BELARUS: Second massive fine for organising religious worship
On 23 September, two months after a regular Sunday morning service of the embattled New Life charismatic church in Minsk was raided by police, a court fined the church's administrator Vasily Yurevich the equivalent of 160 times the minimum monthly wage for organising an "illegal" service. Yurevich told Forum 18 News Service that Judge Natalya Kuznetsova ignored church members' insistence that he had not organised the service, while the court decision maintained that the judge "believes offender Yurevich is trying to evade responsibility for what has been committed". This is Yurevich's second massive fine and he fears further fines in the wake of a police raid on the church's 4 September service. In separate cases, one Baptist punished for organising "illegal" worship was able to overturn his fine in August, but two other Baptists have been fined in recent months. One was ordered to take down the church sign.
The fine – equivalent to 160 times the country's official minimum monthly wage – is the second handed down to Yurevich for violating Article 167, Part 1 of the republic's Administrative Violations Code. This punishes an initial violation of "the established procedure for holding religious events" with a warning, a fine of between 20 and 150 times the minimum monthly wage or between three and 15 days' detention, and a fine of between 150 and 300 times the minimum monthly wage or between 10 and 15 days' detention for offences committed within one year of the first. Yurevich was first fined 3,600,000 Belarusian roubles (10,059 Norwegian kroner, 1,215 Euros or 1,654 US dollars) on 28 December 2004 for organising a similarly "illegal" worship service (see F18News 29 December 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=480).
A copy of the 23 September court decision received by Forum 18 notes that Yurevich "took part in a religious gathering of prayers and preaching at 11 am on 24 July 2005 in a building not specially designed for religious events without the permission of the district administration". Three police officers conducting a check-up at that time testified to the court that Yurevich was present at the gathering, at which they saw "a man preaching on a stage decorated with religious items, urging those present in the hall to turn to god [sic]". The three also noted that members of the congregation providing security suggested they approach Yurevich and carried out his instructions. Judge Kuznetsova, concludes the court decision, "believes offender Yurevich is trying to evade responsibility for what has been committed" and has no grounds not to trust the testimonies of the witnesses, "since they are consistent and do not contradict one another".
A New Life Church report of the previous day's hearing at Minsk's Moscow District Court notes that Judge Kuznetsova described the church as a "sect" and suggested its members "club together" to pay the fine.
New Life Church has been worshipping at a disused cowshed it purchased in 2002 ever since being barred from renting a local house of culture in September 2004. As Vasily Yurevich told procuracy officials in December 2004, the church was earlier refused requests to rent other public facilities by district administrations throughout Minsk. The 2002 religion law requires state permission for religious gatherings in premises not specially designed for worship, but the Minsk municipal authorities have consistently refused to grant both this - on the grounds that the building is a cowshed - as well as permission to reconstruct the building as a church, latterly maintaining that it is to be demolished as part of Minsk's general development plan (see F18News 21 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=516).
Yurevich told Forum 18 that he intends to appeal the 24 September decision and has not paid either this or last year's fine, which he recently referred to the Supreme Court after an earlier appeal against it was rejected by Minsk City Court (see F18News 19 May 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=565). He also suggested that further prosecution is likely, since police officers again checked up on New Life's Sunday morning service on 4 September. According to Yurevich, New Life's Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko has paid a fine of 720,000 Belarusian roubles (2,090 Norwegian kroner, 255 Euros or 330 US dollars) for similarly organising "illegal" worship, but is also in the process of appealing it (see F18News 23 March 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=530).
The Baptist Council of Churches, whose congregations refuse on principle to register with the state authorities in post-Soviet countries, have reported fines for worship in private homes from time to time ever since the adoption of the 2002 religion law (see F18News 25 November 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=463). On 19 August they reported that a local court cancelled a fine of 127,500 Belarusian roubles (385 Norwegian kroner, 49 Euros or 59 US dollars) handed down to Mogilev church member Nikolai Dolbun on 12 July for leading an unregistered religious organisation in violation of Article 193 of the Administrative Offences Code (see F18News 28 July 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=619).
Since then, however, local Baptists reported that Valeri Ryzhuk of Drogichin (Brest region) received a court summons on 16 August after refusing to pay a fine of 51,000 Belarusian roubles (154 Norwegian kroner, 20 Euros or 24 US dollars) handed down to him on 9 June for similarly leading an unregistered religious organisation. The Baptist Council of Churches also reported that police officers and state officials called at the home of Igor Shpakovsky of Staryye Dorogi (Minsk Region) three times during August, ordering him to remove his prayer house sign and fining him 25,000 Belarusian roubles (75 Norwegian kroner, 10 Euros or 12 US dollars) for incorrect land use.
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=478
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru
22 September 2005
Despite a 15 September promise "as an officer" from Belarus' deputy interior minister General Viktor Filistovich that he would help resolve the predicament of the embattled New Life Church at a further meeting with top religious affairs officials, the deadlock for the Minsk-based charismatic congregation has not been broken. Filistovich failed to appear for a 19 September meeting and junior officials simply repeated earlier demands that the church cannot retain use of a cow-shed it bought in 2002 which it has converted into a church. "Now state officials have no moral right to tell us that we have not exhausted all peaceful methods of resolving our problems," Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko commented. Church administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18 News Service that the congregation is currently praying about what to do next. The congregation has been denied re-registration, rendering all its worship services illegal, and church leaders have been fined.
1 September 2005
City authorities in the capital Minsk have told the embattled charismatic New Life church that the land it bought with its church building in 2002 is to be confiscated. The city claims the congregation is using the land on which the church stands "not in accordance with its designation", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Our members have paid 13,000 US dollars in taxes on it – they can't say that it's not ours," New Life's administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18. At a 30 August meeting, church members decided to begin a round-the-clock prayer vigil, challenge the proposed confiscation in court and launch a campaign to keep their land. The church has been denied re-registration by the authorities which under Belarusian law, in defiance of international human rights agreements, renders all activity by the 600-strong congregation illegal.
28 July 2005
The Belarusian religion law's insistence on religious communities being registered at a non-residential address, as well as state approval for religious activities outside purpose-built places of worship, creates obstacles for Protestants in particular, Forum 18 News Service has found. For example, the charismatic New Generation Church's 150-strong congregation in Baranovichi faces long-running problems, caused by the authorities' refusal to allow a warehouse the church owns to be converted into a church. Reasons given vary between multi-storey housing being planned for the site, and that it will be used for a stadium's car park. Another example is the Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church, which faces continuing obstruction in using a cowshed for worship. The latest threat, Forum 18 has learnt, is that the city is considering ending the church's right to the land beneath the cowshed. Officials claim that the cowshed can only be used only for its designated purpose – even though animal husbandry is illegal in Minsk city. Forum 18 has found that other Protestant churches throughout Belarus face similar obstructions from officials.