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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: Why can't derelict church be relocated for worship?

Officials in the Belarusian capital have refused to allow a derelict historic Pomore Old Believer church to be transferred from a remote northern village where no local Old Believers remain to serve the community in Minsk. Community leader Aleksandr Belov told Forum 18 News Service the relocation would give the Minsk community an affordable yet dignified place of worship, and at the same time preserve a part of their treasured heritage. He says the church is significant for them because "this is the church where our community has prayed". Despite repeated calls, Forum 18 could not reach officials of the city Architecture Department, or the senior city religious affairs official. However, in a letter seen by Forum 18, the Architecture Department's First Deputy Head, Aleksei Martynov, told the community that given that the church has to suit its environment, "we consider it inexpedient to transfer the wooden church to the urban environment of a big city like Minsk".

BELARUS: 'Forbidden Christ' and right to legally challenge warnings forbidden

'Forbidden Christ', a Belarusian film documenting Soviet-era persecution of Protestant churches, was banned from a Catholic film festival by the Belarusian State Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Forum 18 News Service has learned. It was seized from film director Aleksei Shein and sent for an "expert analysis" to the KGB secret police. However, the KGB told Forum 18 that it would be returned to Shein. He told Forum 18 that "perhaps the authorities fear that some believers will see a parallel with what is happening in our country now". Separately, the latest attempts by Jehovah's Witnesses to establish the right to legally challenge official warnings against literature distribution have failed. Both the Supreme Court and Gomel Regional Prosecutor's Office have rejected the right to make such legal challenges - despite a Constitutional Court decision upholding the right to make them. One Jehovah's Witness community has been warned that it faces liquidation if it continues to distribute literature.

BELARUS: Bible school food fine, frozen church bank account

A pastor in Belarus has been fined for alleged unsanitary conditions for food served to children at a summer Bible school. Trouble began when local Ideology official Vladimir Zagorsky with two other officials visited the Bible school. Zagorsky maintained that schools have the "duty to control children going to churches during school holidays". He was unable to explain to Forum 18 what law imposed this "duty", or how this matched individuals' right to a private life. Also, for more than two months New Life Pentecostal Church in the capital Minsk has had to exist without a legal bank account. It was frozen after two large fines were imposed in July. "By law, all the contributions we receive have to be placed in our bank account by the following day. We can't do this", the church's lawyer told Forum 18. Paying staff wages and pension contributions is now difficult, and some charities the church supports will not accept gifts in cash, he added. "The church's life and worship continues, but administratively things are difficult."

BELARUS: Executed prisoner denied religious burial

The mother of executed prisoner Andrei Zhuk has filed a legal case against Belarus' refusal to release her son's body or to tell her where he was buried. Svetlana Zhuk complained, in an appeal seen by Forum 18 News Service, that she was "denied the possibility to bury my son in accordance with the demands of Orthodox Christianity". She insists this was a religious freedom violation under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). "Whatever an individual's crimes, according to church canons relatives have the right to pray for the deceased and bury them with church rites," a Russian Orthodox priest told Forum 18. "We should pray for such individuals deeply, as we pray for all sinners." Human rights defender Raman Kisliak commented to Forum 18 that "such a violation of freedom of conscience is impermissible in a state that is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." The Interior Ministry wrote to Svetlana Zhuk, stating that under Belarusian law: "Bodies are not handed over for burial and the location of burial is not communicated." No date has yet been set to hear the case, but officials expect it to be heard within ten days.

BELARUS: "Appropriate permission is needed"

The pastor of a Belarusian village Pentecostal church has been fined three times in one day for sharing his faith outdoors in a nearby village, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Viktor Novik has decided not to appeal and to pay the fines, telling Forum 18 that "we resolved to suffer for God." The verdict claimed that Pastor Novik "understands that to hold events, appropriate permission is needed." Novik told Forum 18 that – as the verdict confirms - he had applied several times for this and to rent a building for a meeting, but each time this was refused. One local official dnied this, telling Forum 18 that "he never applied, verbally or in writing," before stating that no building would be made available. Elsewhere, courts have refused to acquit one person for the "crime" of conscientious objection to compulsory military service, but two others have been acquitted. Fears have been expressed that at least one of the three may be prosecuted again for the same "crime". A coalition of civil society groups has presented published proposals for an Alternative Service Law to a state working group on the subject, but has yet to receive any acknowledgement of this.

BELARUS: Another massive fine, right to worship on own property denied

New Life Pentecostal Church in Belarus' capital Minsk has had a massive fine imposed on it today (29 July), for alleged "environmental damage", Forum 18 News Service has learned. Added to an earlier fine, the two fines and "compensation" total 265,750,000 Belarusian Roubles (542,850 Norwegian Kroner, 68,250 Euros, or 89,300 US Dollars). Sergei Lukanin, the church's lawyer, told Forum 18 that the Church will pay neither fine, arguing that if there is any pollution at the site it dates from the time before the church owned the property. He insisted that the church has kept the building and site in good order, a contention which Forum 18's own observations on visits support. A city environmental official claimed in an official report on the Church before the fines that grass growing for a children's playground damaged the environment. Meanwhile, two small Pentecostal churches in villages near Minsk have been fined for using the properties they own for worship. Officials claim the properties are registered for domestic use and therefore worship is illegal. The small congregations will struggle to pay these fines, a church member said. "The fear is that officials could do this again – the mechanism is there," Forum 18 was told.

BELARUS: Will proposed new Alternative Service Law respect conscientious objections?

Ivan Mikhailov, Dmitry Smyk and Yevhen Yakovenko - the three young men convicted since late 2009 of refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience - separately told Forum 18 News Service that they want the proposed new Alternative Service Law now being drafted to introduce a fully-civilian service, not of punitive length and open to all conscientious objectors, whether religious or not. Mikhail Pashkevich of the group For Alternative Civilian Service insisted to Forum 18 that applicants for alternative civilian service should be able simply to inform the authorities of this decision without having to "prove" their entitlement. President Aleksandr Lukashenko's instruction in February that an Alternative Service Law be drafted came a decade after Belarus' Constitutional Court ruled that introducing an alternative service in line with provisions in the Constitution was "urgent".

BELARUS: Contradictory court rulings for conscientious objectors

The three conscientious objectors to compulsory military service sentenced under the Criminal Code since such prosecutions resumed in November 2009 have faced different outcomes, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Messianic Jew Ivan Mikhailov was found guilty and imprisoned, but was freed days before the end of his three-month sentence. He was acquitted on retrial and the prosecutor's appeal against this was rejected. He told Forum 18 he will seek compensation for his imprisonment. Jehovah's Witness Dmitry Smyk, initially fined, was acquitted on retrial, but the prosecutor's appeal against this is due to be heard on 16 July, as he told Forum 18. Non-religious objector Yevhen Yakovenko, sentenced on 4 June to one year's restricted freedom, told Forum 18 he has appealed against the sentence. All three say they would do an alternative civilian service. "It is not wrong to serve one's country," Mikhailov told Forum 18, "especially on socially-useful work, such as in children's homes or hospitals."

BELARUS: "I'm depoliticised"

The head of the Belarusian capital Minsk's City Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee has denied to Forum 18 News Service that his action against the New Life Full Gospel Church is politically motivated. "I'm depoliticised," Aleksandr Borovikov insisted of his attempt to prosecute the church for alleged oil pollution, "I'm not part of any campaign against the church." Church members think the massive, disputed fine imposed on the church for environmental damage is part of the long-running state campaign against them. While concerned that grass being grown for a children's playground at the church might also cause environmental damage, Borovikov seemed unfazed when Forum 18 raised concerns about accumulated rubbish - including rotting vehicles and old washing machines - dumped within 500 metres of the church. Meanwhile, Pastor Vladimir Kochegur of New Life's sister church in Novogrudok has insisted that the fine imposed on him for religious activity at home was unjustified. "They claim I held a worship service late at night on 16 March, but there was no such meeting," he told Forum 18. In Brest Region, police and ideology officials have similarly moved against a Baptist street library for operating without state permission.

BELARUS: Administrative Code changes, but fines continue

After a 21 February raid on his church's Sunday worship service by the KGB, police and local officials, Pastor Yuri Petrevich was twice fined a total of more than a month's average wages in March to punish him for leading his unregistered church in Grodno in western Belarus, as he told Forum 18 News Service. The first fine – for unregistered religious activity – came despite the abolition of such an "offence" in the Administrative Violations Code. A Jehovah's Witness in Mogilev Region had his case dropped after the change, and books confiscated in a raid were returned. "At first glance it seems that the removal of these 'offences' is a positive move," religious freedom lawyer Dina Shavtsova told Forum 18. "But unfortunately, this change to the Administrative Violations Code doesn't resolve the problem of the legal restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief." She fears the authorities might instead bring cases under the Criminal Code, where penalties for unregistered religious activity remain.

BELARUS: Conscientious objector jailed

Ivan Mikhailov, a Messianic Jew, has today (1 February) had a three-month jail term imposed on him by a court in Belarus for refusing compulsory military service. His brother-in-law told Forum 18 News Service that "The sentence has nothing to do with justice." His lawyer, Svetlana Gorbatok, argued that the absence of an Alternative Service Law is not a legal basis for violating Mikhailov's rights. He has been in pre-trial detention since 15 December 2009, and must serve another six weeks unless he wins an appeal he will make. Also present in court was Mikhail Pashkevich of 'For Alternative Civilian Service', which has launched a civic society petition calling for civilian alternative service. Prosecutor Aleksandr Cherepovich, asked by Forum 18 who had suffered from refusal to undertake compulsory military service, replied: "The state." Meanwhile, the launch of a CD compilation of Christian songs at a Catholic church has been stopped under state pressure. Senior religious affairs official Alla Ryabitseva angrily told Forum 18 that: "Concerts don't take place in churches."

BELARUS: Alternative Service Law withdrawn as prisoner awaits trial

Arrested by Belarus on 15 December, after his demands to do alternative civilian service were rejected, Messianic Jew Ivan Mikhailov is due to go on trial on 29 January on charges of refusing compulsory military service, Minsk District Court told Forum 18 News Service. After a gap of nine years, Dmitry Smyk, a Jehovah's Witness from Gomel, was found guilty on the same charge in November 2009 and given a large fine, which he is still appealing against. A Law on Alternative Service was initially included in the 2010 Legislative Programme but was removed "for some reason" at the last minute, an official of the National Centre for Legislation and Legal Research told Forum 18. The failure to introduce alternative service comes a decade after a May 2000 Constitutional Court ruling declaring its introduction "urgent". Meanwhile, the Supreme Court denied Jehovah's Witnesses in Gomel the right to challenge an official written warning, despite a 2007 Constitutional Court decision upholding religious organisations' right to make such challenges.