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6 June 2005

BELARUS: Orthodox priest under "pressure" or "just an explanation"?

Russian Orthodox Church Abroad priest Fr Leonid Plyats has had four lengthy "discussions" with officials, in the space of just over a week, and threats to punish him with jail or a massive fine if he holds any services outside his home. But local police chief Valentin Nikolaenok has denied to Forum 18 News Service that this is "pressure". Aleksandr Kozmin of the district Ideology Department told Forum 18 that "The warning was just an explanation of the law." Kozmin did not believe Forum 18 that other European states did not have Ideology Departments. But he insisted that Fr Plyats has no right to conduct any religious activity except private gatherings in his own home. Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) told Forum 18 that "I can't believe that in our time, in the centre of Europe, believers are being banned from gathering together to worship God. This is discrimination against our Church. They don't get involved in politics or opposition activity – it is a purely religious organisation."

1 June 2005

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

30 May 2005

UKRAINE: People barred entry on religious grounds now free to appeal

In a new move, the SBU security police has told Forum 18 News Service that people barred entry by other CIS countries – including Russia – on religious and other grounds can now appeal against any visa bar to Ukraine. Appeals can be made either to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry or the SBU, Forum 18 was told. The move follows the ending of an entry ban against Japanese Buddhist monk Junsei Teresawa. The SBU refused to tell Forum 18 why Teresawa had originally been denied entry, but insisted it was not for religious reasons and denied that there is a religious category for blacklisting. Not every religious figure blacklisted by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been barred from Ukraine and Latvian-based Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev - barred by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is now in Ukraine. One of the most prominent recent deportees from Russia was Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen, but the SBU told Forum 18 that "no-one with the surname Mazur is on the Ukrainian blacklist".

19 May 2005

BELARUS: Pressure on Minsk charismatic church resumes

Vasily Yurevich, administrator of New Life charismatic church in Minsk, faces new charges of repeatedly organising "illegal" worship, five months after he was fined 150 times the minimum monthly wage for the same "offence". He told Forum 18 News Service he was summoned by police on 18 May to be informed of the new charges, two weeks after his appeal against the earlier fine was rejected. The church's pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, has also been fined twice. The authorities say the church's use of a former cowshed for services is illegal as the building has not been designated for religious use. The 600-strong church has already been denied official registration, meaning that all its activity is therefore illegal. In April Minsk city administration issued the church with a third official warning, though two are enough for a court to close down a religious organisation.

12 May 2005

BELARUS: Autonomous congregations out in the cold

Religious communities that choose to function independently face particularly acute restrictions, Forum 18 News Service has found, with some being arbitrarily denied the registration necessary to be able to function and barred from renting anywhere to meet legally. One independent Baptist church in the capital Minsk was forced to go underground after being refused registration. It had been told it would get registration if it joined the country's main Baptist union. The KGB secret police continues to monitor that church and other religious communities. A Messianic Jewish congregation finally gained registration in March only after it joined the Baptist union and changed its name so that its Messianic Jewish affiliation was no longer obvious. Pastor Nikolai Khaskin told Forum 18 "we had to be flexible".

11 May 2005

BELARUS: Not liquidated, but unable to meet

Although the authorities have so far held off from closing down two religious communities eligible for liquidation under the restrictive 2002 religion law - the charismatic New Life church and the Hare Krishna community in Minsk – officials have warned both communities not to meet. "We're afraid to meet at our temple," Sergei Malakhovsky of the 200-strong Hare Krishna community told Forum 18 News Service, pointing out that constant police checks would result in "a huge fine equivalent to approximately 1,500 US dollars". New Life church and the Hare Krishna communities in Minsk and Bobruisk are among many religious communities denied compulsory re-registration and whose activity is therefore illegal. In April the pastor of an unregistered Baptist church was also fined.

2 May 2005

BELARUS: Why no full TV broadcast of papal funeral and inauguration?

About 20 per cent of Belarus' population is Catholic, but less than an hour of the late Pope John Paul II's funeral mass and none of Pope Benedict XVI's inauguration was broadcast on state TV, Forum 18 News Service has found. The only Catholics able to view full live coverage of the funeral were those who can receive terrestrial Polish TV. Catholics were surprised by the small amount of TV coverage, but, "there was no outcry," a Catholic laywoman told Forum 18. That the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI was not shown on Belarusian television, and given next to no coverage in news broadcasts, "offended us a bit as we wanted to hear about who the new pope was," a Belarusian Catholic journalist remarked to Forum 18. She did not believe the lack of television coverage to be the result of Belarusian state policy, a view supported by Ilona Urbanovich-Sauka of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists. She told Forum 18 that her colleagues had encountered no evidence of a bar on broadcasting recent Vatican developments. Several believed that the minimal coverage simply reflected unprofessionalism.

14 April 2005

RUSSIA: Unregistered religious groups

Russia's controversial 1997 Religion Law divides religious communities into two categories, restricting the rights of those with the unregistered status of "group", Forum 18 News Service notes in its submission to a 14 April hearing in Washington of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe http://www.csce.gov/ on unregistered religious groups in Russia. By requiring independent religious or belief groups seeking registration to have existed for 15 years, the Law effectively forced new individual religious or belief communities to join older unions, often a burdensome and expensive formality and not an option for some communities. Registration can be denied on arbitrary grounds, as for example with 39 of Stavropol region's 47 mosques. Denied registration, Belgorod's Catholic parish cannot reclaim its historical church. Communities that choose not to register can function freely, but only if they remain inconspicuous, Forum 18 has found. Council of Churches Baptists – who reject registration on principle – are often denied the possibility to rent property for services and fined for holding evangelistic campaigns.

8 April 2005

BELARUS: Final warning for Minsk charismatic church?

State authorities in Minsk, Belarus' capital, have given the charismatic New Life Church a second official warning under the religion law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Under the law, two official warnings are sufficient grounds for banning the church. The latest warning states that the church's pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, organised and held "prayer readings and sermons on premises not specially designed for the holding of religious events… without corresponding permission from the [state] administration…" The church is appealing against this, arguing that the court hearing was accompanied by procedural violations so it cannot be grounds for either an official warning or liquidation. Procedural violations included insufficient time to prepare a defence due to delivery of the court summons on the eve of the midday hearing, and admission of only seven out of 100 defence witnesses due to the small size of the courtroom – and only after the verdict was announced. The official warning was issued after Pastor Goncharenko's conviction for "illegal" religious activity and a fine imposed on him of 30 times the monthly minimum wage.

23 March 2005

BELARUS: Charismatic pastor fined for organising "illegal" worship

Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko of the embattled Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church has been fined the equivalent of 30 times the minimum monthly wage in Belarus for organising religious services without state permission. Describing the brief court session to Forum 18 News Service, church administrator Vasily Yurevich complained that there was no opportunity to prepare or present a defence, since Pastor Goncharenko was summoned only the evening before the midday hearing and members of the congregation were not permitted to enter the courtroom. New Life was issued an official warning in December 2004 after Yurevich was himself fined on similar charges, and the church faces closure under Belarusian law should it receive a second such warning. While state officials have repeatedly denied to Forum 18 that they are waging a campaign against the 600-strong congregation, a 2000 state analysis of a sister charismatic congregation warns that it poses "a significant threat" to Belarusian society.

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