8 October 2003
Religious communities often face difficulties building new places of worship or recovering those confiscated during the Soviet period, Forum 18 News Service has learnt as part of an extensive investigation into how religious communities function under restrictive laws and regulations. With ten Full Gospel churches unable to meet for worship in the capital Minsk, church leader Aleksandr Sakovich planned to build a social centre where services could also be held. "But in May 2002 – at the very last minute – we were refused permission," he told Forum 18 News Service. The 20,000 US dollars the church had spent on plans were not returned. Greek Catholics in Brest were forced to build a church as a private house, only turning it into a church as it was finished. "If we had proceeded according to the law, we wouldn't have got anywhere," Fr Igor Kondrasev told Forum 18.
8 October 2003
With all outdoor religious events requiring advance permission from the local authorities, some regions allow them while others are hostile. "If our relations are OK with the local authority we write a request for permission to perform an outdoor baptism," Pentecostal assistant bishop of Grodno region Naum Sakhanchuk told Forum 18 News Service. If not, he added, there was no point in writing. "I'll be refused – they'll say that the river is polluted, or that swimming is prohibited in the lake." Since being banned in the capital Minsk in 2000, the Catholics' annual Corpus Christi procession has to take place away from main streets "to make sure it is not seen", yet in Grodno region the Catholics report no difficulties obtaining permission for such processions. The difficulty of renting public venues varies – in 2002 all cinemas in Grodno were banned from renting to religious groups.
7 October 2003
With the law banning registered religious communities from using residential properties as their legal addresses without specific authorisation, the many such communities that meet in private homes now face the risk of failing to gain re-registration or even being liquidated by court order, especially as transferring property from residential to non-residential use is very difficult. Forum 18 News Service has learnt that Minsk City Council warned Mount Tabor Baptist Church in January that failure to change its legal address from a residential property might result in the church being liquidated through the courts. Aleksandr Sakovich, head of the charismatic Full Gospel Church, told Forum 18 its ten registered churches in the capital – with an estimated 5,000 people – are unable to worship all together and have to meet in many smaller units in private flats. He said there have been no cases of these groups being prosecuted for doing so - "yet".
7 October 2003
Officials have given differing views of whether religious activity by groups with fewer members than the threshold of 20 required for registration is illegal. Such activity appears illegal in law and Article 193 of the Administrative Code punishes creation or leadership of an unregistered religious body. Yet Pentecostal assistant bishop Naum Sakhanchuk told Forum 18 News Service that two church members fined this summer in Brest region after being accused of leading unregistered worship have had their fines overturned. The religious affairs official in Brest region, Vasili Marchenko, told Forum 18 it was "OK" for such small unregistered religious communities to meet "as long as they don't disturb the public order". But his counterpart in Vitebsk region, Nikolai Stepanenko, maintained that it was permissible only for between three and six months prior to registration, but no longer.
1 October 2003
As well as dealing with often elderly members of his parishes trying to cope with the compulsory re-registration applications, the head of the priestless Pomorye Old Orthodox Church in Belarus is facing long-standing suspicion within his Church of contact with the state. Petr Orlov cited the parish in Gomel, which refuses to submit detailed personal information required for re-registration. "They are worried that their relatives might lose their jobs as city councillors, collective farm workers or teachers," he told Forum 18 News Service. "There could be more repression and the authorities will say that we submitted those names voluntarily." Officials dislike religious groups that refuse to register. "It is very bad that they haven't decided to switch to civilised forms of performing religious rites," the senior religious official in Brest region complained of Baptists belonging to the Council of Churches, who refuse to register on principle.
1 October 2003
As religious organisations across Belarus face compulsory re-registration under last year's restrictive new religion law, the head of the 50,000-strong priestless Old Believer Church has complained that the whole procedure is unnecessary and unduly burdensome. "Who needs this? We don't," Petr Orlov told Forum 18 News Service in Polotsk. He must now compile a new charter for his Church and arrange a synod to approve it, before submitting the final re-registration application to the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk. Many of the 38 priestless Old Believer parishes are dominated by people in their 70s or 80s, and Orlov fears many will be unable to complete the necessary paperwork. "There's no one to write their charters."
11 September 2003
Ten months after the highly restrictive religion law came into force and the compulsory re-registration process began, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that only a small proportion of religious organisations have re-registered. Only 27 of 140 have re-registered at national level, while progress is especially slow for those that must re-register with the local authorities. "Things aren't moving at the local level," Bishop Sergei Khomich, head of the Pentecostal Union, complained to Forum 18. As the new law criminalises unregistered religious activity, re-registration is essential to the continuing legal operation of individual religious organisations.
1 September 2003
Protestants and other minority faiths could find it even more difficult and expensive to hold public religious events under the new law on demonstrations and public events which came into force on 29 August. President Aleksandr Lukashenko reportedly removed proposed exemptions for religious events from the text of the new law approved by both houses of parliament in June. Forum 18 News Service points out that the new law – which formalises the web of controls that already exist over public religious events – adds a new twist, allowing religious groups to be liquidated (and therefore made illegal) if an event they organise causes any harm to the "public interest", even such as any disruption to public transport.
9 July 2003
Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom 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.
24 June 2003
Pentecostal and Hare Krishna representatives have so far failed in their bid to have the education ministry withdraw a textbook which they say incites religious discord. The book for 18-year-old children, published by the Education Ministry last year, warns that Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist and Jehovah's Witness activity is a breeding-ground for fanaticism. It also puts the Hare Krishna and Zen Buddhist movements on a par with the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo responsible for the 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and suggests that Krishna devotees need psychiatric help. The Orthodox are unhappy with a quotation that they say "hurts the feelings of believers". Orthodox Church legal advisor Andrei Aleshko told Forum 18 News Service that once his Church has studied the text it will call on the ministry to withdraw the book.
24 June 2003
The 12 June concordat between the Orthodox Church and the state has given the Orthodox extensive influence in state bodies, with Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk hailing it as "a blank cheque to develop co-operation programmes with all branches of power". Forum 18 News Service notes that the concordat means the state now accepts the Orthodox designation of Belarus as its "canonical territory", and commits the state and the Church to work together in "the common fight against pseudo-religious structures". Although the final text no longer contains "anti-constitutional provisions" such as immunity from prosecution and media censorship powers for Orthodox clergy, member of parliament Ivan Pashkevich told Forum 18 he was worried that they will be incorporated into subsequent agreements between the Orthodox Church and individual state bodies which will be closed to public scrutiny.
20 June 2003
Aleksandr Tolochko was fined 34 US dollars in Grodno on 4 June as part of the latest crackdown on Pentecostal home meetings in various towns and villages of western Belarus. "He hasn't paid the fine yet – he doesn't earn enough to pay it," Bishop Fyodor Tsvor of Grodno region told Forum 18 News Service. Among others fined were two Pentecostal women in Baranovichi, one a pensioner and one an invalid. Bishop of Brest region Nikolai Kurkaev blamed the highly restrictive new religion law. "You see the new law is working already," he told Forum 18. Igor Popov, religious affairs officials for Grodno region, denied to Forum 18 there is a campaign against Pentecostals but insisted all unregistered religious meetings are illegal.