BELARUS: Baptist pastors fined
Forum 18 News Service has learnt of three separate incidents in which unregistered Baptist pastors have been fined for their work. All three were fined for "the creation and leadership of a religious organisation without registering its charter (statutes) in accordance with established procedure," which is punishable under the Belarusian administrative offences code. A spokeswoman for the pastors' Moscow-based union remarked to Forum 18 that the incidents "seem to be to do with" the 2002 Belarusian religion law, which outlaws systematic unregistered religious gatherings.
Oleg Kurnosov, the Union's pastor in the town of Dubrovno (Dubrowna), Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk) region, was similarly fined 16,500 Belarusian roubles (55 Norwegian kroner, 7 Euros or 8 US dollars) on 23 December, according to a 9 January statement also received by Forum 18. Pastor Oleg was conducting evening worship in his own home on 21 November when a local police officer, district executive committee official and district architect reportedly arrived at the house and demanded that he remove a "Prayer House" sign from its exterior wall. According to the Baptists' report, the pastor refused to comply, arguing that, even though it hung on a private house, the sign simply served as an invitation to all who wished to attend services.
On 21 April 2003 the International Union of Baptist Churches related how a municipal official and district police officer visited the Sunday morning service of its Vitebsk city congregation on 2 March and fined Pastor Konstantin Yeremeyev 25,000 Belarusian roubles (83 Norwegian kroner, 10 Euros or 12 US dollars) for failing to register his congregation.
All three pastors were fined under Article 193 of the Belarusian administrative offences code, which punishes "the creation and leadership of a religious organisation without registering its charter (statutes) in accordance with established procedure."
Speaking to Forum 18 on 17 January, a spokeswoman for the Moscow-based Union remarked that the recent incidents in Belarus "seem to be to do with" the republic's 2002 law on religion, which states categorically that registration is compulsory for all religious communities.
Originally formed in 1961, the International Union of Baptist Churches adheres to a rigid principle of separation of church and state, according to which none of its current 3,705 congregations throughout the former Soviet Union are registered. The Union spokeswoman explained to Forum 18 that all these congregations would have to be able to evangelise completely freely throughout the former Soviet Union before their ruling body would agree to state registration.
Speaking to Forum 18 in Vitebsk on 23 September 2003, the region's official in charge of religious affairs confirmed that the unregistered activity of the Union of Baptist Churches was illegal in Belarus. "I tried to talk to them, but they have existed like that for three decades," Nikolai Stepanenko lamented. While they thus appear to be outside the law, the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk numbers the Union's communities in Belarus at 29.
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29 January 2004
Yakov Gutman, who heads the World Association of Belarusian Jewry, has accused President Aleksandr Lukashenko of "personal responsibility for the destruction of Jewish holy sites" in Belarus. Gutman was subsequently detained by police and hospitalised with a suspected heart attack, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He claims that Belarusian authorities permitted the demolition of a former synagogue to build an elite housing complex, that the construction of a multi-storey car park will prevent the reconstruction of a sixteenth-century stone synagogue demolished in the late 1960s, and that Jewish cemeteries have been destroyed by two local authorities in recent years. Meanwhile, only 9 out of 92 historical synagogues in Belarus have been returned to believers since 1991, and the new 2002 religion law states that religious organisations do not have priority in cases when a former worship building is currently used for culture or sport. Yakov Dorn, Chairman of the Judaic Religious Association in Belarus, told Forum 18 that "most former synagogues come into that category - so the authorities usually refuse our requests and refer to that provision."
27 January 2004
Authorities in Belarus have been briefly detaining Krishna devotees two or three times a week for distributing religious literature, as well as obstructing literature distribution in other ways, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Separately, the Society for Krishna Consciousness in Belarus has asked the UN Human Rights Committee to investigate the legality of the states' refusal to register the organisation under the previous religion law. Vasili Marchenko, the official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region, told Forum 18 that a local Hare Krishna community had not been denied re-registration under the new religion law, and that he had not received any such application. This is disputed by a devotee, who told Forum 18 that the community's re-registration documents had been returned without explanation. In October 1997, the Belarusian State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs' Expert Council described the Minsk Society for Krishna Consciousness as a "destructive totalitarian sect infringing personality, health, citizens' rights and national security."
12 December 2003
The Pentecostal Church in Kobrin, near Brest in south western Belarus, has told Forum 18 News Service that it will continue to meet for worship – even though their Pastor was yesterday (11 December) fined after police attended the unregistered church's worship. Pastor Nikolai Rodkovich told Forum 18 that "we have no intention of halting our services. We're ready for anything." Under the harsh new religion law, which came into force in November 2002, unregistered religious activity is illegal. But Pastor Rodkovich's fine is the first fine known to Forum 18 since this summer. The state official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region has declined to discuss with Forum 18 why religious communities cannot function without registration.