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BELARUS: Top official says "no change" to harsh Religion Law

As a mass petition to amend the harsh 2002 Religion Law reaches 30,000 of a targeted 50,000 signatures, Vice-premier Aleksandr Kosinets has categorically rejected any changes to it. He was speaking at an unprecedented round table of religious leaders in Minsk on 19 September. "The Protestants suggested amendments, but he said that this is the law we have and it must be applied, it's final," Yakov Basin of the Religious Association of Progressive Jewish Communities, one of those present, told Forum 18 News Service. "It's clear that the state doesn't want to lose control over the religious life of the people." Kosinets also rejected the suggestion to introduce a category of "religious group" which would not need state registration. The law's stipulation that all religious activity without registration is illegal has led to raids, fines and detentions.

BELARUS: Baptist fined for church family holiday

A state official has defended as lenient a fine of almost two weeks' average wages imposed on the Baptist Viktor Orekhov for organising a church summer holiday. "What European country would tolerate a group of people doing what they like, completely ignoring the state and law, not responding to the authorities' comments?" religious affairs official Vasili Marchenko told Forum 18 News Service. Baptists in the south-western Brest Region were denied permission to rent leisure facilities they had used in earlier years. After they went ahead in June with a camp on private land, police invaded the camp to question the children and threatened to close it by force. Orekhov was fined on 24 August for the creation or leadership of a religious organisation without state registration. "We are to blame, it seems, for being believers," Orekhov pointed out. "This is why I was prosecuted and fined." This is the first significant fine in over a year to be handed down to a member of the Baptist Council of Churches in Belarus. In July an ideology official tried to break up a charismatic church's summer camp.

BELARUS: Ideology official attempts to disband church camp

A regional Ideology Department official in Belarus has tried to break up a family holiday camp for members of a Minsk charismatic church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Oleg Bobrik demanded that all religious activity and distribution of religious literature cease, church member and lawyer Dina Shavtsova told Forum 18, "even though there wasn't any literature." The local district executive committee [local council] had given written permission for the family holiday camp, but Bobrik claimed that the camp did not conform to either the Religion Law or an Education Ministry instruction regulating health camps. Bobrik then issued an order – handwritten in ballpoint pen on plain paper – ordering the camp to be closed down unless certain points were resolved. These included a list of participants being provided, but "no one is prepared to give him [Bobrik] a list of participants, as that is unlawful," Shavtsova told Forum 18. "And we'll carry on the camp, of course." The family holiday camp continued as planned. Bobrik has refused to answer Forum 18's questions about his actions.

BELARUS: Religious freedom campaigners detained

Belarusian police have, within two days, detained 19 Catholics and Protestants petitioning to change the harsh 2002 Religion Law. The detentions happened after signatures were collected at a prominent Catholic pilgrimage site, Budslav, and in the capital Minsk. One of those held, Sergei Lukanin, told Forum 18 News Service from Minsk's Frunze District Police Station that he and five other campaigners were "sitting in an office with three policemen who refuse to allow us to leave or to explain why we are here." Two of those detained, 16-year-old Feodora Andreyevskaya and 14-year-old Yuliya Kosheleva, were held as they collected campaign materials on freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Also detained was Denis Sadovsky, secretary of the Belarusian Christian Democracy movement. Much literature was confiscated by police and has not been returned. This included 7,000 newsletters and 500 copies of a booklet, "Monitoring Violations of the Rights of Christians in Belarus in 2006," detailing religious freedom violations reported by independent Belarusian media sources and Forum 18 News Service. Petitions to change the law require at least 50,000 signatures to be considered by the Constitutional Court, and over 25,000 signatures have so far been collected.

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.

BELARUS: Three days' prison for Pentecostal pastor

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".

BELARUS: Second deportation order and fine for Polish Pentecostal

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."

BELARUS: Protestants still barred from rebuilding premises

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.

BELARUS: Rented property still barred to Protestants

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.

BELARUS: Pentecostals raided at Pentecost

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.

BELARUS: Foreign Protestants expelled for "harming national security"

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.

BELARUS: Christians campaign to change harsh Religion Law

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.