9 September 2004
Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.
7 September 2004
Although unregistered religious communities still face intermittent fines for religious activities, Protestants in Belarus have told Forum 18 News Service that a fine imposed in January on Baptist Union member Yuri Denishchik for holding a religious meeting in a private home was an "exception". They say that ahead of October's parliamentary elections, the authorities are not currently interfering in services, open-air evangelistic meetings and youth camps held by registered Protestant communities. "There are a lot of active Protestants in Belarus and President Lukashenko can't afford to alienate them right now," one source told Forum 18. He assumed there to be "some kind of instruction not to touch Protestants at the moment". But senior Baptist pastor Gennadi Brutsky told Forum 18 that problems persist, though so far they have been solved through compromises.
2 September 2004
Two Baptists are set to have personal property confiscated - in one case a car - while a third is having his pay docked after the three visited a hospital at Easter to sing hymns and hand out New Testaments, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Local regional religious affairs official Vladimir Klevtsov told Forum 18 that the Baptists had broken the law because - amongst other violations - they did not get the hospital authorities' permission to hold "a mass event with music and give out literature". Their other offences included the fact that two of the Baptists are from Brest, which is outside the region where the hospital is located, and that they do not belong to a registered church. Asked by Forum 18 what the legal position is for individual Belarusian believers wishing to visit or give religious literature to hospital patients, Klevtsov said that he knew of no such precedent, as "we normally get requests only from registered religious organisations."
26 February 2004
Police in at least one region of Belarus will halt the activity of a network of Baptist churches that do not wish to register with the authorities if they fail to register by the end of the month under the restrictive 2002 religion law. "Destructive sects" will be "disbanded", Vladimir Marchenko, an official in Brest region, told Forum 18 News Service. He said his December 2003 instruction to local officials and the police "to halt the illegal activity of members of unregistered Baptist organisations" by 1 March was based on a countrywide order from the Justice Ministry. Baptists in Brest region have complained of growing "persecution". Forum 18 has been unable to find out if similar instructions have been issued in other regions. The crackdown comes amid rising levels of fines on Baptist and other Protestant pastors who have led unregistered religious services.
17 February 2004
Forum 18 News Service has learnt of further recent incidents in which unregistered Baptist pastors have been fined for holding worship services. The fines were issued under the Belarusian administrative offences code, which punishes "the creation and leadership of a religious organisation without registering its charter (statutes) in accordance with established procedure." The estimated 29 congregations in Belarus belonging to a Moscow-based Baptist union which rejects state registration on principle have increasingly been targeted in this way since the introduction of the republic's 2002 religion law. The law explicitly states that registration is compulsory for all religious communities.
9 February 2004
Forum 18 News Service has definitively found that close supervision of religious life in Belarus by local officials is an integral part of current central policy. It is not either a dwindling vestige of Soviet practice or the result of individual arbitrariness. The evidence for this is contained in a letter which Forum 18 has seen from the vice-chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Vladimir Lameko. The letter sharply criticises lower-level state officials for not diligently monitoring religious communities.
3 February 2004
Forum 18 News Service has learnt of three separate incidents in which unregistered Baptist pastors have been fined for their work. All three were fined for "the creation and leadership of a religious organisation without registering its charter (statutes) in accordance with established procedure," which is punishable under the Belarusian administrative offences code. A spokeswoman for the pastors' Moscow-based union remarked to Forum 18 that the incidents "seem to be to do with" the 2002 Belarusian religion law, which outlaws systematic unregistered religious gatherings.
29 January 2004
Yakov Gutman, who heads the World Association of Belarusian Jewry, has accused President Aleksandr Lukashenko of "personal responsibility for the destruction of Jewish holy sites" in Belarus. Gutman was subsequently detained by police and hospitalised with a suspected heart attack, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He claims that Belarusian authorities permitted the demolition of a former synagogue to build an elite housing complex, that the construction of a multi-storey car park will prevent the reconstruction of a sixteenth-century stone synagogue demolished in the late 1960s, and that Jewish cemeteries have been destroyed by two local authorities in recent years. Meanwhile, only 9 out of 92 historical synagogues in Belarus have been returned to believers since 1991, and the new 2002 religion law states that religious organisations do not have priority in cases when a former worship building is currently used for culture or sport. Yakov Dorn, Chairman of the Judaic Religious Association in Belarus, told Forum 18 that "most former synagogues come into that category - so the authorities usually refuse our requests and refer to that provision."
27 January 2004
Authorities in Belarus have been briefly detaining Krishna devotees two or three times a week for distributing religious literature, as well as obstructing literature distribution in other ways, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Separately, the Society for Krishna Consciousness in Belarus has asked the UN Human Rights Committee to investigate the legality of the states' refusal to register the organisation under the previous religion law. Vasili Marchenko, the official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region, told Forum 18 that a local Hare Krishna community had not been denied re-registration under the new religion law, and that he had not received any such application. This is disputed by a devotee, who told Forum 18 that the community's re-registration documents had been returned without explanation. In October 1997, the Belarusian State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs' Expert Council described the Minsk Society for Krishna Consciousness as a "destructive totalitarian sect infringing personality, health, citizens' rights and national security."
12 December 2003
The Pentecostal Church in Kobrin, near Brest in south western Belarus, has told Forum 18 News Service that it will continue to meet for worship – even though their Pastor was yesterday (11 December) fined after police attended the unregistered church's worship. Pastor Nikolai Rodkovich told Forum 18 that "we have no intention of halting our services. We're ready for anything." Under the harsh new religion law, which came into force in November 2002, unregistered religious activity is illegal. But Pastor Rodkovich's fine is the first fine known to Forum 18 since this summer. The state official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region has declined to discuss with Forum 18 why religious communities cannot function without registration.
2 December 2003
In this personal commentary contributed to Forum 18 News Service www.forum18.org , Arie de Pater, director of Jubilee Campaign NL, argues that the European Union (EU) should pay greater attention to restrictions on religious freedom in many of the ten states which will join the EU in May 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia & Slovenia) and in states that hope to join any further expansion (Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania & Turkey potentially due from 2007). Drawing on a report on religious freedom in the candidate countries, compiled by Jubilee Campaign NL with the assistance of Forum 18 and others, published today (2 December 2003), he notes that even in the first batch of accession countries, criticism of religious law and practice can be levelled at the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia. He questions why the European Commission's 2003 Comprehensive Regular Report makes no criticism of Bulgaria's new denominations act, which has been sharply criticised in Bulgaria and abroad.
24 November 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Belarus, Forum 18 News Service notes the various ways in which the Belarusian state limits religious freedom. These include denial of state registration, breaking up home worship meetings, restrictions on religious events held in public, refusal of permission to build, purchase or reclaim premises, and restrictions on the right to invite foreigners for religious work. Although there is a strong Soviet-era tradition of state hostility towards religion in Belarus, government officials currently seem willing to give at least symbolic support for the Belarusian Orthodox Church if this is thought to serve the government's geopolitical interests.