquidated church pledges to continue services

Pastor Ernst Sabilo – who spent 13 years in Soviet labour camps for his faith – has pledged that the Belarusian Evangelical Church he leads in the capital Minsk will continue to meet for worship despite the liquidation of its legal status by the city court on 20 September. Belarus' restrictive 2002 religion law bans unregistered religious activity. "They could fine us for gathering – but we have no other option," Sabilo told Forum 18 News Service. The liquidation came a month after the same court liquidated a Calvinist church. A whole range of other religious communities which failed to gain re-registration by the deadline remain in legal uncertainty, Forum 18 has found. The pastor of a Protestant church in Minsk region denied re-registration and ordered to "liquidate itself" told Forum 18 he is optimistic a new registration application will be successful.

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