BELARUS: Orthodox priest under "pressure" or "just an explanation"?
Russian Orthodox Church Abroad priest Fr Leonid Plyats has had four lengthy "discussions" with officials, in the space of just over a week, and threats to punish him with jail or a massive fine if he holds any services outside his home. But local police chief Valentin Nikolaenok has denied to Forum 18 News Service that this is "pressure". Aleksandr Kozmin of the district Ideology Department told Forum 18 that "The warning was just an explanation of the law." Kozmin did not believe Forum 18 that other European states did not have Ideology Departments. But he insisted that Fr Plyats has no right to conduct any religious activity except private gatherings in his own home. Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) told Forum 18 that "I can't believe that in our time, in the centre of Europe, believers are being banned from gathering together to worship God. This is discrimination against our Church. They don't get involved in politics or opposition activity – it is a purely religious organisation."
"Like everywhere in Europe we have a department which promotes state ideology," Kozmin told Forum 18, when asked to explain the role of the Ideology Department. "State ideology includes patriotism, faithfulness to the constitution, and obedience to the country's laws. Our department works with political, social and religious organisations to promote this." Kozmin did not believe Forum 18's assurances that other European states did not have ideology departments at the local and national levels.
The influence of militant atheism on officials is strong (see F18News 18 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=186), and close supervision by officials of religious communities is an integral part of central state policy (see F18News 9 February 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=248).
Defending the rights of Fr Plyats and his parishioners is his bishop, Agafangel (Pashkovsky), who is based in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. "I can't believe that in our time, in the centre of Europe, believers are being banned from gathering together to worship God," he told Forum 18 from Odessa on 6 June. "This is discrimination against our Church there. They don't get involved in politics or opposition activity – it is a purely religious organisation." He says the threats against Fr Plyats have now gone quiet, but he fears the next step could be a large fine.
Belarus has the harshest controls on religious activity of any European state. In defiance of its international human rights commitments, the government has rendered all unregistered religious activity illegal and has cracked down on religious communities that have been refused (like the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad), failed to or do not want to receive registration. New Life charismatic church in Minsk has so far faced the greatest pressure to halt its activities after being denied registration, with repeated fines on church leaders for allegedly organising what the authorities insist is "illegal" religious worship (see F18News 19 May 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=565).
Over the past decade the government has largely succeeded in crushing all Orthodox communities that function outside the framework of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has even registered the term "Belarusian Orthodox Church" as a trademark to prevent communities of other Orthodox jurisdictions gaining registration (see F18News 6 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=177). The government has refused registration to parishes of all rival jurisdictions, including the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Three of its parishes in Minsk region unsuccessfully mounted court challenges against registration refusals in 2003 (see F18News 25 November 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=463).
Fr Plyats' latest troubles began on 17 May, when a commission arrived at his home in the village of Zabolotye near Minsk on the orders of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs. The commission included not only Marina Vul and Lidiya Nayden, chair and secretary of the village Soviet, but also Kozmin of the Ideology Department of the Smolevichi District Executive Committee and the fire inspector.
The Russian religious news website portal-credo.ru reported that the commission was keen to investigate Fr Plyats' "illegal religious activity" and tried to examine his home under the pretext of a fire inspection, searching for "premises for prayer to conduct underground illegal services". On leaving, the ideology official promised to return for a further search.
That same evening, local police officer Ivan Lushchik came to Fr Plyats' home and, on instruction from the State Religion Committee, interrogated him on his religious activity.
Lushchik returned on 23 May with a senior colleague, but Fr Plyats was out. However, for more than an hour they interrogated his wife and a fellow parishioner. When Fr Plyats returned, the officers continued interrogating him about his "illegal religious activity". Portal-credo.ru said it appeared a high-level directive had been issued to uncover the "underground religious sect" and punish Fr Plyats.
On 24 May district police chief Nikolaenok and his deputy, Vyacheslav Strochinsky, summoned Fr Plyats and two of his parishioners for further questioning about "illegal religious activity". The officers officially warned Fr Plyats that if he conducts unregistered religious services he will be sentenced under Article 167 part 1 of the code of administrative offences, which punishes "violating the established procedure for holding religious events" with either a warning, a fine ranging from 20 to 150 times the minimum wage, or detention for between three and 15 days.
Lidiya Nayden, one of the two local officials on the commission that visited Fr Plyats on 17 May, told Forum 18 that the visit had been initiated after a complaint from a Minsk resident that Fr Plyats had put her son under "psychological pressure". "We went to talk to him about the complaint and he explained what had happened," she told Forum 18. "I believe he didn't do anything wrong. There is no pressure on Fr Plyats."
Told that he had subsequently been interrogated by the police and threatened with a large administrative fine, she said she did not know about this. "The village Soviet has nothing against him," she assured Forum 18. "We don't see any violations of the law in his religious activities."
Kozmin of the Ideology Department was less sympathetic. "According to our religion law a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad can function only once the community is registered," he told Forum 18. "Unregistered religious activity is illegal – we simply explained this to Plyats." Kozmin denied that banning unregistered religious activity defies international human rights commitments to freedom of speech, assembly and religion. "There can't be freedom without abiding by the law."
He said the commission had visited Fr Plyats after receiving complaints that he had conducted services in other villages, adding that the priest had insisted he does not conduct worship services, but merely meets privately with friends. "When we went to see him on 17 May we just talked with him. We didn't interrogate him. Nor did the police when they invited him in. He didn't have to go to see them," Kozmin claimed. "So please don't talk about summonses, interrogations or persecution." He denied that four lengthy "discussions" in the space of just over a week and threats to punish Fr Plyats if he holds any services outside his home constitute "pressure".
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=478
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru
1 June 2005
As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.
30 May 2005
In a new move, the SBU security police has told Forum 18 News Service that people barred entry by other CIS countries – including Russia – on religious and other grounds can now appeal against any visa bar to Ukraine. Appeals can be made either to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry or the SBU, Forum 18 was told. The move follows the ending of an entry ban against Japanese Buddhist monk Junsei Teresawa. The SBU refused to tell Forum 18 why Teresawa had originally been denied entry, but insisted it was not for religious reasons and denied that there is a religious category for issuing entry bans. Not every religious figure banned from entry by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been barred from Ukraine and Latvian-based Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev - barred by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is now in Ukraine. One of the most prominent recent deportees from Russia was Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen, but the SBU told Forum 18 that "no-one with the surname Mazur is on the Ukrainian entry ban list".
19 May 2005
Vasily Yurevich, administrator of New Life charismatic church in Minsk, faces new charges of repeatedly organising "illegal" worship, five months after he was fined 150 times the minimum monthly wage for the same "offence". He told Forum 18 News Service he was summoned by police on 18 May to be informed of the new charges, two weeks after his appeal against the earlier fine was rejected. The church's pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, has also been fined twice. The authorities say the church's use of a former cowshed for services is illegal as the building has not been designated for religious use. The 600-strong church has already been denied official registration, meaning that all its activity is therefore illegal. In April Minsk city administration issued the church with a third official warning, though two are enough for a court to close down a religious organisation.