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6 March 2014

BELARUS: Homeless shelter officially closed; Baptists fined

Officials have stripped the legal status from the House of Mary shelter for homeless people, run by young Catholic layman Aleksei Shchedrov in his village home in western Belarus. The 13 residents he cares for might end up back on the streets. The head of the Village Council, the tax authorities and the local police had all made visits looking for faults, he told Forum 18 News Service. "We're not monsters and we understand everything, but for us people's safety is the priority," Village Council head Tamara Zubritskaya claimed to Forum 18, but refused to discuss why she had pressured Shchedrov to register the shelter as part of the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, four Baptists from Gomel, whose church's Sunday worship was raided by police in December, were fined in January.

3 February 2014

BELARUS: Long-awaited Alternative Service Law abandoned?

Nearly 20 years after Belarus' 1994 Constitution enshrined a right to an alternative to compulsory military service for young men, an Alternative Service Law was drafted and sent to Parliament. The draft Law would have allowed only religious-based objection, and alternative civilian service would have been two-thirds longer than military service. But no sooner had it arrived than it was recalled, allegedly for "technical" corrections. "We didn't see it as it was withdrawn on about 20 December last year [2013]", Valentina Goshko of the parliamentary staff told Forum 18. "As soon as the corrections are made, the draft will be sent back for work in Parliament," Vera Chaushnik of the National Centre for Legislation and Legal Research told Forum 18. Elena Tonkacheva of the Lawtrend Legal Transformation Centre fears the proposed Law may now disappear, as "even in this current form, the authorities see it as a threat".

13 January 2014

BELARUS: Baptist worship raided, Catholic priest "will be tried"

Three Baptist leaders are likely to face administrative punishments after a police raid on a Council of Churches meeting for worship in Gomel in south-eastern Belarus, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Police interrupted the pre-Christmas service, took names of all those present, interrogated some and seized a Bible, Baptists complained. Reached by Forum 18, police officer Mikhail Yezepenko, who led the raid, declined absolutely to explain why he and other police officers raided the service. Meanwhile, KGB secret police spokesperson Artur Strekh has insisted to Forum 18 that the KGB's treason investigation into Catholic priest Fr Vladislav Lazar is continuing and he "will be brought to trial". And at least four employees of a state-run building company objected to being forced to work on the day they celebrated Christmas, 25 December 2013.

9 December 2013

BELARUS: KGB releases priest, but house arrest and treason investigation continue

The 3 December transfer to house arrest of Fr Vladislav Lazar after six months in Minsk's KGB detention centre was "a complete surprise", Fr Yury Sanko of the Catholic Bishops' Conference told Forum 18 News Service from the Belarusian capital Minsk. But the criminal investigation on treason charges – which Fr Lazar rejects – continues. His bishop, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of the Minsk-Mogilev diocese, has been interrogated by the KGB as a witness in the case "because when a priest is arrested on the basis of such charges, the archbishop is responsible for the priest", fellow priest Fr Yury Barok told Forum 18. The archbishop "is having very unpleasant moments", he added. The KGB refused to put Forum 18 through to Konstantin Bychek, the KGB investigator leading the criminal investigation, and KGB spokesperson Artur Strekh refused to tell Forum 18 how far the investigation has reached and if any trial is imminent. The charges carry a punishment of 7 to 15 years' imprisonment.

15 October 2013

BELARUS: Why is Catholic priest still detained by KGB secret police?

Four and a half months after Belarus' KGB secret police arrested Catholic priest Fr Vladislav Lazar on 31 May, it is still unclear why he was arrested or what specific acts he is accused of having committed, Forum 18 News Service notes. Fr Lazar is being held in a KGB detention centre under conditions which have been described as designed to crush the spirit. He has – against international human rights law - been denied visits from his family, friends and fellow-clergy, including Papal Nuncio Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti. Fr Lazar has been charged with treason, which carries a punishment of between seven and 15 years in jail, but the authorities have refused to reveal details of their allegations. Curiously, the charges were first revealed by the Catholic Church three and half months after the arrest, not by the authorities. The KGB secret police has bullied Fr Lazar's family, but campaigns for him continue. Pope Francis has also expressed his concern, and many in Belarus are convinced the priest is innocent. "The case is falling apart and everyone understands that the charges sound funny", journalist and family friend Lyubov Lunyova told Forum 18.

9 September 2013

BELARUS: Imprisoned Catholic priest "Polish spy" or religious freedom victim?

Belarusian officials have given no information about why the KGB secret police arrested Catholic priest Fr Vladislav Lazar on 31 May, Forum 18 News Service notes. He is being held in the KGB detention centre in the capital Minsk. Prison staff refused to allow a Bible, prayer book and rosary to be handed in for him. "We recently arrested one traitor who served in the special services [KGB] and who was connected with foreign states through representatives of the Catholic Church, and not only passed on information, but because of his activity people who work abroad suffered," President Aleksandr Lukashenko announced in July, giving no details. "Maybe tomorrow I'll disappear like this and my family will worry and have no information about my whereabouts," fellow Catholic priest Fr Yuri Barok told Forum 18.

2 July 2013

BELARUS: Praying in homeless shelter a crime

A young Catholic layman, who turned his home in a western Belarus village into a shelter for homeless people with a prayer room, is being accused of leading an unregistered religious organisation, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Aleksei Shchedrov – who says he has helped about 100 local people since December 2011 – is being investigated on criminal charges under Article 193-1, and faces a maximum possible sentence of two years' imprisonment. The criminal investigation against 28-year-old Shchedrov followed police raids on the shelter in February and April. "I am a Christian and I started to help those who are in need," he insisted to Forum 18 from the village of Aleksandrovka, Grodno Region. "I give them food, a bed, a bath and clothes and I pray together with them. But this is no religious organisation, just charity." A priest used to visit the shelter, but stopped after the authorities pressured the Bishop of Grodno into ordering the visits to stop. Police refused to discuss the case with Forum 18.

14 June 2013

BELARUS: Raids and fines restart, eviction again suspended for now

Raids and fines against Baptists in Belarus who meet for worship without state permission have re-started, Forum 18 News Service notes. After separate raids on Sunday worship services at both congregations of the Council of Churches Baptists in the south-eastern town of Gomel, three local leaders have been fined. Pastor Nikolai Varushin was fined about one month's average local wages, and Pastor Pyotr Yashchenko and Valentin Shchedrenok were fined much smaller amounts. These are the first such raids and fines in almost a year. Police told Forum 18 that one of the raids had been initiated by the KGB secret police, with the aim of "revealing criminal groups of the unregistered Baptists". "We [the police] deal with family quarrels and street fights, and are not interested in religion," the police officer told Forum 18. "In this mission we only lent assistance." And New Life Full Gospel Church in the capital Minsk has once again received an eviction order, which was today (14 June) rapidly suspended – but not cancelled.

25 February 2013

TURKMENISTAN: Government changes Islamic leadership again

Turkmenistan's government has changed the entire leadership of the country's officially permitted Muslim administration, Forum 18 News Service notes. Turkmenistan has not announced whether the new Chief Mufti and regional imams also have the usual second role as officials of the Gengesh (Council) for Religious Affairs, whose task is to restrict freedom of religion and belief. However, a regional Gengesh official confirmed to Forum 18 that this was happening in their region. The latest appointments came as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, complained of the difficulties of recovering Soviet-confiscated Orthodox churches. The Armenian Apostolic Church is hoping promises of being allowed to resume its activity among Turkmenistan's ethnic Armenian minority will eventually be fulfilled. And Turkmen students studying in Ukraine have been pressured not to attend non-Muslim religious communities. "The idea that we had instructions from our Foreign Ministry is stupidity," an official of Turkmenistan's Embassy in Ukraine told Forum 18.

30 January 2013

BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, January 2013

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, for fear that this might increase political opposition. 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.

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