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BELARUS: Why was Protestant bishop deported?

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.

BELARUS: Christian music festival banned

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)."

BELARUS: Orthodox complain of KGB intimidation at village funeral

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 doe not have state registration. The parish is under the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) Provisional Supreme Church Authority, which is not part of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, Fr Ioann 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.

BELARUS: Baptism banned, a fine and a threat for leading worship

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.

BELARUS: Highest fine yet for Baptists

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 weeks' average wages for leading an unregistered religious community.

BELARUS: "We are reclaiming our history as a land of religious freedom"

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.

BELARUS: KGB pressure Orthodox not to venerate Soviet-era martyrs

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.

BELARUS: Official justifies rejection of religious freedom petition

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.

BELARUS: Baroque monastery to be luxury hotel - or returned to Catholics?

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.

BELARUS: Religious freedom petition rejected as pressure on Protestants continues

Pavel Nozdrya, a member of the charismatic Jesus Christ Church in the southern city of Mozyr who helped gather signatures on a religious freedom petition, told Forum 18 News Service he lost his job as an electrician at the local university in mid-March. He was one of seven members of a church youth group meeting in a private house on 29 February which was raided by local ideology officials. A police officer who visited the same house on Sunday 9 March said he was responding to a warning that a human sacrifice would take place there. Nozdrya attributes the harassment to the church's involvement in the mass petition to amend the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, which was handed to the authorities in late February. Government bodies rejected the petition in late March, claiming that reports of religious freedom violations "do not correspond with reality". Pavel Severinets, an Orthodox Christian involved in the campaign, and members of the Minsk-based charismatic New Life church face prosecution.

BELARUS: Political prisoners denied religious freedom

Belarusian and international law upholds the rights of prisoners and detainees to pastoral visits, communal worship and religious literature. But recent prisoners of conscience have described their particular experience of violations to Forum 18 News Service. Artur Finkevich was allowed to attend Catholic Mass just three times during 18 months in jail. "Even though I was constantly filing requests. I think they saw not allowing me to go as part of my re-education." Detained in Minsk since 21 January, political prisoner Andrei Kim has had "no response whatsoever" to his request for a visit by a Protestant pastor, his mother told Forum 18. One political prisoner reported that Catholic and Orthodox ordinary prisoners were forced to work at Easter and Christmas. Belarusian officials have insisted that prisoners' religious freedom is respected. There are currently no prisoners jailed purely for their religious convictions in Belarus.

BELARUS: Religious freedom petition delivered, but Protestant fines continue

Belarus seems to be increasing its use of technical building regulations to harass Protestant churches, Forum 18 News Service notes. The fire safety demands for which one church was fined would have involved moving walls, Pastor Mikhail Kabushko, a Pentecostal in Brest Region, told Forum 18. "Every time they check, there is something new. Even if we were to fulfil everything now, there's no guarantee they won't come up with something more." Separately, the pastor of a Minsk-based charismatic church, who also thinks health and safety demands are being used to oppress Protestants, faces prosecution for refusing to admit state inspectors onto church property. Officials have avoided answering Forum 18's questions. A 50,000-signature, 3,442-page long petition from across Belarus calling for a change to the Religion Law has been submitted to the Constitutional Court, Parliament and Presidential Administration. The Constitutional Court has replied that appeals should be submitted via President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Parliament or other authorised state bodies. These state bodies now have a month to reply to the petition.