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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: One week left for charismatic church?

Members of Minsk's New Life Pentecostal Church – who have been campaigning for a decade to hold on to their building - have been ordered to hand over the keys of their church to officials next Wednesday (5 December). The eviction order – seen by Forum 18 News Service - orders the local housing authority to provide "vehicles, manpower and everything necessary to evict the debtor" in case of forced eviction. Court executor Olga Shcherbovich of Minsk's Higher Economic Court, who signed the order, refused to discuss it with Forum 18. "We are treating this very seriously," church member and lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18. "There will be round-the-clock prayer in our building and special evening prayer meetings to ask the Lord to defend our building and to guide our response to the authorities."

BELARUS: Non-existent offences prosecuted

Belarus has removed from its Code of Administrative Offences punishment for religious events held without state permission. But officials still sometimes raid and prosecute such meetings – even in private homes. Jehovah's Witness Kirill Dashkovsky told Forum 18 News Service that in his recent case a judge refused to hear arguments that his "offence" no longer exists. If adopted, a new Housing Code might make home worship freer – but it would still need state permission.

BELARUS: No religious burials for executed prisoners

Relatives of executed death row prisoners in Belarus remain unable to recover their bodies for burial, Forum 18 News Service notes. In the latest case the mother of Vladislav Kovalev, executed on 15 March, tried to claim her son's body for burial. Lyubov Kovaleva told Forum 18 News Service that "it is important to give Vladislav - like other people - a Christian burial". Death row prisoners are not told until the last minute the date and time of their execution, so they also do not have the chance to receive a visit from a priest. Nor are families of executed prisoners told when and where they are buried. Political prisoners' rights to freedom of religion or belief also continue to be violated, with denials of access to literature such as the Bible and visits by clergy. Correspondence by family and friends with political prisoners has also been blocked. Conscientious objectors to compulsory military service also continue to be punished. Jehovah's Witness Artem Strelchenko has been threatened that, if he does not report for military service, "a complex of measures for the legal evaluation of the given fact" will be undertaken.

BELARUS: "I'm not going to the army"

On 17 April Jehovah Witness Aleksandr Belous was told criminal charges for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience had been dropped, but that he is being called up yet again for compulsory military service. "I'll have to start from scratch, but I'm not going to the army," he told Forum 18 News Service. Gomel Military Commissioner Vladimir Efimchik told Forum 18 this is "standard procedure" and claimed most of the few young men who refuse military service are forced to accept after Prosecutors launch or threaten to launch criminal cases. On 2 May a pacifist from Lida, Andrei Chernousov, was confined to a psychiatric hospital to establish if his convictions which led him to refuse call-up accord with "norms of psychiatric health". Mikhail Pashkevich of For Alternative Civilian Service complained to Forum 18 that the current draft of the Alternative Civilian Service Law under consideration – which he has seen - allows only for religious conscientious objectors, not for those who hold non-religious pacifist views, and that alternative service will be twice as long as military service. Former General Prosecutor Grigory Vasilevich told Forum 18 "it's too early to talk about alternative civilian service for all ethical objectors".

BELARUS: Raids, threats, warnings for religious meetings

Religious communities in various parts of Belarus have faced visits, threats and warnings for holding meetings for worship which officials regard as illegal. On one Sunday in January, officials visited three Pentecostal services in separate villages. Pastor Vasili Raptsevich – who led worship in a church-owned house in a village in Brest Region for about ten disabled church members unable to travel to the main congregation in a nearby town - was summoned to the police station. There he was told that he had violated the law by conducting a religious service away from its legal address without permission from the Regional Executive Committee. Police threatened him with court proceedings and threatened to strip his Pentecostal church of state registration, he told Forum 18 News Service. In February, police in the capital Minsk – among them masked riot police - launched a mass raid on a cultural meeting being held in a Pentecostal pastor's home. 34 participants were taken to a police station, but were released two hours later without any explanation and without any official record being drawn up. Police refused to comment to Forum 18.

BELARUS: Why is state Financial Investigation Committee investigating a priest?

A Belarusian regional state Financial Investigation Committee is examining the activities of Fr Vyacheslav Barok, a Catholic priest in the northern Vitebsk Region. Committee officials have told him that he is suspected of evading tax on alleged earnings of about 1,000,000 Euros from pilgrimages he and a number of volunteers organise – but they will not put the allegations in writing to Fr Barok, or clarify them to Forum 18 News Service. Fr Barok strongly denies the allegations, which were made on the basis of an anonymous letter officials claim they were sent. The Financial Investigation Committee has also been questioning some of the pilgrims. One pilgrim questioned – who had been on two foreign pilgrimages – told Forum 18 that she was asked if Fr Barok made her donate money for the church or demanded extra money during the trips. "It was silly to assume such things, they are not true," the pilgrim indignantly stated. Forum 18 contacted one local tourist agency, and found that they charged about twice as much for a tour similar to a pilgrimage organised by Fr Barok.

BELARUS: "It's not a crime if believers worship in my house"

Fined several weeks' average wages in late September for leading unregistered religious worship was Pastor Aleksei Abramovich. His church in Zhodino near Belarus' capital Minsk belongs to the Baptist Council of Churches, whose congregations refuse on principle to gain the state registration which officials insist is compulsory. Yelena Goretskaya of the Ideology Department of Zhodino Executive Committee, who took part in the raid, claimed to Forum 18 News Service that the church had broken the law. "We don't interfere with state policy. Our worship meetings are purely religious. It's not a crime if believers worship in my house," Pastor Abramovich wrote in a letter of complaint to President Aleksandr Lukashenko. The Church of God, an independent Protestant church in Zhodino, has given up trying to gain state registration as repeated attempts have failed. Architecture officials will not sign off that his newly-built church is complete. Elsewhere, eight Jehovah's Witness congregations, as well as non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox congregations languish without state registration. This leaves them at risk of raids and punishment at any time.

BELARUS: "Inmates are afraid of exercising their religious freedom rights"

In Belarus non-Orthodox prisoners face difficulties in exercising their freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. In maximum security prisons, "prison administrations make prisoners face a difficult choice whom to see once a year - either clergy or relatives", lawyer Vlasta Oleksuk told Forum 18. All prisoners sentenced to death – such as Andrei Burdyka executed in July – are denied the possibility to meet clergy before their execution, even if they request this. There are also problems in ordinary prisons, for example Muslims having no allowance made for their diet. Anatoly Tunchik of the Punishment Implementation Department, asked about visits by non-Orthodox clergy, replied: "We are very strict at not admitting any random person into prisons. Sometimes", he continued, "they disguise themselves as other religions and have a negative influence over the inmates. For this reason access is only possible for Orthodox and Catholic priests, which means registered religions". Many convicts and clergy of different religions were not even aware of the rights they had. Also, "inmates are afraid of exercising their religious freedom rights, as they fear that the prison staff's attitude will be tougher", Protestant Pastor Boris Chernoglaz told Forum 18.

COMMENTARY: Bayatyan – a European Court judgment with an impact far beyond Armenia

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.

BELARUS: "Clergy access is something exceptional in pre-trial detention centres"

Three months after his arrest, the closed trial of Grodno-based journalist Andrzej Poczobut on charges of slandering Belarus' president is likely to conclude tomorrow (5 July) with the verdict. He has been denied a visit from a priest since his April arrest. "He is a true Roman Catholic and all this time in detention he has asked for a priest more than once, but the prison administration always found excuses not to grant it," his wife Aksana Poczobut complained to Forum 18. One of the two Catholic prison chaplains, Fr Kazimir Zylis, told Forum 18 he has been waiting for permission from the Prosecutor's Office to visit Poczobut. Forum 18 also knows of pre-trial detainees denied clergy visits in the KGB secret police detention centre in the capital Minsk and in the city's Detention Centre No. 1, which is run by the Interior Ministry. "Clergy access is something exceptional in pre-trial detention centres," Oleg Gulak of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee told Forum 18.

COMMENTARY: Advancing Freedom of Religion or Belief: Agendas for Change

"Rather than being a celebration of a thing of worth, the approach currently adopted by the international political community to religious freedom is dominated by the language of special pleading, disadvantage, hostility, and hate. This must change", argued Professor Malcolm Evans in a lecture hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and published in abbreviated form by Forum 18.
Agendas such as "defamation of religions, incitement to religious hatred, combating antisemitism, Islamophobia, Christianophobia, Discrimination against Christians, etc." risk, Professor Evans notes, being "self-defeating by being self-serving". "The predominant interest which faith communities show in the rights of their own" forms a barrier. "Unless and until that barrier is overcome, the ability of the international community to engage effectively with the protection of the freedom of religion or belief as a human right will be diminished".
Calling for work to re-start on a UN Convention, Professor Evans observes of some approaches: "The question which continually gets lost in these twists and turns is simple, but important: 'Why not start with the idea of the freedom of religion or belief for everyone?'" For, states are the source "in reality, [of] most of the restrictions placed on the freedom of religion or belief - and, therefore, much of the hostility and violence which believers face".
Professor Evans identifies the need to "roll back the essentially negative approaches of recent years and champion a more positive vision of what religious freedom has to offer". He ends by noting signs of positive change, and calling on Christians and those of other faiths and none to "champion the freedoms of others as well as of ourselves".

BELARUS: Priest's visit "inexpedient" / Fresh Criminal Code Article 193-1 threat

The Co-Chair of Belarus' Christian Democracy movement, Pavel Severinets, was for five months in detention repeatedly denied the possibility of a visit he requested from an Orthodox priest, he has told Forum 18 News Service. Severinets was speaking after he was given an open jail term for his political activities, at a trial along with two other opposition political activists and human rights defenders. The authorities admitted to Severinets that he had every legal right to see a priest, he told Forum 18. He suspects that the denial was due to his refusal to work for the KGB secret police as an informer, and his unwillingness to plead guilty to organising a riot. Elsewhere, Nikolai Varushin, a member of an unregistered Baptist church has been threatened with punishment under Criminal Code Article 193-1, which carries a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. This is the second recent occasion in which the use of Article 193-1 – which has not previously been used to repress freedom of religion or belief – has been threatened against an unregistered religious community.