25 July 2008
Officials have tried to stop three different Protestant communities in Grodno Region, north-western Belarus, from conducting peaceful religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the small town of Svisloch, a planned open-air baptism has been banned, despite the attempts of Pentecostals to negotiate with the authorities. Bishop Fyodor Tsvor told Forum 18 that "they just don't want to allow it." In the nearby town of Mosty, a Pentecostal pastor was fined nine months' minimum wages for leading a small unregistered church. The court verdict notes as evidence of wrongdoing that "at meetings they read the Gospel, discuss questions of religious faith, sing songs and conduct religious rites." In Grodno itself, Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk was summoned by the senior state regional religious affairs official, Igor Popov, who told him that his leadership of a worship service in a private home violated the Administrative Code. His case has now been sent to the city's Oktyabr District Court. All three communities point out that the state's actions violate the Belarusian Constitution.
23 June 2008
Belarus has imposed a fine of more than two months' average wages on a Baptist who "organised choir singing and conducted conversations on religious topics" outside Ushachi public market, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. After a plain clothes policeman told a group of Baptists from outside the area to stop, Vladimir Burshtyn replied that they were not disturbing public order and cited religious freedom guarantees in Belarus' Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The fine is, to Forum 18's knowledge, the highest yet imposed on Baptists for unregistered religious activity. Higher fines have been imposed on members of other communities. Olga Karchevskaya, an official who witnessed the incident, defended the state's response and the Religion Law's restrictions because "we need to know who's coming to us - they could be destructive or acting against people's interests." In a separate incident, a Baptist congregation's worship in Osipovichi was interrupted by officials, and the congregation's deacon was fined about two week's average wages for leading an unregistered religious community.
22 May 2008
Concern is growing across Europe about the deterioration of freedom of conscience in Belarus. Few are aware, however, that Belarus was once a haven of religious freedom for people fleeing persecution in Western Europe. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Antoni Bokun, pastor of Minsk's John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, describes how Belarusians' historical experience has taught them that "religious freedom elevates our nation, whereas religious un-freedom leads to the darkest and most tragic consequences." In 1573 - almost 400 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Belarusians adopted one of Europe's first legal declarations upholding religious freedom for all, when many other European states executed people for their faith. Pastor Antoni maintains that it is this deep-rooted experience which lies behind today's campaign against religious freedom restrictions. "Inspired by our long history of freedom of conscience, Belarusians continue to work and hope for the day that our country will reclaim its heritage as a land of religious freedom." In 2007 Pastor Bokun spent three days in prison and was heavily fined for leading worship services.
12 May 2008
Belarus discourages the commemoration of Orthodox Christians killed for their faith by the Soviet Union, Forum 18 News Service has found. Today's KGB secret police have sought to have icons of the New Martyrs, as they are known by the Orthodox Church, removed from Grodno Cathedral. Russian Orthodox Deacon Andrei Kurayev told Forum 18 that "Some comrades from the local KGB asked local clergy why they were inciting the people in such a way." While there was no official order to remove the icons – "it was on the level of a chat" - Kurayev reported that Bishop Artemi (Kishchenko) of Grodno and Volkovysk refused to take them down. "He told the KGB that he couldn't rewrite history." KGB officers also often monitor visitors to Kuropaty, where New Martyrs are probably among mass graves of Stalinist repression victims, a local Orthodox source told Forum 18. The act of going there – even to light candles - is "fraught with tension" with the current Belarusian regime, according to the source. An Orthodox chapel planned for the site has never been built.
29 April 2008
Three human rights defenders have been punished for organising the mass petition to challenge the 2002 Religion Law. The three were each fined two months' average wages in late April, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "There is a procedure for such initiatives in any democratic society, and they didn't follow it," Yuri Kulakovsky, chair of the parliamentary Human Rights, Ethnic Relations and Media Committee, insisted to Forum 18. He named Norway as a country that he claimed imposes such procedures. However, Gunnar Martin Ekeløve-Slydal of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee confirmed to Forum 18 that in Norway there is "no need at all to ask for permission to collect signatures in support of peaceful activity". Kulakovsky also claimed that the Religion Law's requirement for compulsory registration of religious organisations, geographical restrictions on their activity, a requirement for state permission for services outside designated houses of worship and a ban on foreign citizens founding or leading religious organisations are fully in line with Belarus' Constitution.
14 April 2008
The Belarusian state appears to have scaled down plans to turn a baroque Catholic monastery into a luxury hotel and entertainment complex, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Unofficial reports suggest that the cultural monument will now house a mini-hotel and/or museum. As Minsk Catholics marked a third year of daily prayer vigils outside the monastery's St Joseph Church, however, there is still no sign that the government intends to fulfil a 17-year-old promise to return the building to believers. Local Catholics have maintained to Forum 18 that a nationwide petition for the return of the monastery, which gained 50,000 signatures, led to a more modest development project. Protestants active in a separate petition to change the country's harsh Religion Law joined the Catholic campaign. No state officials were available to discuss the issue with Forum 18. Although some 95 per cent of historical Orthodox churches in Belarus have been returned, all but a handful of Jewish synagogues remain state property. Lutherans and Calvinists have also had little success in winning back their historical churches.
2 April 2008
Pavel Nozdrya, a member of the charismatic Jesus Christ Church in the southern city of Mozyr who helped gather signatures on a religious freedom petition, told Forum 18 News Service he lost his job as an electrician at the local university in mid-March. He was one of seven members of a church youth group meeting in a private house on 29 February which was raided by local ideology officials. A police officer who visited the same house on Sunday 9 March said he was responding to a warning that a human sacrifice would take place there. Nozdrya attributes the harassment to the church's involvement in the mass petition to amend the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, which was handed to the authorities in late February. Government bodies rejected the petition in late March, claiming that reports of religious freedom violations "do not correspond with reality". Pavel Severinets, an Orthodox Christian involved in the campaign, and members of the Minsk-based charismatic New Life church face prosecution.
20 March 2008
Belarusian and international law upholds the rights of prisoners and detainees to pastoral visits, communal worship and religious literature. But recent prisoners of conscience have described their particular experience of violations to Forum 18 News Service. Artur Finkevich was allowed to attend Catholic Mass just three times during 18 months in jail. "Even though I was constantly filing requests. I think they saw not allowing me to go as part of my re-education." Detained in Minsk since 21 January, political prisoner Andrei Kim has had "no response whatsoever" to his request for a visit by a Protestant pastor, his mother told Forum 18. One political prisoner reported that Catholic and Orthodox ordinary prisoners were forced to work at Easter and Christmas. Belarusian officials have insisted that prisoners' religious freedom is respected. There are currently no prisoners jailed purely for their religious convictions in Belarus.
5 March 2008
Belarus seems to be increasing its use of technical building regulations to harass Protestant churches, Forum 18 News Service notes. The fire safety demands for which one church was fined would have involved moving walls, Pastor Mikhail Kabushko, a Pentecostal in Brest Region, told Forum 18. "Every time they check, there is something new. Even if we were to fulfil everything now, there's no guarantee they won't come up with something more." Separately, the pastor of a Minsk-based charismatic church, who also thinks health and safety demands are being used to oppress Protestants, faces prosecution for refusing to admit state inspectors onto church property. Officials have avoided answering Forum 18's questions. A 50,000-signature, 3,442-page long petition from across Belarus calling for a change to the Religion Law has been submitted to the Constitutional Court, Parliament and Presidential Administration. The Constitutional Court has replied that appeals should be submitted via President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Parliament or other authorised state bodies. These state bodies now have a month to reply to the petition.
20 February 2008
Belarus has tightened its already severe regulations on foreign religious workers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The changes give the country's top religious affairs official sole discretion in deciding whether religious work by foreign citizens is necessary. The Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs now also has the right not to give reasons for refusing a foreign religious worker's visit, and to shorten a visit "if the period of time required for realisation of the aims for which the foreign citizen is invited does not correspond to that requested." The country's harsh Religion Law states that foreign religious workers must be invited by registered religious associations. These are defined as ten or more state-registered communities, at least one of which must have functioned in Belarus for 20 years. The application procedure for inviting foreign religious workers is also much more detailed than previously. Shortly after the new regulations were published, "the largest non-political, civil campaign in Belarusian history" - a petition to change the 2002 Religion Law - reached its target of 50,000 signatures.
8 February 2008
Belarus has stepped up pressure on the Baptist Council of Churches, issuing a spate of fines for unregistered religious activity, Forum 18 News Service observes. The Council's congregations reject state registration in post-Soviet countries, believing that it leads to government interference. One of those recently prosecuted, Nikolai Varushin, told Forum 18: "This is our path; we are prepared to suffer for our faith. We just pray that our people will remain true to the Lord." In defiance of international human rights standards, Belarus is the only country in Europe to ban unregistered religious activity. While not including Baptists among their number, the judge in one of the recent cases, Aleksei Belotsky, told Forum 18 that the state regulates religious activity to protect citizens from "destructive sects". The increased pressure on Protestants coincides with a number of prominent public statements on the religious situation in Belarus by state officials. For example, Leonid Gulyako, Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, recently announced that in 2008 "measures will be activated to prevent the spread of neo-cults and pseudo-religions."
7 February 2008
Active Protestant churches in Belarus are facing increased pressure, Forum 18 News Service notes. In response to the indefinite adjournment of a court case to decide the fate of their church building, the congregation of New Life Church in the capital Minsk has opted for civil disobedience. They are refusing to let state inspectors with the power to impose fines onto church property. With fire, electricity and other inspectors repeatedly but unsuccessfully trying to gain access to the church, its pastor is now threatened with a fine. An assistant public prosecutor has warned that, if the obstruction continues, "we could be talking about another form of punishment." The impasse appears to be due to the authorities' disarray over which state body should resolve the issue. A senior religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the Minsk city authorities are primarily responsible for New Life's situation, but Minsk's chief religious affairs official told Forum 18 that "I'm not responsible to them for anything!" A similar case appears to be developing in Baranovichi, where New Generation Church was recently fined for alleged incorrect land use.