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BELARUS: Charismatic pastor fined for organising "illegal" worship

Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko of the embattled Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church has been fined the equivalent of 30 times the minimum monthly wage in Belarus for organising religious services without state permission. Describing the brief court session to Forum 18 News Service, church administrator Vasily Yurevich complained that there was no opportunity to prepare or present a defence, since Pastor Goncharenko was summoned only the evening before the midday hearing and members of the congregation were not permitted to enter the courtroom. New Life was issued an official warning in December 2004 after Yurevich was himself fined on similar charges, and the church faces closure under Belarusian law should it receive a second such warning. While state officials have repeatedly denied to Forum 18 that they are waging a campaign against the 600-strong congregation, a 2000 state analysis of a sister charismatic congregation warns that it poses "a significant threat" to Belarusian society.

COMMENTARY: No religious freedom without democracy: a lesson from "Orange Ukraine"

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's surprise announcement last month of the abolition of the State Committee for Religious Affairs is a powerful signal to the rest of the region that governments should end their meddling in religious life, argues former Soviet political prisoner Professor Myroslav Marynovych, who is now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University http://www.ucu.edu.ua in Lviv, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. He regards the feeling in Ukraine that the communist model of controlling religion is now dead as the greatest gain of the "Orange Revolution" in the sphere of religion. Yet Professor Marynovych warns that other countries will find it hard to learn from the proclaimed end of Ukrainian government interference in religious matters without wider respect for human rights and accountable government. Without democratic change – which should bring in its wake greater freedom for religious communities from state control and meddling - it is unlikely that religious communities will escape from government efforts to control them.

BELARUS: Authorities cut electricity to charismatic church

The authorities' latest move against the charismatic New Life Church in Minsk is to cut off the electricity supply, forcing the church to borrow a generator to provide electricity. The power cut off came a day after the state energy inspectorate surveyed the building by order of Minsk's senior religious affairs official, Alla Ryabitseva. "We won't leave the property," church administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18 News Service. "We're ready to fight to the end." The authorities have made a series of hostile moves against the church, including fining Yurevich 150 times the minimum monthly wage for organising religious worship without state permission. On 14 March, New Life received a letter from Minsk city administration denying the church re-registration under Belarus' religion law. The letter claimed that re-registration was not possible because the church building is designated as a cowshed, the church has allegedly given insufficient information about the election procedure of the church council chairman, and the basic forms of church activity are allegedly not given in line with the requirements of the 2002 religion law.

BELARUS: Charismatic Pastor charged with organising "illegal" worship

Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko of the Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church is again facing prosecution for organising meetings for worship without state permission, he has told Forum 18 News Service. The 600-strong congregation of New Life Church has been worshipping at a disused cowshed ever since being barred from public facilities. The head of Minsk city administration religious affairs department, Alla Ryabitseva, challenged by Forum 18 why it was impossible to change the use of a cowshed, Ryabitseva replied, "read our laws". Asked which particular law forbade the conversion of cowsheds, she claimed only to deal with the religion law. "Read Article 25 – that says exactly where you can pray and where you can't." Told that it did not mention cowsheds, she retorted: "It doesn't say you can't pray in casinos either, but people don't pray in casinos!" Questioned about a disused railway carriage close to New Life used by an Orthodox community, Ryabitseva maintained that the parish was not meeting for worship in the carriage but had four years earlier acquired land at the site "in the proper manner."

UZBEKISTAN: Saints and martyrs relics banned

Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"

BELARUS: Uncertain fate of non re-registered communities

After the deadline for compulsory state re-registration, it is uncertain what will happen to religious communities who are either still in the process of re-registering or who have been refused re-registration, Forum 18 News Service has found. Amongst examples of problems experienced by communities, that Forum 18 knows of, are that a non re-registered Hare Krishna community has been given an official warning, after police saw Krishna devotees praying without state permission. Two warnings are sufficient for the authorities to begin proceedings to liquidate a religious community. A Baptist church has had bank accounts closed, as bank staff told the church that it has to be re-registered to have an account, and a Reformed Baptist Church has been refused permission by the local architecture department to use a private house for worship. Without state re-registration, it is legally impossible for religious communities to meet for worship, or to engage in other religious activities. There are also other ways in which the state monitors, restricts and prevents the activity of religious communities.

BELARUS: Pressure mounts on Charismatic Minsk congregation

The authorities are close to obtaining sufficient grounds under Belarusian law, but against international law, to close down the charismatic New Life Church in Minsk, Forum 18 News Service has been told. An official warning against using a cowshed the 600-strong church owns for services was given to the church two days after the authorities fined the church administrator, Vasily Yurevich, about 150 times the monthly minimum wage for organising an "illegal" service at the cowshed. "We think they're trying to rush things through," Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko of the church told Forum 18. Following a second warning, the authorities could under Belarusian law move to close down the church. The church has been refused permission both to rent alternative premises and to convert the cowshed into a church. Forum 18 knows of two other charismatic Full Gospel Association congregations, which have also been refused the re-registration the 2002 Belarusian religion law required religious organisations to apply for.

BELARUS: "Colossal" "unjust" fine for "illegal" worship

Vasily Yurevich, of the charismatic New Life Church, was on 28 December fined 150 times the minimum monthly wage for organising an "illegal" service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko – who faces punishment on the same charges – told Forum 18 that this "is a colossal amount of money." Two weeks earlier the church's re-registration application was rejected, rendering – against international law - all its public activity illegal and subject to punishment. Some religious leaders have been fined in Belarus this year, but the fines have generally been much smaller. Pastor Goncharenko told Forum 18 that "we're ready for everything. We will stand up for our rights to worship God. This is all we want to do, and God will defend us." Nina Gordeyuk, deputy head of the local district administration, vehemently denied to Forum 18 that the authorities are waging a campaign against the church.

BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, December 2004

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Belarus, Forum 18 News Service notes that formal state support for "traditional" religions is at most symbolic, and that militant atheism still influences state officials. Some officials have attempted to pressure people signing registration applications of Protestant churches to withdraw their names. The re-registration of most, but not all, religious communities does not guarantee religious freedom, and registered activity is restricted by a variety of laws and regulations, such as a bar on registered religious groups working outside their registered area. Another example is that although Greek Catholic Church parishes have re-registered, as it does not qualify as a "central association," it cannot own media publications or invite non-Belarusians to work, for example, as missionaries. Non-registered religious communities are banned under Belarusian law and liable to prosecution, against international law, but the number of unregistered communities appears to have grown. A key feature of state religious policy is an extensive centralised network monitoring religious communities and active religious believers. There has been at least one attempt by the secret police to persuade a pastor to collaborate with them.

BELARUS: No room at the cowshed for Minsk church

Minsk authorities have repeatedly refused to allow a 600-strong Protestant charismatic church to use a cowshed as a church, and the church is now banned from meeting for worship under Belarus' religion law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The church bought the cowshed in the hope of rebuilding it, but the authorities have threatened to demolish the building and charge the church demolition costs, refused the church re-registration under burdensome new regulations, denied the church permission to rent anywhere for worship, and repeatedly sent police and OMON riot police to the church. The church's pastor and administrator also face fines for leading unregistered worship. According to the authorities, the church is to blame for the problems. "This is all their fault," Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18.

BELARUS: Fate of unregistered religious communities still uncertain

The State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs has claimed that "over 99 per cent" of religious communities have re-registered under the repressive 2002 religion law, but some have undergone what the State Committee calls "self-liquidation". Forum 18 News Service notes that re-registered religious organisations have also essentially agreed to abide by harsh restrictions, such as one rejected by Baptists in Brest who do not agree with Article 14 of the law, which restricts a religious organisation to only functioning where it is registered. A charismatic church has received an official refusal as its premises have not been approved by the emergency services. One Messianic Jewish community told Forum 18 that city authorities are disputing its right to rent premises, claiming that rental of the premises concerned is prohibited. Religious groups can be liquidated if a public event they organise causes any harm to the "public interest", even alleged disruption to public transport. Non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox churches were effectively banned from re-registering.

BELARUS: Inconsistent response to illegal religious activity

Against international law, Belarusian law states that unregistered religious activity is illegal and so unregistered religious communities are liable to be prosecuted. But Forum 18 News Service has found that the authorities' practice is inconsistent. Baptist congregations who refuse on principle to register have their worship meetings obstructed, but a Pentecostal Pastor, previously fined for leading an unregistered church, has not experienced recent problems. Most of those unable to obtain state registration are Orthodox communities outside the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), and these churches have been treated in strongly contrasting ways. A small Buddhist group has obtained a "compromise status," but a Hare Krishna group was refused registration. Jewish communities received re-registration, and the small Islamic communities which did not receive re-registration were amalgamated with re-registered Muslim organisations.