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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

BELARUS: Autonomous congregations out in the cold

Religious communities that choose to function independently face particularly acute restrictions, Forum 18 News Service has found, with some being arbitrarily denied the registration necessary to be able to function and barred from renting anywhere to meet legally. One independent Baptist church in the capital Minsk was forced to go underground after being refused registration. It had been told it would get registration if it joined the country's main Baptist union. The KGB secret police continues to monitor that church and other religious communities. A Messianic Jewish congregation finally gained registration in March only after it joined the Baptist union and changed its name so that its Messianic Jewish affiliation was no longer obvious. Pastor Nikolai Khaskin told Forum 18 "we had to be flexible".

BELARUS: Not liquidated, but unable to meet

Although the authorities have so far held off from closing down two religious communities eligible for liquidation under the restrictive 2002 religion law - the charismatic New Life church and the Hare Krishna community in Minsk – officials have warned both communities not to meet. "We're afraid to meet at our temple," Sergei Malakhovsky of the 200-strong Hare Krishna community told Forum 18 News Service, pointing out that constant police checks would result in "a huge fine equivalent to approximately 1,500 US dollars". New Life church and the Hare Krishna communities in Minsk and Bobruisk are among many religious communities denied compulsory re-registration and whose activity is therefore illegal. In April the pastor of an unregistered Baptist church was also fined.

BELARUS: Why no full TV broadcast of papal funeral and inauguration?

About 20 per cent of Belarus' population is Catholic, but less than an hour of the late Pope John Paul II's funeral mass and none of Pope Benedict XVI's inauguration was broadcast on state TV, Forum 18 News Service has found. The only Catholics able to view full live coverage of the funeral were those who can receive terrestrial Polish TV. Catholics were surprised by the small amount of TV coverage, but, "there was no outcry," a Catholic laywoman told Forum 18. That the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI was not shown on Belarusian television, and given next to no coverage in news broadcasts, "offended us a bit as we wanted to hear about who the new pope was," a Belarusian Catholic journalist remarked to Forum 18. She did not believe the lack of television coverage to be the result of Belarusian state policy, a view supported by Ilona Urbanovich-Sauka of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists. She told Forum 18 that her colleagues had encountered no evidence of a bar on broadcasting recent Vatican developments. Several believed that the minimal coverage simply reflected unprofessionalism.

RUSSIA: Unregistered religious groups

Russia's controversial 1997 Religion Law divides religious communities into two categories, restricting the rights of those with the unregistered status of "group", Forum 18 News Service notes in its submission to a 14 April hearing in Washington of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe http://www.csce.gov/ on unregistered religious groups in Russia. By requiring independent religious or belief groups seeking registration to have existed for 15 years, the Law effectively forced new individual religious or belief communities to join older unions, often a burdensome and expensive formality and not an option for some communities. Registration can be denied on arbitrary grounds, as for example with 39 of Stavropol region's 47 mosques. Denied registration, Belgorod's Catholic parish cannot reclaim its historical church. Communities that choose not to register can function freely, but only if they remain inconspicuous, Forum 18 has found. Council of Churches Baptists – who reject registration on principle – are often denied the possibility to rent property for services and fined for holding evangelistic campaigns.

BELARUS: Final warning for Minsk charismatic church?

State authorities in Minsk, Belarus' capital, have given the charismatic New Life Church a second official warning under the religion law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Under the law, two official warnings are sufficient grounds for banning the church. The latest warning states that the church's pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, organised and held "prayer readings and sermons on premises not specially designed for the holding of religious events… without corresponding permission from the [state] administration…" The church is appealing against this, arguing that the court hearing was accompanied by procedural violations so it cannot be grounds for either an official warning or liquidation. Procedural violations included insufficient time to prepare a defence due to delivery of the court summons on the eve of the midday hearing, and admission of only seven out of 100 defence witnesses due to the small size of the courtroom – and only after the verdict was announced. The official warning was issued after Pastor Goncharenko's conviction for "illegal" religious activity and a fine imposed on him of 30 times the monthly minimum wage.

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.