BELARUS: When is a Monastery not a Monastery?
The Greek Catholic Church has no registered central body in Belarus under the 2002 religion law, so officially its two monasteries "do not exist", Forum 18 News Service has been told. Under the same law, the church's 15 registered parishes are not considered to have any legal relationship with each other. Also, because the church's centre is not in Belarus but in the Vatican, the law prevents central registration and the current head of the church being its head, because he is not a Belarusian citizen. Even if the Greek Catholics had a registered central body, its monasteries still could not legally exist because they do not have the legal minimum number of fully professed monks. The local state official commented to Forum 18 that only fully professed monks could legally count because "Novices might leave at any moment, or their mummies could come and take them home".
Approximately six years ago, according to Sharakh, local police drew up a protocol against Fr Venedikt Aleksichuk, who is now abbot of the Dormition Monastery in the western Ukrainian village of Univ. It accused him of founding the Polotsk monastery illegally, maintained Sharakh. They said, "Either you register or you don't exist". But registration is impossible since the legal centre of the Church is not in Belarus but in the Vatican City State. Whilst recognising the Roman papacy, the 400 year old Greek Catholic Church worships according to the Eastern Orthodox rite. Although some of its clergy outwardly resemble their western Catholic counterparts, those of the Studite order to which both the Univ and Polotsk communities belong are barely distinguishable from monks of the Orthodox Church.
Speaking to Forum 18, local Greek Catholic parish priest Fr Igor Kondrasev (Igar Kandrazjeu) explained that the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Belarus, Apostolic Visitor Sergei Gajek, is based in the Vatican. Although the eight Greek Catholic parish priests in Belarus, including a Ukrainian, a Pole, a Russian and a Georgian, all respect the spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic bishops in the republic, he said, they are not subordinate to them in ecclesiastical terms. So in the eyes of the Belarusian state, the country's 15 registered Greek Catholic parishes all function independently.
Even if the Greek Catholic Church did have a central body in Belarus, it would still be unable to register a monastery unless it had ten participants. Fr Vasili Zakharus told Forum 18 that currently only he and three other monks are attached to the town's Greek Catholic parish of St Paraskeva, however. Also, the 2002 law would appear to disqualify the current head Sergei Gajek as the church's head, because he has Vatican not Belarusian citizenship.
Meeting the number of participants part of the new Belarusian religion law is not only a problem for the Greek Catholics. Most Roman Catholic monasteries and convents in the republic don't have legal status either, since they have fewer than ten participants, auxiliary bishop of Grodno's Roman Catholic diocese Aleksandr Dziemianko told Forum 18. The diocese has two registered convents in Grodno city and Novogrudok, he said, but not a single monastery is registered. As a consequence, Bishop Aleksandr explained, the property belonging to monastic orders is usually held by parishes or private citizens. But of course it would be better if it belonged to monasteries, in accordance with normal monastic practice.
In Brest region, Vasili Marchenko, the official in charge of religious affairs maintained to Forum 18 News on 16 September that the only monastic establishments there were an Orthodox monastery and convent in Brest city and a Roman Catholic convent in Baranovichi. This is because no one wants any more than that, Marchenko maintained. Forum 18 knows of at least two other Roman Catholic monastic communities in the region, however, while the official website of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) puts the total number of monasteries and convents there at four.
The same website puts the total number of monastics in these establishments at 12, with a further 17 novices. Forum 18 noted that the recently founded Orthodox convent of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God in the grounds of Brest Fortress, which Marchenko mentioned, has ten inhabitants, of whom eight are novices at various stages. While it would thus appear to comply with the 2002 law on religion, Marchenko maintained that only those who had taken full vows could be properly considered to be participants in a monastic community. "Novices might leave at any moment", he quipped, "or their mummies could come and take them home".
13 October 2003
As last year's religion law confines the activity of a religious organisation to a defined area (often a single village, town or region of the country), Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal and Catholic leaders are among those to have expressed their concern. The law's provisions inevitably "make it difficult to organise new churches", Baptist pastor Viktor Zdanevich complained to Forum 18 News Service. As an autonomously registered congregation, his church is banned from creating a mission. The chairman of a Greek Catholic parish council in Polotsk, Mikola Sharakh, noted that the law did not allow for development and effectively created a "reservation" for the church. One Roman Catholic agreed, telling Forum 18: "People might argue that the churches are open, but what freedom is that? It is a silhouette."
13 October 2003
With last year's religion law criminalising "the attraction of minors to religious organisations and also the teaching of religion to them against their will or without the agreement of their parents or guardians", Forum 18 News Service has learnt that local authorities are demanding that religious organisations supply the names and dates of birth of all their Sunday school children. "We believe this to be a violation of believers' rights," complained Pastor Pavel Firisyuk of Salvation Baptist Church, "as well as of Christ's commandment: 'Let the little children come to me.'" However, State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs vice-chairman Vladimir Lameko defended the move, telling the Baptists only that officials should have explained better why they needed the information.
10 October 2003
Oguljan Jumanazarova, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer serving a four year sentence in the women's labour camp in the northern town of Tashauz, was freed early on 20 September, the Jehovah's Witness centre in St Petersburg has told Forum 18 News Service. Jumanazarova, from the town of Seydi, was sentenced in July 2001 on fraud charges that the Jehovah's Witnesses insist were imposed in retaliation for helping fellow Jehovah's Witnesses with their legal problems. "Nothing more is known about the terms of her release – only that she has been freed," a Jehovah's Witness spokesman told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses – like all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities – have been denied registration and are treated as illegal.