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2 September 2015

BELARUS: Cancelled fine for religious meeting re-imposed

Although the Regional Court overturned an earlier fine for leading a meeting for worship, the same lower court in Gomel [Homyel] in south-east Belarus has imposed the same fine of more than two weeks' average local wages on Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko of the Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church. He again submitted an appeal to the Regional Court on 1 September, he told Forum 18 News Service. Pastor Nikolaenko and another church member were given "official warnings" that if they violate the law by holding meetings to worship without state permission they will face criminal prosecution, with possible prison terms of up to three years. Aleksandr Gorlenko, the official who drafted the written ban on the Church's meetings, refused to discuss it. "All the reasons were explained to the leader of the church," he told Forum 18. Also, ten Baptists from Soligorsk have failed to overturn fines imposed after armed police raided their meeting for worship.

26 August 2015

BELARUS: Criminal trial of conscientious objector a show trial?

Eleven days after the official publication in June of Belarus' first-ever Alternative Service Law, which takes effect from 1 July 2016, an investigator opened a criminal case against Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Viktor Kalina. He faces punishment of up to two years' imprisonment if convicted of refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience. No court official in Brest was able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why the first hearing in his trial on 17 August was held not at the court but at Brest Military Conscription Office. Kalina likened it to a show trial as five more young men who chose not to go to the army were present at the hearing, and officials "decided to show them the consequences". However, the Head of Kalina's local Conscription Office, Valentin Abramov, insisted to Forum 18 that trials outside courts are "usual practices".

20 July 2015

BELARUS: Conscientious objector threatened with conscription

A conscientious objector to military service in Belarus has been threatened with conscription, Forum 18 News Service has learned, even though President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 4 June signed into law an Alternative Service Law. But on 11 June Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Dmitry Chorba, from Rechitsa in Gomel Region, had a case under Criminal Code Article 435, Part 1 ("Refusal of call-up to military service") filed against him by the local Military Conscription Office. Although it appears that the case has been closed he fears a renewed call-up in the Autumn. Also in Gomel Region, appeals are due on 24 July in Gomel Regional Court against fines imposed on Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko and Baptist Lyubov Kundas after armed police raids on their churches. Nikolaenko is appealing against a fine for organising a meeting for worship without state permission. Kundas is appealing against a fine imposed for refusing to testify against her fellow-Church members.

29 June 2015

BELARUS: Pastor also to face criminal case?

Nearly three weeks after police and riot police raided a Sunday worship service in Gomel in south-east Belarus, a court fined Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko for leading an unapproved religious meeting. A court official refused to put Forum 18 News Service through to the Judge. Nikolaenko's Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church has already been banned from meeting and police have searched his and another church member's homes for "sectarian" literature. A criminal charge against him might be in preparation. A third member of a Council of Churches Baptist congregation in nearby Svetlogorsk has been fined for refusing to say who was reading from the Bible when armed police raided the church during Sunday worship in May. Others face similar prosecution, as does the owner of the home where the church meets, church members told Forum 18. And three Hare Krishna devotees were detained in Vitebsk for five hours for offering religious literature on the streets.

18 June 2015

BELARUS: Alternative Service Law "a bad law. But it exists and that's good."

Belarus has for the first time adopted an Alternative Service Law, to take effect from 1 July 2016. The Law will allow some but not all young men who are conscientious objectors to perform a civilian alternative service instead of compulsory military service. However, Forum 18 News Service notes, only young men with a religious objection will be eligible to apply, not those with non-religious pacifist convictions. It is also unclear whether even all young men with religious objections to military service will be allowed to do civilian alternative service. The new Law is silent on how objectors from communities which are not as a community formally pacifist – such as the Orthodox Church - will be treated. And the length of alternative service will be twice as long as the comparable military service. Human rights defenders and the Jehovah's Witnesses – who refuse to do military service - have welcomed the Law's adoption. Human rights defenders such as Yauhen Asiyeuski of For Alternative Civilian Service stress that they will continue to work to bring the Law into line with international human rights standards.

15 June 2015

BELARUS: From raid to ban in 12 days

On 31 May police in Belarus with OMON riot police raided the Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church's meeting for Sunday worship, held in rented premises in Gomel. On 11 June officials banned the Church from renting premises, therefore banning it from meeting, church members told Forum 18 News Service. Police asked them: "Why do you attend this church and not a normal one?" Officials warned congregation leader Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko – who is already facing trial on Administrative Code charges - that he would be investigated on possible Criminal Code charges. "You can watch a football match or discuss [the poet Aleksandr] Pushkin without permission, but for a religious meeting you need permission", Dmitry Chumakov, the official in charge of religious affairs at Gomel Regional Executive Committee told Forum 18. Two weeks earlier there was a similar armed police raid on the Svetlogorsk congregation of Council of Churches Baptists. "11 more armed police arrived and broke up the service, as if they were coming after bandits", Forum 18 was told. Two congregation members were fined in early June for meeting for worship without state permission.

20 February 2015

BELARUS: Slander and obstruction to keep foreigners out

Catholics responded vigorously to accusations by the senior state religious affairs official that foreign Catholic priests working in Belarus often break the law, Forum 18 News Service notes. "They don't like our country, our laws and authorities. In such cases we don't prolong their stay in our country," Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Leonid Gulyako had declared in presenting his annual report for 2014. He accused unspecified priests of conducting services outside the regions where they had been given state permission to serve, not understanding either of the state languages (Russian and Belarusian) and drunken driving. Both Gulyako and his deputy refused to explain his accusations to Forum 18, which Catholics described as "slander". It was only with difficulty that Polish priest Fr Roman Schulz' permission to remain in his Mogilev parish was extended for a further six months until 20 June 2015, Catholics told Forum 18. A Protestant seminary failed to get permission for foreign religious lecturers. And a court warned two Jehovah's Witnesses that as foreigners they had no right to speak to people about their faith.

4 February 2015

BELARUS: Fined when "no such community" met for worship

On one of the regular occasions when Borisov's Jehovah's Witness community meet for worship in a private home, police raided, accompanied by Ideology Department official Lyudmila Gornak. The meeting's host, Andrei Kuzin, is now challenging in the Regional Court a fine of more than a month's average wage for holding an "unauthorised mass event", he told Forum 18 News Service. The community has tried to get the compulsory state registration 11 times in 15 years. "There's no such community as Jehovah's Witnesses in Borisov and there's no application for registration submitted to the city council," Gornak told Forum 18. Meanwhile, two Hare Krishna devotees were taken to the police in Polotsk for offering their literature on the streets and faced administrative cases. And police and officials have again visited a homeless shelter run by a Catholic layman in his home. "I was told to move the people anywhere I want, but I have nowhere to go and I am not going to do it," Aleksei Shchedrov told Forum 18.

16 September 2014

BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, September 2014

Belarus continues to keep religious communities within an invisible ghetto of regulation, Forum 18 News Service has found. The state closely controls people meeting together to exercise their religious freedom, forcing many religious communities to keep out of sight. Officials are hostile towards followers of faiths they see as a threat, particularly the Protestantism of many of the regime's political opponents. However, Forum 18 also notes that Belarus has been more reluctant to crack down on freedom of religion and belief in recent years. Yet people fear that without change to the legal framework and the attitudes of officials harsh actions could resume. Other issues include: strict controls on foreign citizens, including Catholic priests, who conduct religious activity; a Soviet-era network of KGB secret police and religious affairs officials; lack of provision for conscientious objection to military service; and obstruction of the religious freedom of prisoners, including prisoners of conscience and death-row prisoners.

12 June 2014

BELARUS: "I want to read the last rites over my son's body"

Tamara Selyun, mother of executed prisoner Pavel Selyun, is battling to try to recover his body. "I want to read the last rites over my son's body and bury him as a Christian," she told Forum 18 News Service. "But I was told that the body could not be handed over." In a letter seen by Forum 18, prison head Colonel Vikenty Varikash told her: "Bodies are not handed over for burial and the place of burial is not communicated." Both she and Lyubov Kovaleva – who has been seeking the return of her executed son's body since 2012 - separately insisted to Forum 18 that they are not going to give up. Meanwhile, the authorities have rejected applications for two foreign Catholic priests to be allowed to serve in Belarus. One has been a parish priest in Mogilev for seven years. Asked what parishioners should do now that the state has deprived them of their parish priest's service, religious affairs official Vladimir Martynovsky told Forum 18: "They should pray to God." The KGB appears to have dropped its criminal case against Catholic priest Fr Vladislav Lazar.

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