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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.

TURKMENISTAN: Why did Turkmenistan lie to the UN?

In a failed bid to head off a United Nations (UN) resolution, sponsored by the European Union and the USA, and supported by Brazil, expressing grave concern at Turkmenistan's human rights record, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov has falsely claimed that there were "no cases of arrest or conviction on political grounds or for religious beliefs". Three religious prisoners are known to Forum 18 News Service to be held, and arrests continue to be made. On the day of the debate he claimed that there was "no truth to the allegations of limits on the rights to belief, conscience or religion," despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and the UN's two previous resolutions critical of the country's human rights record. Turkmen officials and President Niyazov have a record of making such false claims, but the country's diplomats have refused to discuss the issue of false claims with Forum 18. Countries speaking in support of Turkmenistan in the debate were Algeria, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

BELARUS: Most - but not all - communities re-registered

Most religious communities denied state re-registration are Protestant, Forum 18 News Service has found. But before the deadline (Tuesday 16 November) for obligatory state re-registration under Belarus' restrictive 2002 religion law, most religious confessions – such as the Catholic, Old Believer, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Adventist, Islamic, Jewish, and Jehovah's Witness communities - told Forum 18 that most of their applications were largely successful. Registration by most non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox churches was effectively barred, and some other religious communities are still re-registering. Stressing that registration does not guarantee freedom of worship, one Protestant source in 2003 suggested to Forum 18 that this would happen: "They can reassure the West by saying, 'Just look how many organisations we have re-registered'." Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18 that "96.2 per cent" had successfully re-registered, but that religious organisations which failed to re-register would be liquidated following the deadline.

BELARUS: Minsk Krishna society facing closure?

Just a week before the deadline expires for re-registering religious communities under the repressive 2002 religion law, Minsk's Society for Krishna Consciousness fears a 3 November court ruling that religious activity at its current place of worship is illegal will make it impossible to re-register. Like many Protestant churches without their own building, the 200-strong Hare Krishna community meets in a residential property, but the religion law bans "systematic" worship in such premises. "The authorities don't allow us to meet on our own premises and don't allow us to go anywhere else either," Sergei Malakhovsky of the Society complained to Forum 18 News Service. Police broke up a September celebration of Krishna's birthday held at a Minsk restaurant in the presence of the Indian ambassador.