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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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BELARUS: State ends priest's 25-year parish ministry

The Belarusian government's senior religious affairs official ends 25 years' parish service by Polish Catholic priest Fr Andrzej Stopyra with no explanation. The official also denied permission for Indian Catholic priest Fr James Manjackal to visit Belarus to lead religious exercises in a parish.

BELARUS: Plenipotentiary attacks Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses, no religious radio

In December 2015, two Polish Catholic priests invited by the Church to work in Belarus were denied entry to the country. The visa application for one of the priests is being re-considered and there is a chance that the decision will be positive, Forum 18 News Service has learned. But "it's becoming ever more difficult for priests from abroad to come to Belarus" the Catholic Bishops Conference stated. Also, the government's Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Leonid Gulyako, has as usual criticised the Catholic Church for alleged failings in clergy training and alleged "destructive" work by priests. Plenipotentiary Gulyako also threatened to revoke the state permission to exist of Jehovah's Witness communities, even though he does not have the legal power to do this. Forum 18's questions to him have not been answered. Also, no individual or belief community is able to have a religious FM broadcasting band radio station, despite several attempts. No official is prepared to take responsibility for dealing with such applications.

BELARUS: Colonel claims Constitution "nonsense", human rights treaties "not important"

Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector to military service, Dmitry Chorba, is still being called up despite an Alternative Service Law coming into force in Belarus on 1 July, he told Forum 18 News Service. Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Osipov of Rechitsa Military Conscription Office called him up despite the failure of one criminal case and two administrative cases he initiated against Chorba. In the second administrative case, the Lieutenant Colonel claimed in court in January that the Constitution is "nonsense" and international human rights treaties are "not important". In Mogilev Region, two Baptists are being prosecuted for "not using living premises for their designated purpose" after a December raid on a religious meeting. And in Svetlogorsk in Gomel Region, Baptist Pastor Vladimir Daineko has had his car put under restraint and his computer confiscated to pay for a fine imposed for leading a meeting for worship without state permission. Appeals against the fine have proved fruitless. "Now we appeal to our supreme authority – God who will not leave us," Daineko told Forum 18.

BELARUS: Do individuals have religious freedom or only registered organisations?

"In what form does a citizen of Belarus have the right freely to express and spread their religious convictions?" Minsk lawyer Sergei Lukanin asked parliament on 25 November. He also sought clarification as to whether a ban on reading the Bible in public is consistent with the Demonstrations Law and whether it is a right that only registered religious organisations enjoy. He sought clarification after the Deputy Head of Minsk Executive Committee Igor Karpenko refused his application to read the Bible aloud in a park. "The right to carry out religious activities is granted only to religious organisations listed in the State register of religious organisations," Karpenko claimed. A city official refused to clarify his statement to Forum 18. "I can't afford to be fined again as I have three children to support," Lukanin told Forum 18 News Service. "By applying for permission, I simply tried not to be a law breaker." Jehovah's Witness Valery Shirei in Vitebsk Region was prosecuted after police detained him for offering religious literature on the street. However, a judge acquitted him.

BELARUS: Why does government still try to conscript conscientious objectors?

Belarus' Rechitsa Military Conscription Office is yet again trying to conscript 24-year-old Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Dmitry Chorba for military service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The attempts continue despite past criminal and administrative charges against him being dropped and an Alternative Service Law coming into force in July 2016. Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Osipov, who heads the Conscription Office, does not want conscientious objection to be "a habit" but has refused to explain to Forum 18 why he and his colleagues continue to try to conscript or punish Chorba. Yauhen Asiyeuski of For Alternative Civilian Service suggested to Forum 18 that Conscription Offices have a quota of young men they must conscript. In small towns like Rechitsa – in contrast to cities like Minsk - the number of young men of call-up age between 19 and 27 years old is limited, making every conscript valuable. However, Defence Ministry Spokesperson Colonel Vladimir Makarov denied to Forum 18 that Conscription Offices have a conscript quota. But officials seem to have no intention of halting attempts to conscript Chorba.

BELARUS: Orthodox Archbishop denied entry, another conscientious objector show trial

The Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church's parish in the capital Minsk has abandoned attempts to gain state registration after US-based Archbishop Sviatoslav (Lohin) was denied entry to Belarus in late July, Fr Leonid Akalovich has told Forum 18 News Service. This is the first ban on a pastoral visit by the Archbishop. Fr Akalovich stressed that the Church would like to have legal status. Without registration it has to keep a low profile, as under the Religion Law, any exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief without state approval is illegal. Officials have refused to explain to Forum 18 why they denied the Church registration and gave spurious reasons for this – including that the Church is allegedly new although its current statute was drafted in 1927. Also, Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Dmitry Chorba still faces attempts to conscript him, despite both criminal and administrative charges being dropped. Another Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector, Viktor Kalina, was acquitted at his criminal trial. Both trials were before apparently selected audiences to deter other young men from refusing military service.

BELARUS: Cancelled fine for religious meeting re-imposed

Although the Regional Court overturned an earlier fine for leading a meeting for worship, the same lower court in Gomel [Homyel] in south-east Belarus has imposed the same fine of more than two weeks' average local wages on Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko of the Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church. He again submitted an appeal to the Regional Court on 1 September, he told Forum 18 News Service. Pastor Nikolaenko and another church member were given "official warnings" that if they violate the law by holding meetings to worship without state permission they will face criminal prosecution, with possible prison terms of up to three years. Aleksandr Gorlenko, the official who drafted the written ban on the Church's meetings, refused to discuss it. "All the reasons were explained to the leader of the church," he told Forum 18. Also, ten Baptists from Soligorsk have failed to overturn fines imposed after armed police raided their meeting for worship.

BELARUS: Criminal trial of conscientious objector a show trial?

Eleven days after the official publication in June of Belarus' first-ever Alternative Service Law, which takes effect from 1 July 2016, an investigator opened a criminal case against Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Viktor Kalina. He faces punishment of up to two years' imprisonment if convicted of refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience. No court official in Brest was able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why the first hearing in his trial on 17 August was held not at the court but at Brest Military Conscription Office. Kalina likened it to a show trial as five more young men who chose not to go to the army were present at the hearing, and officials "decided to show them the consequences". However, the Head of Kalina's local Conscription Office, Valentin Abramov, insisted to Forum 18 that trials outside courts are "usual practices".

BELARUS: Conscientious objector threatened with conscription

A conscientious objector to military service in Belarus has been threatened with conscription, Forum 18 News Service has learned, even though President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 4 June signed into law an Alternative Service Law. But on 11 June Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Dmitry Chorba, from Rechitsa in Gomel Region, had a case under Criminal Code Article 435, Part 1 ("Refusal of call-up to military service") filed against him by the local Military Conscription Office. Although it appears that the case has been closed he fears a renewed call-up in the Autumn. Also in Gomel Region, appeals are due on 24 July in Gomel Regional Court against fines imposed on Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko and Baptist Lyubov Kundas after armed police raids on their churches. Nikolaenko is appealing against a fine for organising a meeting for worship without state permission. Kundas is appealing against a fine imposed for refusing to testify against her fellow-Church members.

BELARUS: Pastor also to face criminal case?

Nearly three weeks after police and riot police raided a Sunday worship service in Gomel in south-east Belarus, a court fined Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko for leading an unapproved religious meeting. A court official refused to put Forum 18 News Service through to the Judge. Nikolaenko's Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church has already been banned from meeting and police have searched his and another church member's homes for "sectarian" literature. A criminal charge against him might be in preparation. A third member of a Council of Churches Baptist congregation in nearby Svetlogorsk has been fined for refusing to say who was reading from the Bible when armed police raided the church during Sunday worship in May. Others face similar prosecution, as does the owner of the home where the church meets, church members told Forum 18. And three Hare Krishna devotees were detained in Vitebsk for five hours for offering religious literature on the streets.

BELARUS: Alternative Service Law "a bad law. But it exists and that's good."

Belarus has for the first time adopted an Alternative Service Law, to take effect from 1 July 2016. The Law will allow some but not all young men who are conscientious objectors to perform a civilian alternative service instead of compulsory military service. However, Forum 18 News Service notes, only young men with a religious objection will be eligible to apply, not those with non-religious pacifist convictions. It is also unclear whether even all young men with religious objections to military service will be allowed to do civilian alternative service. The new Law is silent on how objectors from communities which are not as a community formally pacifist – such as the Orthodox Church - will be treated. And the length of alternative service will be twice as long as the comparable military service. Human rights defenders and the Jehovah's Witnesses – who refuse to do military service - have welcomed the Law's adoption. Human rights defenders such as Yauhen Asiyeuski of For Alternative Civilian Service stress that they will continue to work to bring the Law into line with international human rights standards.

BELARUS: From raid to ban in 12 days

On 31 May police in Belarus with OMON riot police raided the Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church's meeting for Sunday worship, held in rented premises in Gomel. On 11 June officials banned the Church from renting premises, therefore banning it from meeting, church members told Forum 18 News Service. Police asked them: "Why do you attend this church and not a normal one?" Officials warned congregation leader Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko – who is already facing trial on Administrative Code charges - that he would be investigated on possible Criminal Code charges. "You can watch a football match or discuss [the poet Aleksandr] Pushkin without permission, but for a religious meeting you need permission", Dmitry Chumakov, the official in charge of religious affairs at Gomel Regional Executive Committee told Forum 18. Two weeks earlier there was a similar armed police raid on the Svetlogorsk congregation of Council of Churches Baptists. "11 more armed police arrived and broke up the service, as if they were coming after bandits", Forum 18 was told. Two congregation members were fined in early June for meeting for worship without state permission.