BELARUS: KGB raid Moscow Patriarchate fellowship group
When six KGB officers raided a prayer meeting of the Transfiguration Fellowship back in March at the home of Sergei Nesterovich in Gomel, this represented the first time to Forum 18's knowledge that adherents of the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate have been targeted for their religious activity in Belarus since the Soviet period. One Fellowship member present during the three-hour raid told Forum 18 News Service that the KGB told them openly the group was raided "because we were conducting unsanctioned religious activity – they said we were a pseudo-Christian sect engaged in the recruitment of members!" Nesterovich was issued with an official warning in April, but has appealed against it. Officials denied knowledge of the raid or the warning to Forum 18. "Yes, it is unusual, but this is Belarus, and our [Religion] Law is unique," the Fellowship member told Forum 18. The 2002 Religion Law lays down tight restrictions on all religious activity and – in defiance of international human rights commitments – bans unregistered religious activity, especially worship in private homes without specific approval. Protestants are the most frequent victims of these restrictions.
The group is part of an informal network of Orthodox brotherhoods, the Moscow-based Transfiguration Fellowship under the spiritual directorship of Fr Georgi Kochetkov, who serves at Moscow's Novodevichy Monastery. Known for his reformist theological views, Fr Georgi was temporarily under a church ban during the late 1990s. His Moscow-based St Philaret Orthodox Christian Institute was licensed by the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of Religious Education and Catechisation in 2004.
According to the Gomel brotherhood member, the group meets for Bible fellowship and to discuss religious literature after Sunday liturgy and also during the week. It was during one such meeting in March at the apartment of member Sergei Nesterovich, he said, that six KGB officers conducted a three-hour search of the premises, downloading data from a computer and confiscating some of Nesterovich's notebooks, as well as questioning and photographing some of those present. The brotherhood member added that the KGB officers introduced themselves as such and explained that they were acting at the request of the local state authorities, "because we were conducting unapproved religious activity – they said we were a pseudo-Christian sect engaged in the recruitment of members!"
In late April a Belarusian Orthodox website, www.churchby.info, reported that Gomel Regional Public Prosecutor Oleg Polovinko issued an official warning to Nesterovich on 12 April. This stated that a check-up by Gomel Regional KGB Directorate had established that he was breaking the law by leading an unregistered religious community and "disseminating religious teachings". Nesterovich could be fined or detained under the Administrative Violations Code if targeted a second time.
The top religious affairs official for Gomel Region, Mikhail Zhukevich told Forum 18 on 5 June that he had no idea who Sergei Nesterovich was or whether there had been any 12 April warning. "If a group is not registered, then another state organ could have issued such a warning," he remarked. "It's written in black and white in the [2002 Religion] Law – all religious communities must be registered." Forum 18 then asked Zhukevich for his view of someone leading a religious community and disseminating religious teachings without registration. "That's illegal," he replied, before again insisting that he knew nothing about the specific case.
Also asked by Forum 18 about the 12 April warning issued to Nesterovich, a spokeswoman at Gomel Regional Public Prosecutor's Office maintained on 1 June that it "did not have that information" and "would probably not be able to help". Reached on 5 June, a spokeswoman at the Office's Department for Public Relations similarly maintained that it was the first time she had heard about the warning. "We have very many cases here," she explained to Forum 18. "I only know about what we put out to the media, and we haven't issued any information like that."
Currently unavailable for comment, Nesterovich has appealed against the warning, according to the Gomel brotherhood member, but has yet to receive a response. He stressed that the group is in full canonical communion with the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), and that its members have never encountered similar problems previously. While speculating that the incident could have been either a misunderstanding or meant as a warning, he also saw it as a consequence of the "rather discriminatory" 2002 Religion Law, under which a religious community requires 20 members to qualify for state registration, "which we don't have".
The Belarusian Orthodox Church supported the 2002 Religion Law. Among formal proposals made by the Church as the Law was being discussed were a ban on all but irregular worship meetings in private homes and an increase in the minimum number of people needed to register a religious community from ten to 20. Both these proposals were adopted.
Protestants – whether unregistered or registered but without state permission to conduct worship at a certain location - have been the confession most affected by police raids since the 2002 Law was adopted. In the most recent case, Pastor Antoni Bokun of John the Baptist Pentecostal Church was handed down a three-day prison sentence on 4 June (see F18News 5 June 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=969). He was released at approximately midday on 6 June.
Until now the only Orthodox communities to receive similar treatment have been those independent of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) (see F18News 9 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=684).
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko publicly stresses the role of Orthodoxy in the country. However, Forum 18 has found little evidence that state support for the Moscow Patriarchate is more than nominal (see F18News 10 August 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=826). (END)
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=888.
A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=806.
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru
5 June 2007
One week after being fined for leading Sunday worship in John the Baptist Pentecostal Church in the capital Minsk, Pastor Antoni Bokun has again been punished for leading its 3 June communion service. The following evening (4 June), a court handed him a three-day prison term, making him the third person to be imprisoned in post-Soviet Belarus for religious activity. Local lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18 News Service that two police officers interrupted the Sunday communion service to arrest Bokun. In response to Bokun's second arrest, the imminent deportation of a Polish Pentecostal and other harassment of religious communities, 7,000 Christians attended a religious freedom prayer service on the evening of 3 June outside Grace Pentecostal Church in Minsk. Lukanin said the service was filmed from nearby buildings by people he assumed to be plain-clothes police. Participants drew up an appeal to President Aleksandr Lukashenko calling for the restrictive 2002 Religion Law to be brought into line with the Constitution. That same evening, state television channel ONT broadcast an item warning of the dangers of "neo-Pentecostal sects".
30 May 2007
A fine and a second deportation order were handed down today (30 May) on Polish Pentecostal Jaroslaw Lukasik to punish him for his activity with his church in the capital Minsk. The authorities claimed he was "illegally" involved in the church's 27 May Pentecost service which was raided by police. He was ordered to leave Belarus by the end of 7 June and has been banned from returning for five years, he told Forum 18 News Service. He was also fined one month's minimum wage. A Citizenship and Migration Department official told Forum 18 Lukasik's deportation was ordered "for repeated violations of the regime governing the presence of foreigners on the territory of Belarus". Lukasik – whose wife and their three children are Belarusian citizens - insists the order is unjust. "I was present at the service and prayed – that's normal participation," he told Forum 18. "But even though we produced a statement signed by a whole list of church members saying that I did not preach that Sunday, the police insisted on their own version."
30 May 2007
Protestant communities continue to face great difficulties in rebuilding premises for worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. A typical example is a Grodno region Baptist congregation which wants to rebuild its wooden 1920s church building. "We want to rebuild in brick, but the authorities refuse, without giving a definite reason," a church member told Forum 18. State religious affairs and local council officials have been evasive when Forum 18 has asked them about the church's problems. A related problem is the near impossibility of getting property officially redesignated so that it can be legally used for worship buildings. This problem mainly affects Protestant communities, as unlike the other major comunities in the country - Orthodox and Catholic - they are much less likely to own their own worship buildings. Non-Christian communities, such as Jews and Hare Krishna devotees, are present only in small numbers. One Baptist thinks that the official status of buildings is not the main problem. "The situation will never be resolved as long as we are regarded as sectarians," Pastor Aleksandr Knysh told Forum 18.