26 January 2009
Members of Minsk's charismatic New Life Church have vowed to fight on to retain their building after the Higher Economic Court threw out their appeal against moves to seize it. The state argues that the building is a cowshed and is not being used for its legal purpose, despite church attempts to have its usage changed. As the court decision comes into force immediately, the Minsk authorities have the right to demand the building "at any moment", church member and lawyer Sergei Lukanin pointed out to Forum 18 News Service. He said the church has been "deceived" as it only went to court after it was advised to do so by a senior Presidential Administration official. Another official there, Lyudmila Vorovka, refused to discuss the court decision. "The court decides this [issue], not us," she told Forum 18. Meanwhile, a Baptist leader Aleksandr Yermalitsky was fined on 8 January for hosting "a religious event at which the Bible was read" at his home, while other Baptists running street libraries have had literature confiscated and received court warnings for "singing songs of a Christian nature without permission". Catholics told Forum 18 there has been no progress in having the recent bar on seven Polish priests and nuns overturned.
7 January 2009
The Catholic Church in Belarus has appealed for the state to rescind its ban on four priests and three nuns working in the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. One of the priests, Fr Zbigniew Grygorcewicz, was told that he was being expelled for arranging a banned Christian music festival. Like his colleagues, Fr Grygorcewicz was active in serving the people of his parish, arranging for a sports pitch for local children to be built, providing humanitarian aid in the area, promoting ecumenical activity among the town's Christian churches, and lecturing in the Belarusian State University. One of the many parishioners and students who have protested against the bans, Lena Okolovicz, told Forum 18 that it is "absurd" that foreigners need special permission from the state before they can conduct religious work in the country. "I think believers should take the decision over which priest should serve where, not the state." But Mikhail Rybakov of the government's Office of the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18 that "the views of the parishioners are nothing to us."
23 December 2008
Three Catholic priests in the western Grodno Diocese, and one priest and three nuns in the Minsk-Mohilov Archdiocese face a ban on religious work in Belarus from 1 January 2009, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mohilov told Forum 18 that "this makes me deeply sad. Who has been punished for this? Our faithful, citizens of Belarus who pay their taxes. As a bishop, I have a duty to take care of my flock." The bans will bring to 29 the number of foreign religious workers banned from working with local religious communities since 2004. It is unclear why the priests and nuns have been banned. However, Catholic clergy have previously been expelled for being active on social issues, and state officials have repeatedly expressed particular hostility to foreign Catholic priests. Marina Tsvilik of the state Office of the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18 that "these are not bans. They've just not had their permission to work extended."
22 October 2008
The Ukrainian founder of one of the largest charismatic churches in the Belarusian capital Minsk was deported on 16 October due to his religious activity, he has suggested to Forum 18 News Service. If so, Veniamin Brukh – a bishop in the Full Gospel Church – will be the 22nd foreigner barred from Belarus for religious activity since 2004. Previous cases have involved both Protestants and Catholics. Under the restrictive Religion Law, foreigners require special state permission – on top of a valid entry visa – to perform a leading role in a religious community. Only registered religious umbrella associations have the right to invite foreigners to conduct religious activity. Even if the state's highest religious affairs official decides that religious work by a foreigner is necessary, stringent controls still apply to that person's activities. Asked for the reasons for Bishop Brukh's deportation, a KGB secret police spokesman told Forum 18 that "The person who is supposed to know knows. I'm not supposed to know." The KGB closely monitors religious communities' activity.
25 September 2008
Belarus has banned a Christian music festival, initiated by Catholics, minutes before it was due to begin, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The organisers had obtained written state permission for the festival. But, ten minutes before the first concert was to begin, local Ideology Department head Lyudmila Gornak arrived at the festival and announced that it was banned. Gornak refused to explain to Forum 18 why the event was banned, claiming – falsely – that she had told the organisers of unspecified "mistakes." Asked repeatedly by Forum 18 for examples of the "mistakes," she would not name any. During a recent visit to Belarus, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone gave the government the thanks of Pope Benedict XVI "for the religious liberty that Belarus enjoys," and praised the 2002 Religion Law as "a good law." However, Belarusian Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant human rights defenders have collected a 50,000 signature petition against the Law. Taking note of the human rights defenders' concerns, the European Parliament passed a resolution observing that the 2002 Law "contravenes international principles of religious freedom and human rights, including those laid out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)."
18 September 2008
Fr Ioann Grudnitsky – who has already been fined for conducting services without state registration – faced further intimidation when he conducted the funeral of a parishioner in the village of Ruzhany, he told Forum 18 News Service. Village Council leader Leonid Moskalevich showed him an order from the KGB secret police banning him from leading the funeral as his parish – he is under the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad Provisional Supreme Church Authority – is not registered. However, he went ahead while Moskalevich and a police officer observed. "After working our whole lives in factories and on collective farms, sacrificing our health and receiving a tiny pension, we've reached a point where we have to ask permission from the local KGB secret police to organise a funeral!" the parishioners complained in an open letter to the President. "The local KGB has no right whatsoever to interfere in the life of the church." Moskalevich denied to Forum 18 that the document had come from the KGB or that it was a ban. Meanwhile, Grodno-based Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk is the latest pastor to be fined for leading unregistered worship.
25 July 2008
Officials have tried to stop three different Protestant communities in Grodno Region, north-western Belarus, from conducting peaceful religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the small town of Svisloch, a planned open-air baptism has been banned, despite the attempts of Pentecostals to negotiate with the authorities. Bishop Fyodor Tsvor told Forum 18 that "they just don't want to allow it." In the nearby town of Mosty, a Pentecostal pastor was fined nine months' minimum wages for leading a small unregistered church. The court verdict notes as evidence of wrongdoing that "at meetings they read the Gospel, discuss questions of religious faith, sing songs and conduct religious rites." In Grodno itself, Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk was summoned by the senior state regional religious affairs official, Igor Popov, who told him that his leadership of a worship service in a private home violated the Administrative Code. His case has now been sent to the city's Oktyabr District Court. All three communities point out that the state's actions violate the Belarusian Constitution.
23 June 2008
Belarus has imposed a fine of more than two months' average wages on a Baptist who "organised choir singing and conducted conversations on religious topics" outside Ushachi public market, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. After a plain clothes policeman told a group of Baptists from outside the area to stop, Vladimir Burshtyn replied that they were not disturbing public order and cited religious freedom guarantees in Belarus' Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The fine is, to Forum 18's knowledge, the highest yet imposed on Baptists for unregistered religious activity. Higher fines have been imposed on members of other communities. Olga Karchevskaya, an official who witnessed the incident, defended the state's response and the Religion Law's restrictions because "we need to know who's coming to us - they could be destructive or acting against people's interests." In a separate incident, a Baptist congregation's worship in Osipovichi was interrupted by officials, and the congregation's deacon was fined about two week's average wages for leading an unregistered religious community.
22 May 2008
Concern is growing across Europe about the deterioration of freedom of conscience in Belarus. Few are aware, however, that Belarus was once a haven of religious freedom for people fleeing persecution in Western Europe. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Antoni Bokun, pastor of Minsk's John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, describes how Belarusians' historical experience has taught them that "religious freedom elevates our nation, whereas religious un-freedom leads to the darkest and most tragic consequences." In 1573 - almost 400 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Belarusians adopted one of Europe's first legal declarations upholding religious freedom for all, when many other European states executed people for their faith. Pastor Antoni maintains that it is this deep-rooted experience which lies behind today's campaign against religious freedom restrictions. "Inspired by our long history of freedom of conscience, Belarusians continue to work and hope for the day that our country will reclaim its heritage as a land of religious freedom." In 2007 Pastor Bokun spent three days in prison and was heavily fined for leading worship services.
12 May 2008
Belarus discourages the commemoration of Orthodox Christians killed for their faith by the Soviet Union, Forum 18 News Service has found. Today's KGB secret police have sought to have icons of the New Martyrs, as they are known by the Orthodox Church, removed from Grodno Cathedral. Russian Orthodox Deacon Andrei Kurayev told Forum 18 that "Some comrades from the local KGB asked local clergy why they were inciting the people in such a way." While there was no official order to remove the icons – "it was on the level of a chat" - Kurayev reported that Bishop Artemi (Kishchenko) of Grodno and Volkovysk refused to take them down. "He told the KGB that he couldn't rewrite history." KGB officers also often monitor visitors to Kuropaty, where New Martyrs are probably among mass graves of Stalinist repression victims, a local Orthodox source told Forum 18. The act of going there – even to light candles - is "fraught with tension" with the current Belarusian regime, according to the source. An Orthodox chapel planned for the site has never been built.
29 April 2008
Three human rights defenders have been punished for organising the mass petition to challenge the 2002 Religion Law. The three were each fined two months' average wages in late April, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "There is a procedure for such initiatives in any democratic society, and they didn't follow it," Yuri Kulakovsky, chair of the parliamentary Human Rights, Ethnic Relations and Media Committee, insisted to Forum 18. He named Norway as a country that he claimed imposes such procedures. However, Gunnar Martin Ekeløve-Slydal of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee confirmed to Forum 18 that in Norway there is "no need at all to ask for permission to collect signatures in support of peaceful activity". Kulakovsky also claimed that the Religion Law's requirement for compulsory registration of religious organisations, geographical restrictions on their activity, a requirement for state permission for services outside designated houses of worship and a ban on foreign citizens founding or leading religious organisations are fully in line with Belarus' Constitution.
14 April 2008
The Belarusian state appears to have scaled down plans to turn a baroque Catholic monastery into a luxury hotel and entertainment complex, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Unofficial reports suggest that the cultural monument will now house a mini-hotel and/or museum. As Minsk Catholics marked a third year of daily prayer vigils outside the monastery's St Joseph Church, however, there is still no sign that the government intends to fulfil a 17-year-old promise to return the building to believers. Local Catholics have maintained to Forum 18 that a nationwide petition for the return of the monastery, which gained 50,000 signatures, led to a more modest development project. Protestants active in a separate petition to change the country's harsh Religion Law joined the Catholic campaign. No state officials were available to discuss the issue with Forum 18. Although some 95 per cent of historical Orthodox churches in Belarus have been returned, all but a handful of Jewish synagogues remain state property. Lutherans and Calvinists have also had little success in winning back their historical churches.