BELARUS: Pentecostal evangelist to challenge fine
After a night-time visit by two police officers and a religious affairs official to an address rented by the Pentecostal Union in Zheludok, local evangelist Mikhail Balyk was fined 13 US dollars for allegedly conducting worship services in the town. Balyk told Forum 18 News Service that no worship services were taking place at the address cited - a domestic residence – and is preparing to appeal. His lawyer Dina Shavtsova told Forum 18 that unregistered religious organisations are often fined in this way, up to a maximum of 35 dollars. The main victims are small, established groups in rural areas.
At 1 am on a night in early May, the Minsk-based Freedom of Conscience Information Centre told Forum 18, two police officers and a local administration official dealing with religious affairs visited a Zheludok address rented by the Grodno regional branch of the Pentecostal Union and drew up a protocol against Balyk for conducting illegal worship services.
A 20 May document issued by the municipal administration specifically accused him of "organising and conducting evangelisation meetings and other religious ceremonies every Sunday between 2 and 3 pm" at an address in the town. The document (of which Forum 18 has received a copy) states that such activity constitutes a violation of Article 193 of the administrative offences code.
This article specifies that "the creation and leadership of a religious organisation without registering its charter (statutes) in accordance with established procedure, or the organisation and conducting by the leaders and members of this organisation of children's and youth meetings, as well as work, literary and other circles bearing no relation to the exercise of the religion, attracts the imposition of a fine of up to five times the minimum wage."
"There is a vicious circle in our legislation," Balyk told Forum 18. According to the new law on religion, "you can register and so function legally only once your religious organisation has 20 members," he explained, but under the administrative code "you can't start a religious organisation without registering it".
The state authorities committed a number of procedural violations in drawing up the protocol against Balyk, his lawyer Dina Shavtsova claims. She told Forum 18 from the capital Minsk on 2 June that the police approached the young evangelist on a Friday, not at the time of the illegal activity of which he is accused, and thus have no proof that he created or led an unregistered religious organisation. Balyk added that a protocol should be drawn up in a person's presence after he has given a statement, which did not take place in his case.
Shavtsova told Forum 18 that unregistered religious organisations are often fined in this way, up to a maximum sum of 35 dollars. The main victims are small, established groups in rural areas, she said, and confirmed that the new religion law did not oblige local authorities to re-register local religious organisations, even if they are affiliated to a religious organisation that has re-registered on the republican level.
Balyk's official position is as an evangelist with the Grodno regional branch of the Pentecostal Union, which has recently passed re-registration on the republican level, as the chairman of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, Stanislav Buko, confirmed to Forum 18 on 28 May.
30 May 2003
In the wake of the restrictive new religion law which came into force last November, despite widespread protests from believers, Forum 18 News Service has discovered that very few educational or monastic communities of the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches currently meet the tough new restrictions. Few monastic communities have the required minimum ten members, while no educational institutions have a full teaching staff who know both state languages, Russian and Belarusian. If they want to continue to operate, they must make substantial changes before the re-registration deadline of 16 November 2004.
2 April 2003
State officials insist that the True Orthodox Church, which has three parishes and some 300 adherents, does not exist in Belarus. "There are no such parishes. There is no such Church," Aleksandr Kalinov of the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18 News Service. Not only parishes of the True Orthodox Church, but those of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church have been denied the right to register, while Belarus' president has vowed to use all state forces to protect the unity of the Moscow Patriarchate's Exarchate in the country. "Officially there is no ban on registering Orthodox parishes which are outside the framework of the Moscow Patriarchate," Oleg Gulak of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee told Forum 18. "But in practice – of course there is."
2 April 2003
Fr Leonid Plyats, priest of the True Orthodox parish of St John of Kronstadt near Minsk, told Forum 18 News Service that his community will fight on to be able to worship openly and legally despite the rejection on 27 March of his parish's suit to overturn the denial of registration. Denis Yelizarev of the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs insisted that the Committee's assessment against the parish had been correct. "They slandered other faiths, that's why they were banned."