BELARUS: Charismatic congregations barred from meeting
Ongoing state obstruction of the worship services of the charismatic Full Gospel Association appears to make the concept of state registration under the repressive religion law meaningless. The deadline for the compulsory re-registration of all religious organisations is 17 November 2004. In Minsk for example, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that Pastor Andrei Sidor has been fined more than the average monthly salary for "violating regulations on holding religious events," by holding a service in his own home. Even though Pastor Sidor's congregation has state registration, the fine could still be upheld, as the authorities have not given him the approval from fire safety and sanitation officers which the religion law requires. Pastor Boris Chernoglaz of the Church of Jesus Christ told Forum 18 that "The authorities know that it is a serious trial for a church not to be able to gather together, that's why they do this." Many members of Belarus' religious minorities fear the consequences of the government implementing the repressive 2002 religion law.
A 6 October decision by Frunze District Court in the Belarusian capital Minsk, for example, fined Pastor Andrei Sidor 380,000 Belarusian roubles (1,110 Norwegian kroner, 136 Euros or 174 US dollars) for "violating regulations on holding religious events" by conducting a two-hour worship service at his own home on Sunday, 19 September. The average monthly salary in Belarus is estimated to be around 303,000 Belarusian roubles (885 Norwegian kroner, 108 Euros, or 139 US Dollars).
Speaking to Forum 18 on 4 November, the head of the Full Gospel Association in Belarus, Aleksandr Sakovich, said that, after paying the fine, Pastor Sidor will still challenge the 6 October decision at a district court hearing in Minsk next week. He added that, even though Sidor's Light to the World congregation currently holds state registration, the home worship service could be considered a violation of Article 25 of the 2002 religion law, which states that religious services may take place on premises not specially designed for them only after a corresponding decision by the local state authorities. According to Sakovich, Sidor's local district executive committee has denied him permission to use his flat for services because he has likewise been unable to obtain the necessary approval from fire safety and sanitation officers. He added that another Minsk Full Gospel church, the 1000-strong New Life congregation, has nowhere to meet either because local fire safety and sanitation departments have similarly withheld their approval of a building recently purchased by the community.
New Life is cited with three other Minsk churches – the 500-strong Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ and Pentecostal congregations New Testament" and Hope of Salvation – in a 14 September resolution by the city's Moscow District prohibiting them from holding worship services. According to the document, a check-up on these organisations' premises revealed that "measures to provide medical services had not been taken" in addition to "insufficient public safety measures".
"It's ridiculous – police and medical teams should supposedly be on standby, but that doesn't happen at theatre performances, for instance," Pastor Boris Chernoglaz of the Church of Jesus Christ remarked to Forum 18 on 4 November. Currently, he said, his congregation and New Life cannot obtain permission to rent a hall anywhere in the city: "The authorities know that it is a serious trial for a church not to be able to gather together, that's why they do this." He added, however, that the two communities are preparing a court challenge to fight Minsk's Moscow District ban.
According to Aleksandr Sakovich, securing worship premises is currently the main difficulty for Full Gospel churches in Belarus. While there was a hitch with re-registration in mid-October 2004 – when Minsk district authorities denied re-registration to Pastor Sidor's church and refused even to accept applications from the Church of Jesus Christ, Word of Faith and Life in Abundance congregations – local state officials have since accepted the necessary documents, he told Forum 18. Both he and Pastor Chernoglaz expressed confidence that they would be re-registered by the deadline.
One difficulty posed by the 2002 religion law, however, is that a community applying for re-registration must provide an official document certifying its right to be situated at the location indicated in its statutes. (Article 17) This is further complicated by the fact that the Belarusian Civil Code prohibits the siting of an organisation in a dwelling which is still used as living quarters. (Article 272)
On 4 November Yuri Novitsky, a member of the 40-strong "Word of Truth" Full Gospel congregation in Dzerzhinsk, Minsk region, confirmed to Forum 18 that this had now become an issue for his church as it gathered the necessary documentation for re-registration. On 5 October – the eve of nationwide parliamentary elections in which the congregration's pastor, Nikolai Kozel, was standing as a candidate – the church lost the use of premises belonging to a local factory, he said. Novitsky emphasised that, although the congregation's contract had expired some weeks before, no questions were raised by the municipal authorities until the day before the elections. "The landlord said he couldn't have any further agreement with us because he didn't want problems," he told Forum 18.
Many members of Belarus' religious minorities fear that, after the 17 October referendum and parliamentary elections, the government will now harshly implement Belarus' repressive 2002 religion law. Under this law, all religious activity by unregistered religious communities is illegal (see F18News 7 October 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=154) and legal restrictions on public religious events also exist (see F18News 1 September 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=131). The influence of militant atheism on officials is strong (see F18News 18 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=186), and close supervision by officials of religious communities is an integral part of central state policy (see F18News 9 February 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=248).
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom
survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=195
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at
20 October 2004
Police in the town of Lepel [Lyepyel'] have angrily denied beating up a Baptist street evangelist, however the police have admittedly repeatedly detaining Baptists who were running a street library. The detentions allegedly took place at the instigation of the local Orthodox priest wife. Religious minorities fear that, after the strongly disputed referendum and parliamentary elections this week, the government's attention will turn to implementing Belarus' repressive religion law, under which all religious activity by unregistered religious communities is illegal. Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek of Minsk-Mohilev, the latest religious leader to criticise the law, has described some of the law's restrictions and said that "This law appears to normalise relations between the State and the Church, but does it in a way that suits the State, not the Church."
9 September 2004
Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.
7 September 2004
Although unregistered religious communities still face intermittent fines for religious activities, Protestants in Belarus have told Forum 18 News Service that a fine imposed in January on Baptist Union member Yuri Denishchik for holding a religious meeting in a private home was an "exception". They say that ahead of October's parliamentary elections, the authorities are not currently interfering in services, open-air evangelistic meetings and youth camps held by registered Protestant communities. "There are a lot of active Protestants in Belarus and President Lukashenko can't afford to alienate them right now," one source told Forum 18. He assumed there to be "some kind of instruction not to touch Protestants at the moment". But senior Baptist pastor Gennadi Brutsky told Forum 18 that problems persist, though so far they have been solved through compromises.