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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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BELARUS: Two Catholic parish priests banned from religious activity

Two Polish Catholic parish priests in Belarus are the latest foreign citizens to be denied permission to carry out religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Both Capuchin priest Fr Jan Bonkowski, who was parish priest of Mizhevitsi village for twenty years, and Jesuit priest Fr Edward Smaga had to halt all religious activity at the end of 2009. A third priest was also threatened with denial of permission, but told Forum 18 that "everything is OK now". Fr Aleksandr Amialchenia, who speaks for the Belarusian Catholic Bishops' Conference, said no reasons were given for the refusals. He stressed that the two priests have not been barred from Belarus. Igor Popov, of the Grodno Religious Affairs Department, refused to answer any questions, asking "What priests?" before putting the phone down. Forum 18 estimates that more than two-thirds of the 33 foreign citizens barred from conducting religious work have been Catholic. Priests and nuns engaged in tackling social issues, such as alcoholism, in a very public manner appear to be particular targets.

COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

BELARUS: "We have Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims – all the others are sects"

The Deputy Chief of Minsk's Frunze District Police, Dinas Linkus, said he sent the local police officer to question the Kagramanyan family, who are Pentecostals, about their religious faith. "We had a request from the Culture Department of Minsk City Executive Committee several weeks ago to find out whether any religious activity was going on at this address, to establish whether a church was active there or not," he told Forum 18 News Service. "We have Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims – these are the religions. All the others are sects." Meanwhile Transfiguration Baptist Church in Vitebsk Region was fined for using a private house for religious worship, despite having official permission to do so. Jehovah's Witness Dmitry Smyk has been fined for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds, but criminal charges against one other conscientious objector have been dropped.

BELARUS: "To prevent them from continuing their worship service"

The Prosecutor who authorised a six-hour raid on a Protestant Sunday worship service in a private home in eastern Belarus has refused to explain why it happened. "It was an official action and I can't discuss it," Vitaly Kovalev, Prosecutor of the Chausy District, told Forum 18 News Service. He also refused to say what will be done with boxes of Bibles, Christian books and films confiscated during the raid, or whether the church's pastor, Irina Marshalkovskaya-Grik, will face further action. Anna Danisevich, an official of the district Ideology Department, led the raid with four police officers and three "witnesses" as some 20 church members were singing hymns. Danisevich denied the raid was a raid. "We acted strictly in accordance with the law. We live in a democratic state," she claimed. Asked why she and officials stayed at the house for six hours, she told Forum 18: "To prevent them from continuing their worship service." Meanwhile, the trial of Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Dmitry Smyk is set to resume on 6 November. Also, a roundtable in Minsk to discuss the text of a new Religion Law proposed by human rights defenders is hoped to take place on 13 November, despite obstruction by the authorities.

BELARUS: Prosecutions of conscientious objectors resume

The criminal trial of Jehovah's Witness Dmitry Smyk, which began in Gomel on 8 October and is set to resume on 29 October, represents the first known prosecution of a religious conscientious objector to compulsory military service in the past nine years, Forum 18 News Service notes. "I have tried to abide by the Bible in all aspects of my life and act on its teachings that one shouldn't fight or teach to fight," Smyk told Forum 18. He said he is ready to do a civilian alternative service, as guaranteed in Belarus' Constitution. However, without a mechanism to enact this, Gomel's Military Commissariat says it must pass cases of refusal to conduct military service for prosecution. "So I have the right, but can't use it," Smyk says. Two other local Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors have been referred to the Prosecutor's Office and another case is reportedly likely in Grodno.

BELARUS: "They were not doing wrong – it's just our law"

Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses in Belarus continue to be raided and fined by the authorities for unregistered religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has found. The raids on meetings for unregistered worship have been strongly defended by the authorities. Anna Mukhlya, an expert in a regional Ideology Department who took part in one of the raids, conceded that the raided congregation was not harming anyone. "They were not doing wrong – it's just our law," she told Forum 18. Civil society groups continue to campaign against the Belarusian Religion Law, which makes unregistered religious activity a criminal offence. The Legal Transformation Centre and the advocacy group For Religious Freedom have drawn up an alternative Religion Law, which they think conforms with international human rights standards. However, attempts to hold an open roundtable in Minsk on 27 October on this have been frustrated by bans on renting conference facilities, imposed by Minsk city authorities.

BELARUS: Fines on religious activity continue as pastors complain to president of restrictions

The official in the western town of Baranovichi who arranged for two local Baptists to be fined about one month's average wages each for using their home for religious worship defends his action. "They violated the Religion Law," ideology official Sergei Puzikov insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Told that the two point to Belarus' Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom, he responded: "In any country there is not only the Constitution, but individual laws." Puzikov was also involved in a fine handed down to another Baranovichi church in July. Police in nearby Malorita tried to have Baptists punished for singing hymns on the street, but the judge threw out the case. Fifty Protestant pastors – many of whom have been punished for religious activity - wrote to President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 20 August complaining of long-standing restrictions. The office of Belarus' senior religious affairs official refused to discuss their complaints with Forum 18.

BELARUS: Authorities prepare again to expel New Life church from its own building

Members of the New Life Full Gospel congregation in the capital Minsk refused to accept the latest official demands to give up the place of worship they bought back in 2002, the church's lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18 News Service. Court executors delivered an order to vacate the building by 20 August, but church members have held a series of prayer meetings to defend their building. The KGB secret police referred all Forum 18's questions to Minsk City Executive Committee, refusing to respond to church claims that it is behind moves to expel it from its place of worship. Alla Ryabitseva, senior religious affairs official at the Minsk Executive Committee, put the phone down when Forum 18 tried to find out why the church has been ordered to leave. European Union ambassadors in Minsk are due to hear the church leaders' concerns on 25 August.

BELARUS: Church fined for activity "not according to its statute"

A registered Protestant congregation in western Belarus has been fined for activity which officials claim was "not according to its statute," local Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. The church held a special prayer service in its registered building, which church members insist was within its statute. Trouble for the New Generation Church began when Baranovichi local Ideology Department officials saw posters in the town advertising the service. One official and two "witnesses" arrived at the church 30 minutes before the service, but left 10 minutes before it began without witnessing it. The official, Sergei Puzikov of the Ideology Department, refused to explain to Forum 18 what activity was outside the church's statute, as did the Department's head. In defiance of international human rights standards, Belarus bans all unregistered religious activity – including both unregistered communities and unregistered activity by registered communities. Religious activity is kept under close surveillance by the KGB secret police, and officials often issue warnings for activity they claim is illegal. Two such warnings can lead to a religious organisation being closed down.

BELARUS: Foreign pastor banned from preaching, church warned it may be closed

Belarus has warned a church in the capital Minsk that it could be closed after a foreign pastor preached at a worship service, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Pastor Boris Grisenko, a Ukrainian, was also fined. Alla Ryabitseva, head of the city's Department of Religious and Ethnic Affairs, claimed to Forum 18 that "I have been to the United States. Visitors to the country can't just go and speak at a religious service without permission." District police chief Viktor Pravilo refused to say how he had found out that a foreigner was preaching in the New Testament Pentecostal Church, religious communities having long complained to Forum 18 of KGB secret police surveillance. Asked whether the police did not have more important matters to deal with than a foreigner preaching at a religious service, Pravilo put the phone down. Foreigners engaged in religious activity have long been a target of state hostility, along with their Belarusian co-religionists. Catholic priests and nuns have regularly been expelled, but the authorities today (15 July) announced that they had completed the draft text of a Concordat. It is unknown whether this will address violations of freedom of religion or belief.

BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, June 2009

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko's repressive religious policies remain unchanged, Forum 18 News Service finds in its survey analysis of freedom of religion or belief. "Legal" restrictions include: requiring all religious activity by groups to have state permission, and be limited to one geographical area; barring meetings for worship or other religious activity in private homes that are either regular or large scale; requiring all places of worship to be state-approved; and routinely expelling both Catholic and Protestant foreign religious workers. As one Belarusian Protestant notes, "They have created conditions so you can't live by the law. We would need to close half our churches in order to operate technically in accordance with the law." By reducing religious communities' aspirations, they are being contained within an invisible ghetto of regulation. The authorities have crushed independent political, business and social organisations inside the country, and fear the potential of the largest remaining internal group of independent organisations – churches. This fear is reinforced by the fact that a number of key figures in the opposition are also committed Christians.

BELARUS: Largest fine yet for unregistered religious activity

Belarus has imposed its largest fine yet for unregistered religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A court in the eastern town of Osipovichi fined local Baptist Nikolai Poleshchuk the equivalent of almost three months' average salary in the town and another Baptist received a warning for running a Christian street library. However, Belarus' Supreme Court changed an earlier court order to destroy Bibles and New Testaments confiscated from Poleshchuk – they have been handed to the state instead. Asked by Forum 18 whether it is right to punish peaceful religious activity, Anna Zemlyanukhina, Head of Osipovichi District Ideology Department, replied: "I know my Constitution and human rights. It is all in accordance with the law." Separately, the co-ordinator of a rehabilitation programme for alcoholics and drug addicts, run by a Christian social organisation, has been fined for conducting unregistered religious activity. New Life Church in the capital Minsk also continues to face attempts by the authorities to stop it using its own building for worship and to evict the Church.