BELARUS: Minsk authorities to confiscate church land
City authorities in the capital Minsk have told the embattled charismatic New Life church that the land it bought with its church building in 2002 is to be confiscated. The city claims the congregation is using the land on which the church stands "not in accordance with its designation", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Our members have paid 13,000 US dollars in taxes on it – they can't say that it's not ours," New Life's administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18. At a 30 August meeting, church members decided to begin a round-the-clock prayer vigil, challenge the proposed confiscation in court and launch a campaign to keep their land. The church has been denied re-registration by the authorities which under Belarusian law, in defiance of international human rights agreements, renders all activity by the 600-strong congregation illegal.
In a letter dated 23 August but received by the church six days later, Minsk City Executive Committee vice-chairman Mikhail Petrushin announces that body's 17 August decision to confiscate the plot of land beneath the disused cowshed. Viewed by Forum 18, the text of the decision explains that New Life's right to the plot – originally granted by the municipal authorities along with its purchase in 2002 – is to be cancelled because the church's use of the land is "inappropriate" and "not in accordance with its designation". It orders relevant municipal departments to "take measures by 1 September to regulate the issue of purchasing from New Life Church the property [cowshed] situated on the aforementioned plot" and to make a financial proposal for this purchase once the building's value has been determined.
While the decision suggests that any action would be taken after 1 September, Yurevich told Forum 18 on 31 August that the church has not been contacted by any state department since it received the text. At an emergency meeting on 30 August, New Life members nevertheless decided to conduct a round-the-clock prayer vigil and alert other churches, foreign embassies and human rights organisations, he said, while a conference bringing together members of 50 other Belarusian charismatic churches affiliated to the Full Gospel Association is planned in support of New Life on 10 September.
Yurevich also reported that the church has invited Minsk city executive committee chairman Mikhail Pavlov to explain to the 600-strong congregation the motivation behind his and his colleagues' decision at their 4 September Sunday service. "We believe this move to confiscate the land is illegal and we intend to challenge it in court," he remarked to Forum 18, accusing the state authorities of being biased against the church. "There are plenty of commercial organisations in Minsk based at cultural institutions which have nothing to do with culture, but no one challenges them for 'inappropriate usage'!"
New Life Church has been worshipping at the disused cowshed ever since being barred from renting a local house of culture in September 2004. As Vasily Yurevich told procuracy officials in December 2004, the church was earlier refused requests to rent other public facilities by district administrations throughout Minsk. The 2002 religion law requires state permission for religious gatherings in premises not specially designed for worship, but the Minsk municipal authorities have consistently refused to grant both this – on the grounds that the building is a cowshed – as well as permission to reconstruct the building as a church, latterly maintaining that it is to be demolished as part of Minsk's general development plan (see F18News 21 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=516).
Without the necessary state approval to meet at their disused cowshed, New Life Church was refused compulsory re-registration at its address as soon as the religion law's 16 November 2004 re-registration deadline expired (see F18News 17 November 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=454) Subsequently, both Vasily Yurevich and Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko have been repeatedly charged with organising illegal worship (see F18News 29 December 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=480, 23 March 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=530 and 19 May 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=565), most recently following a visit by police officers to the church's 24 July Sunday service.
New Life's attempt to re-register in June 2005 similarly proved unsuccessful. Viewed by Forum 18, a letter dated 17 August from the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs explained to Pastor Goncharenko that this was because the disused cowshed "is in an unsatisfactory condition" – which Yurevich disputes – and that, in violation of the 2002 religion law, the church failed to enclose the signatures of all its "participants (members)" in the application. The law does not stipulate how the term "participant (member)" differs from the minimum 20 citizens who found a religious organisation, however, and Yurevich told Forum 18 that those names were submitted.
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=478
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru
28 July 2005
The Belarusian religion law's insistence on religious communities being registered at a non-residential address, as well as state approval for religious activities outside purpose-built places of worship, creates obstacles for Protestants in particular, Forum 18 News Service has found. For example, the charismatic New Generation Church's 150-strong congregation in Baranovichi faces long-running problems, caused by the authorities' refusal to allow a warehouse the church owns to be converted into a church. Reasons given vary between multi-storey housing being planned for the site, and that it will be used for a stadium's car park. Another example is the Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church, which faces continuing obstruction in using a cowshed for worship. The latest threat, Forum 18 has learnt, is that the city is considering ending the church's right to the land beneath the cowshed. Officials claim that the cowshed can only be used only for its designated purpose – even though animal husbandry is illegal in Minsk city. Forum 18 has found that other Protestant churches throughout Belarus face similar obstructions from officials.
8 June 2005
The New Generation Pentecostal church in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty cancelled a conference due to have begun on 12 June after the church's Latvian-based chief pastor was denied a Kazakh visa. The Kazakh consulate in Latvia told Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev, who was born in Kazakhstan, that a visit to his homeland was "not desirable" but refused to give a reason. "We're asking the authorities for an explanation – and we'll lodge a fresh application for Pastor Aleksei to get a visa," Viktor Ovsyannikov, pastor of the Almaty church, told Forum 18 News Service. Ledyayev was added to the entry ban list by Russia in 2002 and is also barred from Belarus. Others barred from Russia on religious grounds remain barred in Kazakhstan, though Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer, deported from Russia in April, told Forum 18 he has received a visa for Kazakhstan.
6 June 2005
Russian Orthodox Church Abroad priest Fr Leonid Plyats has had four lengthy "discussions" with officials, in the space of just over a week, and threats to punish him with jail or a massive fine if he holds any services outside his home. But local police chief Valentin Nikolaenok has denied to Forum 18 News Service that this is "pressure". Aleksandr Kozmin of the district Ideology Department told Forum 18 that "The warning was just an explanation of the law." Kozmin did not believe Forum 18 that other European states did not have Ideology Departments. But he insisted that Fr Plyats has no right to conduct any religious activity except private gatherings in his own home. Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) told Forum 18 that "I can't believe that in our time, in the centre of Europe, believers are being banned from gathering together to worship God. This is discrimination against our Church. They don't get involved in politics or opposition activity – it is a purely religious organisation."