3 October 2006
"No reasons whatsoever" have been given for Belarus' decision to refuse annual visa renewal for 12 Polish Catholic priests and nuns, the Dean of Grodno's Catholic Cathedral has told Forum 18 News Service. The 7 priests and 5 nuns have been working in different parishes of Grodno Diocese for about ten years, but have been ordered to leave Belarus by 2007. "This is the first time so many have been refused permission to renew their visas," he told Forum 18, adding that nothing of the kind has happened in the other three Catholic dioceses in Belarus. Grodno region's main religious affairs official did not answer Forum 18's questions. But Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk maintained that "sufficient argumentation, foundation" is necessary in order for a foreign priest to come to Belarus. Of the 350 or so Catholic priests in Belarus, more than half are foreign citizens. Two did not have their annual visas renewed at the end of 2005, and were thus forced to return to their native Poland.
3 October 2006
Catholic priest Fr Antoni Koczko has not been charged for serving Mass without state permission in the Belarusian capital Minsk, despite a court appearance, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Fr Antoni could have faced deportation - the punishment for repeat violations or one "crude violation" of a state decree on the activity of foreign religious workers. Fr Antoni was, after saying Mass in a Minsk parish where he does not normally work, approached by a man and woman in plain clothes. They accused him of breaking the law and escorted him to a court. One Belarusian Catholic commented that the pair "are always sitting in our church. You can't fail to spot them." Another priest told Forum 18 that the authorities did check whether priests were serving only at state-approved locations. After just such a check-up, he himself had been recently fined, but he pointed out to Forum 18 that this could be regarded as support – "we know from the Bible that if this is happening you're doing the right thing" – and as a source of income for the law enforcement agencies, "they have to get it from somewhere."
28 September 2006
Baptising 70 people in a lake has led to the pastor of one of Belarus' largest Pentecostal churches being fined over 150 times the minimum wage, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is, to Forum 18's knowledge, the first time that a congregation of a mainstream Protestant Union has had such a huge fine imposed for religious activity without state permission. Judge Oksana Kusheva of Baranovichi Municipal Court imposed the fine on Pastor Sergei Poznyakovich and fined the Pentecostal Union's bishop for Brest region, Nikolai Kurkayev, a significantly smaller amount. Baranovichi's state official dealing with religious affairs, Ruslan Krutko, told Forum 18 that Pastor Poznyakovich's fine was so large because the church performed similarly unsanctioned baptisms in the same lake in 2005. Confirming that the authorities had not responded formally to a request to be allowed to perform the baptisms, Krutko nonetheless insisted that official permission must be obtained in advance. A church member commented to Forum 18 that "if we are fined again within a year, the authorities will have grounds to close the church down."
22 September 2006
In Minsk, the embattled charismatic New Life Church has yet to receive the written verdict of a July court decision forcing it to sell the building where its thousand members worship. Neither was the church informed about another recent court hearing to consider its right to use the land beneath the building. Now, however, "we are relying on God, not the courts," the church's lawyer told Forum 18 News Service. New Life has still not been given any explanation why a city Development Plan – offered, apparently against Belarusian law, as the reason why the church must sell its building to the state – may not be altered to include a Protestant church, except that this is "not envisaged". Once New Life receives what it believes is a greatly reduced price for its building, it has ten days in which to move out.
20 September 2006
Despite tight restrictions on missionary activity in the highly restrictive Belarusian Religion Law - and approval for such activity hard to get – religious believers still have one unexpected way of sharing their faith in public: through popular music. Salvation – a Christian group from the western region of Brest – has often won top place each week on state television's "Silver Marathon" pop music programme since the summer, while several Hare Krishna groups – among them rap artists – have performed at the prestigious annual Slavic Bazaar festival in the north-eastern city of Vitebsk in recent years. Asked by Forum 18 News Service whether the prevalence of religious themes in Belarusian popular music might be the consequence of extensive state restrictions on organised church activity, Aleksandr Patlis – lead singer of another Christian band New Generation - remarked "if they try to stop God one way, we'll try another".
17 August 2006
Officials from Smorgon District Executive Committee and the local departments for Hygiene, Minors and Emergency Situations, as well as soldiers and police, have disrupted a private holiday of families from a number of Minsk charismatic churches, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. After harassing the camp from the start of the holiday, officials claimed on the second day of the camp that it breached health and safety rules and soldiers loaded families onto an inadequate bus, for them to be deported back to Minsk under police escort. As the camp – which was not an official church event - was in the grounds of a house owned by church members, "we didn't think we had to get permission for it," Andrei Frolikhin of Word of Faith Church told Forum 18. State officials in Minsk were reportedly also involved. Church members are complaining about the disruption to their holiday, noting "that the majority of the children and parents are believers of various Protestant churches is no legal basis for interference." The authorities have not answered any questions from Forum 18 about their disruption of the private holiday.
10 August 2006
Belarus' President Aleksandr Lukashenko publicly stresses the role of Orthodoxy. However, Forum 18 News Service has found little evidence that state support for the Moscow Patriarchate is more than nominal. For example, every month a network of Ideological Departments sends state policy on topics such as youth, trade or housing to every state organ in the country. However, there appears to be no insistence upon familiarity with Orthodox doctrine. One Orthodox priest commented to Forum 18 that the 12 apostles would be illegal under Belarus' Religion Law. He also noted that registered religious organisations are banned from using state school premises, even outside school hours, and that there have been no substantial moves to introduce Orthodox instruction into state education. Discussing why the state gives nominal support for Orthodoxy, rather than a more active pro-atheist policy, the priest pointed out: "You can make a reservation for it, in which it is tolerated as a museum of culture and turns into something that fulfils 'religious needs' instead of preaching the Gospel."
8 August 2006
Belarus' state education system continues to teach anti-religious – and particularly anti-Protestant – ideas, Forum 18 News Service has found. Despite protests from religious communities, state textbooks continue to make false allegations such as associating charismatic churches and Hare Krishna devotees with the group behind the fatal gas attack on Tokyo's metro system, claiming that Adventists operate "on the same principle as any fraudster," and depicting the history of Protestantism in Belarus negatively. The impact of such textbooks varies, as does knowledge of them, Forum 18 has found. Forum 18 has spoken to schoolchildren who say that children aged 13 or younger regard one Minsk charismatic church "as a sect," with older pupils adopting a neutral attitude. Some teachers do not share the state's hostile attitude, but others do. In one Minsk school, the headteacher told teachers that 90 per cent of every class must join the Pioneers, a Soviet-style state youth organisation, "but that Baptists and satanists were permitted not to join." In another incident, one teacher told a class that "they shouldn't be friends" with a Protestant pupil.
3 August 2006
Belarus has officially rejected the United Nations Human Rights Committee's finding that it has violated its citizens' religious freedom, by refusing to register a nation-wide Hare Krishna association, Forum 18 News Service has found. The authorities argue, repeating arguments they made in 2004, that their refusal was "justified" because it was in accordance with Belarusian law. Notably, Belarus fails in its response to address the UN Committee's finding that a requirement for state-approved physical premises to gain legal registration is "a disproportionate limitation of the Krishna devotees' right to manifest their religion," under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Belarus had been requested by the UN to publish their response within the country, however Forum 18 has been unable to find any evidence that the authorities have published their January 2006 response. Hare Krishna devotees in Belarus were themselves unaware that Belarus had replied to the UN. Using health and safety criteria to refuse to register a legal address is a tactic that the authorities have also used against Baptists, Forum 18 has found.
28 July 2006
New Life Church in Belarus' capital Minsk could lose its worship premises as early as mid-August, the charismatic church's lawyer, Sergei Lukanin, has told Forum 18 News Service. Minsk City Economic Court has ruled that New Life must sell – at a low price - the disused cowshed it worships in, following official insistence that the city Development Plan requires that the building be demolished. No new evidence for this claim was presented at the most recent hearing, which Forum 18 attended, one official eventually agreeing that the church "could be sited anywhere in the city." Minsk's main religious affairs official, Alla Ryabitseva, has previously told Forum 18 that the Development Plan was the reason why New Life was not given permission to convert the building into a church. Because it does not have state-approved worship premises, New Life was not given the compulsory re-registration demanded by the Religion Law, which bans all unregistered religious activity – against international human rights standards. The church could therefore be liquidated under the Religion Law.
29 June 2006
All Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) states are committed to "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," recognising that this is a litmus test of the state of human rights. OSCE commitments to human rights have been reiterated and enhanced. Yet some OSCE states, especially in the eastern part of the OSCE region where Forum 18 News Service works, repeatedly break their commitments and attack religious freedom. Examples include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which commit persistent and even worsening religious freedom and other human rights violations. Forum 18 here surveys the situation. The question facing the OSCE is: How, concretely, are its repeated commitments to free, democratic, tolerant societies which respect human rights to be implemented, faced with states whose concrete actions directly contradict their commitments?
13 June 2006
A Jewish kindergarten music teacher in Belarus, who celebrated the traditionally joyful Jewish holiday of Purim with Jewish children, has been threatened with criminal prosecution, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Lyudmila Izakson-Bolotovskaya is accused of "illegal and deliberate dissemination of religious dogma to young children, which could cause considerable harm to their world view, rights and legal interests." Public prosecutor Sergei Kopytov refused to talk to Forum 18 about his threat - one of several recent attempts, known to Forum 18, to restrict all religious activity to existing state approved places of worship. Minsk City Court has liquidated the Christ's Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, thus making it illegal. Earlier, its pastor, Georgi Vyazovsky, was jailed for ten days for leading worship in his home. The charismatic New Life Church in Minsk has been visited again by police, demanding confirmation of state permission to hold worship services. Also, three evangelical Christians were given official warnings for silently reading the Bible on Brest's central square, as an expression of solidarity with those arrested after March's presidential elections.