BELARUS: More Baptist pastors fined
Forum 18 News Service has learnt of further recent incidents in which unregistered Baptist pastors have been fined for holding worship services. The fines were issued under 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." The estimated 29 congregations in Belarus belonging to a Moscow-based Baptist union which rejects state registration on principle have increasingly been targeted in this way since the introduction of the republic's 2002 religion law. The law explicitly states that registration is compulsory for all religious communities.
The Union also reports that another of its pastors, Valeri Trifan, was summoned for questioning on 3 February by local officials in the town of Soligorsk, Minsk region, "in connection with the receipt of a statement determining that an infringement of the law has taken place." Pastor Trifan – who has six children – has reportedly been fined a total of 183,000 Belarusian roubles (610 Norwegian kroner, 78 Euros or 89 US dollars) over the past two years for hosting an unregistered Baptist congregation at his home.
The average annual salary in Belarus is estimated to be 128 US dollars (885 Norwegian kroner, 102 Euros, or 276,857 Belarusian roubles).
These fines were all handed down 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." Since the November 2002 adoption in Belarus of a law which explicitly outlaws unregistered worship by religious communities, congregations in the republic belonging to the Moscow-based International Union of Baptist Churches have increasingly found their pastors to be subject to fines under Article 193. The Union, originally formed in 1961, 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.
Forum 18 News has already reported how three of the Union's pastors in Belarus were fined a total of 222,500 Belarusian roubles (742 Norwegian kroner, 94 Euros or 108 US dollars) in 2003 for leading unregistered congregations in Gomel and Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk) regions. (See F18News 3 February 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=243 ) During one incident, a police officer demanded that a pastor remove a "Prayer House" sign from the exterior wall of his own village home. "Systematic" home worship is also illegal under the 2002 religion law (even by registered communities), although the unregistered Baptists argue in their most recent statement that it "does not disturb public order."
Speaking to Forum 18 in Vitebsk on 23 September 2003, the region's state 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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9 February 2004
Forum 18 News Service has definitively found that close supervision of religious life in Belarus by local officials is an integral part of current central policy. It is not either a dwindling vestige of Soviet practice or the result of individual arbitrariness. The evidence for this is contained in a letter which Forum 18 has seen from the vice-chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Vladimir Lameko. The letter sharply criticises lower-level state officials for not diligently monitoring religious communities.
3 February 2004
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.
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."