30 January 2013
Belarus continues to keep religious communities within an invisible ghetto of regulation, Forum 18 News Service has found. The state closely controls people meeting together to exercise their religious freedom, forcing many religious communities to keep out of sight. Officials are hostile towards followers of faiths they see as a threat, particularly the Protestantism of many of the regime's political opponents. However, Forum 18 also notes that Belarus has been more reluctant to crack down on freedom of religion and belief in recent years, for fear that this might increase political opposition. Other issues include: strict controls on foreign citizens, including Catholic priests, who conduct religious activity; a Soviet-era network of KGB secret police and religious affairs officials; lack of provision for conscientious objection to military service; and obstruction of the religious freedom of prisoners, including prisoners of conscience and death-row prisoners.
10 January 2013
Belarus has prepared a "working version" of a proposed Alternative Service Law, Vera Chaushnik of the National Centre for Legislation and Legal Research has told Forum 18 News Service. "If all goes well and according to the plan", the Law will be adopted "at the earliest by summer 2014", she said. Asked whether the draft Law will be published before it reaches Parliament to allow public debate, Chaushnik said this was possible. "But not every draft Law is published for public discussion." Jehovah's Witness Dmitry Smyk, who has been convicted and punished for conscientious objection to military service, cautiously welcomed the news. He told Forum 18 that he hoped the issue would be resolved through legislation. Civil society group For Alternative Civilian Service stated that "this raises the hope that the gap in the law, which since 1994 has been an obstacle to realising individuals' constitutional rights, will be removed". Military conscription is used to silence political opposition. Currently conscripted Youth Front activist Pavel Sergei was last Sunday [6 January] prevented by military commanders from attending church.
5 December 2012
The eviction of the New Life Pentecostal Church from its building in the Belarusian capital Minsk – due this morning (5 December) – has been called off. All was quiet as the deadline passed this morning, New Life's administrator Vitaly Antonchikov told Forum 18 News Service. "There will be no eviction," court executor Olga Shcherbovich, assured Forum 18 yesterday afternoon, 4 December. "There was a document, there was action; the document was withdrawn, the action stopped." The Church meets in a former cow barn it bought and renovated, but the authorities have never legalised its use and have been trying to evict the Church for a decade. "This isn't the end, of course – the eviction is cancelled, but legally our land and building still belong to the authorities," Antonchikov told Forum 18.
28 November 2012
Members of Minsk's New Life Pentecostal Church – who have been campaigning for a decade to hold on to their building - have been ordered to hand over the keys of their church to officials next Wednesday (5 December). The eviction order – seen by Forum 18 News Service - orders the local housing authority to provide "vehicles, manpower and everything necessary to evict the debtor" in case of forced eviction. Court executor Olga Shcherbovich of Minsk's Higher Economic Court, who signed the order, refused to discuss it with Forum 18. "We are treating this very seriously," church member and lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18. "There will be round-the-clock prayer in our building and special evening prayer meetings to ask the Lord to defend our building and to guide our response to the authorities."
27 June 2012
Belarus has removed from its Code of Administrative Offences punishment for religious events held without state permission. But officials still sometimes raid and prosecute such meetings – even in private homes. Jehovah's Witness Kirill Dashkovsky told Forum 18 News Service that in his recent case a judge refused to hear arguments that his "offence" no longer exists. If adopted, a new Housing Code might make home worship freer – but it would still need state permission.
15 May 2012
Relatives of executed death row prisoners in Belarus remain unable to recover their bodies for burial, Forum 18 News Service notes. In the latest case the mother of Vladislav Kovalev, executed on 15 March, tried to claim her son's body for burial. Lyubov Kovaleva told Forum 18 News Service that "it is important to give Vladislav - like other people - a Christian burial". Death row prisoners are not told until the last minute the date and time of their execution, so they also do not have the chance to receive a visit from a priest. Nor are families of executed prisoners told when and where they are buried. Political prisoners' rights to freedom of religion or belief also continue to be violated, with denials of access to literature such as the Bible and visits by clergy. Correspondence by family and friends with political prisoners has also been blocked. Conscientious objectors to compulsory military service also continue to be punished. Jehovah's Witness Artem Strelchenko has been threatened that, if he does not report for military service, "a complex of measures for the legal evaluation of the given fact" will be undertaken.
4 May 2012
On 17 April Jehovah Witness Aleksandr Belous was told criminal charges for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience had been dropped, but that he is being called up yet again for compulsory military service. "I'll have to start from scratch, but I'm not going to the army," he told Forum 18 News Service. Gomel Military Commissioner Vladimir Efimchik told Forum 18 this is "standard procedure" and claimed most of the few young men who refuse military service are forced to accept after Prosecutors launch or threaten to launch criminal cases. On 2 May a pacifist from Lida, Andrei Chernousov, was confined to a psychiatric hospital to establish if his convictions which led him to refuse call-up accord with "norms of psychiatric health". Mikhail Pashkevich of For Alternative Civilian Service complained to Forum 18 that the current draft of the Alternative Civilian Service Law under consideration – which he has seen - allows only for religious conscientious objectors, not for those who hold non-religious pacifist views, and that alternative service will be twice as long as military service. Former General Prosecutor Grigory Vasilevich told Forum 18 "it's too early to talk about alternative civilian service for all ethical objectors".
27 February 2012
Religious communities in various parts of Belarus have faced visits, threats and warnings for holding meetings for worship which officials regard as illegal. On one Sunday in January, officials visited three Pentecostal services in separate villages. Pastor Vasili Raptsevich – who led worship in a church-owned house in a village in Brest Region for about ten disabled church members unable to travel to the main congregation in a nearby town - was summoned to the police station. There he was told that he had violated the law by conducting a religious service away from its legal address without permission from the Regional Executive Committee. Police threatened him with court proceedings and threatened to strip his Pentecostal church of state registration, he told Forum 18 News Service. In February, police in the capital Minsk – among them masked riot police - launched a mass raid on a cultural meeting being held in a Pentecostal pastor's home. 34 participants were taken to a police station, but were released two hours later without any explanation and without any official record being drawn up. Police refused to comment to Forum 18.
21 February 2012
A Belarusian regional state Financial Investigation Committee is examining the activities of Fr Vyacheslav Barok, a Catholic priest in the northern Vitebsk Region. Committee officials have told him that he is suspected of evading tax on alleged earnings of about 1,000,000 Euros from pilgrimages he and a number of volunteers organise – but they will not put the allegations in writing to Fr Barok, or clarify them to Forum 18 News Service. Fr Barok strongly denies the allegations, which were made on the basis of an anonymous letter officials claim they were sent. The Financial Investigation Committee has also been questioning some of the pilgrims. One pilgrim questioned – who had been on two foreign pilgrimages – told Forum 18 that she was asked if Fr Barok made her donate money for the church or demanded extra money during the trips. "It was silly to assume such things, they are not true," the pilgrim indignantly stated. Forum 18 contacted one local tourist agency, and found that they charged about twice as much for a tour similar to a pilgrimage organised by Fr Barok.
18 October 2011
Fined several weeks' average wages in late September for leading unregistered religious worship was Pastor Aleksei Abramovich. His church in Zhodino near Belarus' capital Minsk belongs to the Baptist Council of Churches, whose congregations refuse on principle to gain the state registration which officials insist is compulsory. Yelena Goretskaya of the Ideology Department of Zhodino Executive Committee, who took part in the raid, claimed to Forum 18 News Service that the church had broken the law. "We don't interfere with state policy. Our worship meetings are purely religious. It's not a crime if believers worship in my house," Pastor Abramovich wrote in a letter of complaint to President Aleksandr Lukashenko. The Church of God, an independent Protestant church in Zhodino, has given up trying to gain state registration as repeated attempts have failed. Architecture officials will not sign off that his newly-built church is complete. Elsewhere, eight Jehovah's Witness congregations, as well as non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox congregations languish without state registration. This leaves them at risk of raids and punishment at any time.
4 August 2011
In Belarus non-Orthodox prisoners face difficulties in exercising their freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. In maximum security prisons, "prison administrations make prisoners face a difficult choice whom to see once a year - either clergy or relatives", lawyer Vlasta Oleksuk told Forum 18. All prisoners sentenced to death – such as Andrei Burdyka executed in July – are denied the possibility to meet clergy before their execution, even if they request this. There are also problems in ordinary prisons, for example Muslims having no allowance made for their diet. Anatoly Tunchik of the Punishment Implementation Department, asked about visits by non-Orthodox clergy, replied: "We are very strict at not admitting any random person into prisons. Sometimes", he continued, "they disguise themselves as other religions and have a negative influence over the inmates. For this reason access is only possible for Orthodox and Catholic priests, which means registered religions". Many convicts and clergy of different religions were not even aware of the rights they had. Also, "inmates are afraid of exercising their religious freedom rights, as they fear that the prison staff's attitude will be tougher", Protestant Pastor Boris Chernoglaz told Forum 18.
26 July 2011
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.