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BELARUS: "The state does not interfere in the activity of religious organisations"

A Pentecostal leader in Belarus, Gennady Akhrimovich, is facing a fine for organising a Bible study group within his congregation, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, Tatyana Zhitko, head of the local Ideology Department, has refused to say why this is happening. "Why are you calling me?" she complained. "I don't know your publication and I'm not prepared to give you any information." Akhrimovich's New Generation Church is facing state threats to its place of worship, like the Minsk-based New Life Church which is now facing a forced sale of its worship building to Minsk City Property Department. Meanwhile, two Protestants jailed for illegal religious activity have been freed. And despite the expulsion of Catholic priest Fr Robert Krzywicki, Vladimir Lameko of the state Religious Affairs Committee has told Fr Robert's parishioners that "the state does not interfere in the activity of religious organisations."

BELARUS: Religious freedom lawyer jailed

Following Baptist pastor Georgi Vyazovsky's completion of a 10 day jail term, religious freedom lawyer Sergei Shavtsov has been jailed, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Shavtsov organised a Christian business leaders seminar, after being denied official permission, and was detained after police raided the seminar. His wife Dina Shavtsova told Forum 18 "Why shouldn't they hold a seminar? All it was about was a Biblical view of history." Dina Shavtsova said that her husband's sentence – although on identical charges – is not directly connected with Pastor Vyazovsky's. "But the authorities are punishing the same kind of activity – unapproved religious events." Vitali Misevets, head of the Frunze district Ideology Department, claimed to Forum 18 that "It's not absurd to deny permission for such a meeting. How do we know what 35 people were going to be discussing?" Fears have been expressed that Pentecostal Bishop Sergei Tsvor will be jailed on similar charges.

BELARUS: Pastor freed from prison, but another to be jailed?

In the wake of his 13 March release from prison in the capital Minsk after completing a ten-day sentence, Baptist pastor Georgi Vyazovsky said fellow-prisoners and warders were "amazed" he had been locked up for conducting worship in his own home. "They'd never had such a case before – one of the staff remarked that the judge must have gone crazy," he told Forum 18 News Service. Some 30 Protestant supporters who had gathered at the prison to welcome him on his release were roughly moved away, as 20 special police stood by. To Forum 18's knowledge, Pastor Vyazovsky is the first person to have been imprisoned for religious worship on the territory of Belarus for some twenty years, but at least one further prosecution appears imminent. Pentecostal bishop Sergei Tsvor is facing the same charges of conducting illegal services although his congregation in Minsk has official registration.

TAJIKISTAN: Madrasa still closed; state registration to be compulsory?

Pulat Nurov, the Islamic affairs specialist of the state Religious Affairs Committee, has told Forum 18 News Service that, in a planned new religion law, "it will clearly be stated that registration of religious organisations is compulsory." If this proves to be the case, Tajikistan will join Belarus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in breaking international human rights obligations by making state registration compulsory. Nurov was speaking to Forum 18 about "inconsistencies" in the current 1994 Religion Law in relation to the continued closure of an Islamic religious school in northern Tajikistan. This madrasa is being barred from operation by the authorities, even though there is no legal basis for the government to do this. Nurov admitted to Forum 18 that registration of the madrasa is not compulsory and that no existing state agency can control the teaching of Islam. "These are the annoying defects of the Religion Law adopted back in 1994," he complained.

BELARUS: Pastor imprisoned for leading home worship

To Forum 18 News Service's knowledge, the ten-day prison term handed down on 3 March to Pastor Georgi Vyazovsky of the Minsk-based Christ's Covenant Reformed Baptist Church for conducting religious worship in his own home is the first time for some twenty years that religious worship has incurred a prison sentence on the territory of Belarus. "We expected that my father would be found guilty," the pastor's son Yaroslav Vyazovsky remarked on the day of the trial. "What we did not expect at all is the punishment for his 'crime'. This was a real shock to all of us who were present." The church tried and failed to get re-registration under Belarus' highly restrictive 2002 religion law, which in defiance of international human rights conventions bans all but occasional religious worship in private homes. District administration leaders sent officials several times to raid Vyazovsky's church "with the aim of exposing religious organisations without registration".

BELARUS: Why can't believers speak on social themes?

When Baptist deacon Vladimir Golikov spoke in a private capacity at an evening on married life on 28 January at a cultural centre near the capital Minsk, local ideology official Oleg Bobrik arrived to close down the meeting. Golikov had violated an unwritten rule banning religious believers from speaking publicly on social issues. "I was accused of conducting religious propaganda, but there was nothing religious in my talk – it was about family life and ethics," he told Forum 18 News Service. The authorities came close to sacking all 15 employees of the cultural centre in retaliation for his participation. Also in late January, the Supreme Court closed down Generation, a social organisation run by Minsk Christians and registered in 2004 which was accused of conducting religious activity at its English camps and classes. The excuse used was an invalid legal address. Ahead of elections, religious leaders in some towns are summoned by the local authorities and warned not to get involved in politics.

BELARUS: Pressure mounts on two more Minsk Protestant churches

Following two warnings last year, Pastor Georgi Vyazovsky of Christ's Covenant Reformed Baptist Church now faces administrative charges for leading an unregistered congregation after a city official and a police officer arrived at his home during Sunday worship on 5 February, he told Forum 18 News Service from Belarus' capital Minsk. The hearing is due on 3 March. Meanwhile, court officials are demanding that Pastor Ernst Sabilo of the Minsk-based Belarusian Evangelical Church – a veteran of Soviet labour camps for his faith – pay court costs of almost 60 US dollars for the liquidation of his congregation's legal status last September. Sabilo told court officials that as a pensioner he cannot afford to pay the sum. The two churches are among many religious groups in Belarus unable to gain registration under highly restrictive registration regulations, thus rendering all their activity illegal.

BELARUS: Why were Catholic priests expelled?

Fr Robert Krzywicki, one of two Catholic priests expelled from Belarus at the end of 2005, has told Forum 18 News Service that he thinks his expulsion was decided by the central Religious Affairs Committee in the capital Minsk. When Forum 18 questioned Vladimir Lameko, vice-chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, he stated that he did not know of the expulsion. Fr Robert has not been given a reason for the decision. He was parish priest of the Descent of the Holy Spirit parish in Borisov. The local District Executive Committee referred Forum 18's enquiries to the Ideology Department of the town's Municipal Executive Committee, who were unavailable for comment. Asked by Forum 18 whether his expulsion was connected with political activity, Fr Robert said that he had criticised state ideology. "In my sermons I spoke about Christ and the authorities saw it as being political." Fr Jozef Petushko of Borisov's second Catholic parish told Forum 18 that Fr Robert "wasn't guilty of anything." The Catholic Church faces tight restrictions on foreign priests invited to work in Belarus.

BELARUS: Catholic priest expelled and pressure on Baptists mounts

Catholic priest Fr. Robert Krzywicki, who was ordered with another priest in mid-December 2005 to leave Belarus by the end of the year, left the country on 27 December. He had served as a priest in the town of Borisov [Barysaw], north-east of the capital Minsk, for 12 years, and his supporters gathered with flowers and gifts on the steps of the parish church to see him off. No reason was given for the decision and Fr. Krzywicki told Forum 18 News Service that "I committed no crime." Baptists from across the country have told Forum 18 that pressure has also begun to mount on their congregations. In western Belarus for example, a member of a small village congregation told Forum 18 from Brest that "there are incidents all over the place. We don't know why things changed for the worse, but we don't believe the pressure has ended." Church members have appealed to the authorities in Brest and the capital Minsk against violations of their rights.

BELARUS: Baptists demand end to "persecution" of family

The congregation of a Baptist Church in Bobruisk, in eastern Belarus, has called for an end to the "persecution" of members of the Yermalitsky family, who host the church's services in their home. The family has faced a series of fines and other harassment from state officials, much of which has been personally orchestrated by Aleksandr Markachev of the town administration. Markachev has defended his actions to Forum 18 News Service, claiming that "a private home is not designated for religious worship," and that "their services are illegal." He also alleged that the church services caused the risk of a fire and health problems, but dismissed Forum 18's suggestions that if church members believed they were at risk of fire or health problems they could choose not to attend. The congregation has also called for worship services to be allowed to take place freely, and the cancellation of fines imposed on the Yermalitsky family.

BELARUS: Year-end expulsions for two Catholic priests

Two Catholic priests from Poland who have served in Belarus for more than a decade have been ordered to leave the country by year's end 2005 as their religious visas have not been renewed. Fr Robert Krzywicki, priest of the Descent of the Holy Spirit parish in Borisov north-east of the capital Minsk, insists to Forum 18 News Service that he committed no crime. He attributes his expulsion to his work with young people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and his active role in ecumenical and charitable events in the town. He says such expulsions make it hard for the Catholic Church to provide clergy who understand their parishioners. "It takes about five years for a foreign priest to learn the language, the culture and the situation," he told Forum 18. "When a new priest arrives from abroad he doesn't understand these."

BELARUS: President woos religious believers while worship restrictions continue

In the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections, the state authorities appear to be seeking religious organisations' support by exempting their land and property from tax. While a long list of eligible religious organisations includes those denied compulsory re-registration but not yet liquidated by court order, the administrator of New Life Church joked to Forum 18 News Service that this would be of little use to his community as its property is due to be confiscated by the state authorities. Although the country's top religious affairs official has rejected recent US allegations that Belarus restricts religious freedom, some religious communities continue to be fined or warned for worshipping in private homes. A new amendment to the Criminal Code allows the state to imprison participants in unregistered or liquidated religious organisations for up to two years.