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.
29 May 2007
Protestant communities in Belarus who do not own their own property continue to find meeting for worship difficult, Forum 18 News Service has found. Despite being barred from renting premises in Grodno, for example, the charismatic Living Word Church has found that "our brother Catholics in this town are letting us meet in their church." Under the Religion Law, registered religious organisations may rent secular premises, but only with a contract and the approval of the relevant local state authority. A consistent pattern has emerged of those who control premises for rent backing out of contracts with Protestants soon after the authorities are informed. One Protestant in Minsk described this to Forum 18 as being "like a suitcase with a false bottom." Such property problems mainly affect Protestant communities as, unlike other communities, they are much less likely to be in possession of historical worship buildings. These are the main premises within which religious events do not require state permission under the Religion Law.
28 May 2007
Ten state officials raided the Pentecost service of John the Baptist Pentecostal Church in the capital Minsk yesterday (27 May). Pastor Antoni Bokun was arrested, held overnight at a police station and fined 20 times the minimum monthly wage today (28 May) for holding an "unsanctioned mass meeting", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The church – which has state registration – has been refused permission to rent premises for public worship, so has to meet in a private home. Local lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18 that Pastor Bokun told the court he had broken the law only because it went against the law of God. Fellow church member Jaroslaw Lukasik, a Polish citizen married to a Belarusian, who faces deportation in early June, was also held for several hours. Although he did not preach at the service, he faces administrative charges on accusations of conducting unauthorised religious activity as a foreign citizen and hence violating laws on the presence of foreign citizens in Belarus.
17 May 2007
Following the expulsion in March of US citizen Travis Decker in retaliation for his active work with a Baptist church in the capital Minsk, the Belarusian authorities have moved to deport another foreigner on similar grounds. Polish citizen Jaroslaw Lukasik told Forum 18 News Service he must leave Belarus by 7 June, although his wife and children are Belarusian citizens. The KGB accused him of participating in "illegal religious activity by Protestant communities and gatherings of radically inclined, politicised groupings". Both Decker and Lukasik were accused of harming national security. Other Protestants, as well as Catholic priests and nuns, have already had permission to remain in Belarus curtailed. Belarus' 2001 National Security Concept describes the activity of foreign religious organisations and missionaries as a threat. Israeli Rabbi Borukh Lamdan told Forum 18 he is still trying to get his permission to work in Bobruisk renewed.
16 May 2007
Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants in Belarus have joined together to launch a nationwide campaign to gather signatures calling for a change to the country's restrictive Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service notes. The organisers state that "the Law violates the rights of all people, even atheists." Petitions to change the law require at least 50,000 signatures to be considered by the Constitutional Court. As of this evening (16 May), more than 10,000 Belarusian citizens had signed the petition challenging state violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. The campaign organisers affirm that the rights to life, free speech and freedom of belief are inalienable, stating that "because we have them from birth, they are given to us by God and not the government. Since the government does not give us these rights, they have no right to take them away." After one Minsk-based Orthodox priest joined the campaign, the Belarusian Orthodox Church issued a statement rejecting all connection with the petition and calling on Orthodox Christians not to take part.
4 April 2007
A Russian Christian musical festival in the Siberian republic of Sakha (Yakutia) had to abruptly move from Yakutia State University after a contract was cancelled, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The university's Prorector stated that this was due to a telephone call "from above." This is the latest of a series of disputes between local Protestant organisations and the local authorities. One official, Afanasy Nikolayev, claimed that disputes were caused by some religious organisations "pursuing a policy in the republic aimed at dividing the population along religious lines (..) in practice they are realising the directive given by Adolf Hitler in his time (..) to encourage any form of disunity and facilitate the appearance of the most varied kinds of religious sects in every little village." Following earlier Protestant concern at the high degree of state involvement in what was described as a Russian Orthodox conference, at which delegates questioned Russian constitutional rights, another official described Protestant concerns as "baseless and contrived" and wrote that "by your tactless actions you violate the right and freedom of believers of other confessions."
12 March 2007
New Life charismatic church in Belarus is no nearer securing the use of its own building and land for worship, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is due to Belarusian state procrastination, even though the church ended a hunger strike in October 2006 after a senior state official strongly indicated that a resolution could be reached through the courts. However, "the judge had all the necessary information to make a decision two months ago," the church's lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18. "There are no objective reasons for this delay." The Higher Economic Court has postponed its ruling five times since December 2006, with the next hearing being due on 19 March. Lukanin points to two possible reasons for the delays. Firstly, the late 2006 gas price dispute with Russia gives Belarus less reason to support institutions associated with Russia, such as the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Secondly, Lukanin thinks, the government is "hoping that international attention will go away." Tight state controls on property use by religious communities - particularly in the capital, Minsk – have markedly restricted Protestants and Hare Krishna devotees.
28 February 2007
Illegal religious activity is not the reason why a group of US English-language teachers were deported from Belarus earlier this month, Forum 18 News Service has been told. According to recent media reports, unauthorised religious activity led to one of two police warnings that formed the grounds for their deportation. An Interior Ministry spokesman even told one news agency that students were found singing religious songs and with Bibles on their desks when police raided what was supposedly a seminar in conversational English at a Baptist church in Mogilev. The region's religious affairs official, however, has told Forum 18 that the Americans did not violate the 2002 Religion Law. The head of the charity which invited the group also insisted to Forum 18 that its activity was not religious and that teaching took place at the church simply because there was no rental fee. Elsewhere in Mogilev region, an Israeli rabbi is trying to overturn the state's decision not to renew his religious work permit.
12 January 2007
Seven Polish Catholic priests and five nuns were forced out of Belarus at the end of 2006, Forum 18 News Service notes. Fr Mariusz Iliaszewicz told Forum 18 that his high level of activity, including youth and alcohol rehabilitation meetings open to all, was responsible for the expulsion decision. Another expelled priest, Fr Jaroslaw Hrynaszkiewicz, expressed similar thoughts to Forum 18. Fr Mariusz commented that "They don't want priests who work and try to develop their faith. Anything a priest says is considered political – if he talks about the lack of truth or freedom in Belarus he is immediately considered an opponent of the system. But there are grave violations of human rights in Belarus." Speaking of a protest hunger strike – which has now stopped - Fr Mariusz noted that he was astonished by the parishioners' own initiative. "They overcame fear - solidarity is beginning even in these little villages." A parishioner told Forum 18 that a Belarusian parish priest was now in the parish and that local Catholics have been given "no reasons, no answers," for the expulsion. However, Forum 18 was told "we all support" their expelled priest. The Belarusian Consulate in Warsaw has warned priests on short visits "not to engage in any religious activity."
20 December 2006
Catholics in Belarus have halted a hunger-strike, after receiving endorsement for church construction from the Grodno city administration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Parish priest Fr Aleksandr Shemet stressed to Forum 18 that the Church has not received permission to build, but permission to "gather documents" and "ask for final permission from the President." Parishioners are praying for all Belarusian churches without a building – including Minsk's New Life charismatic Church - and for the 12 Polish Catholic priests and nuns refused permission to work in Belarus after 31 December 2006. "We want not only the Catholic Church, but all Christians to be able to practise their religion freely," Fr Shemet remarks. "So we will pray that believers are not afraid to demand their rights." The 12 priests and nuns have been denied permission to continue working in Belarus, despite appeals from 12,000 people including Catholic bishops. New Life Church is supporting the Catholics of Grodno and praying for a forthcoming court session, on whether moves to terminate New Life's land rights and force the sale of its building are lawful.
14 December 2006
"Killing a frog by warming up the water very gradually" is how one Protestant describes Belarus' religious policy in Forum 18 News Service's survey analysis of religious freedom. President Aleksandr Lukashenko has brought religious believers back to the late Soviet period, legally unable to practise religion in community without explicit state permission. State registration does not guarantee religious freedom, as has become increasingly clear in the spheres of youth activity and building and hiring places of worship. The state's tendency to harass religious communities for alleged "irregularities" means that some communities are voluntarily restricting or even stopping religious activity. A major reason for the state's eagerness to control religious communities is its preservation of an extensive Soviet-era secret police, religious affairs and ideology bureaucracy. Recently, the state has started focussing upon Protestant evangelicals as a political threat, one of whom notes that "it is not Jesus' example to sit down and accept what happens in your community." As state pressure steadily mounts, Forum 18 observes that religious believers are increasingly putting aside confessional differences in organised resistance.
29 November 2006
When Catholic parishioners in Grodno announced a hunger strike to begin on 1 December if officials fail to overturn their decade-long refusal to allow them to build a new church, they took their inspiration from protests by New Life Church. This Minsk-based charismatic congregation held a high-profile hunger strike in October to try to prevent the authorities seizing their church. "We are grateful to the Protestants for giving us courage," Fr Aleksandr Shemet declared. Forum 18 News Service notes that - after exhausting other methods of negotiation with the state authorities – some religious believers are adopting tactics more usually associated with secular political activism in their pursuit of religious freedom in the country that has the tightest controls on religious activity anywhere in Europe. Forum 18 also notes that mainstream opposition activists are in turn drawing on religious ideas.