BELARUS: Time running out for Minsk church
New Life Church in Belarus' capital Minsk could lose its worship premises as early as mid-August, the charismatic church's lawyer, Sergei Lukanin, has told Forum 18 News Service. Minsk City Economic Court has ruled that New Life must sell – at a low price - the disused cowshed it worships in, following official insistence that the city Development Plan requires that the building be demolished. No new evidence for this claim was presented at the most recent hearing, which Forum 18 attended, one official eventually agreeing that the church "could be sited anywhere in the city." Minsk's main religious affairs official, Alla Ryabitseva, has previously told Forum 18 that the Development Plan was the reason why New Life was not given permission to convert the building into a church. Because it does not have state-approved worship premises, New Life was not given the compulsory re-registration demanded by the Religion Law, which bans all unregistered religious activity – against international human rights standards. The church could therefore be liquidated under the Religion Law.
After reluctantly agreeing to the presence of 11 people – including Forum 18 – in his tiny courtroom on 21 July, Judge Aleksandr Karamyshev announced that the case against New Life could continue, in view of his receipt of additional materials from Minsk's Architecture Committee. Judge Karamyshev stopped the case indefinitely on 16 May when state representatives failed to demonstrate that the city Development Plan, for the area where the cowshed is situated, must involve the building's removal (see F18News 24 May 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=788).
The state's first representative to address the court on 21 July, the chief specialist of Minsk Property Fund's Legal Department, Aleksandr Kazyatnikov, failed to advance any new arguments, however. Amongst other accusations, Kazyatnikov claimed that New Life had carried out unauthorised reconstruction of its building and that, despite having the designation of cowshed, it was now "a completely different object, a church." He admitted to being unable to refer to any documentation confirming or detailing unauthorised construction work on the building, however.
In the course of his response, New Life's lawyer Sergei Lukanin maintained that evidence had still not yet been put forward demonstrating the necessity for the cowshed's removal and thus its forced sale, as is required under Article 240 of the Belarusian Civic Code.
The state's second representative to address the court, building engineer Aleksandr Oganesen noted that he had worked on New Life Church's 2003 architectural plan to turn the cowshed into a social centre, but that this had been rejected by Minsk's Architecture Committee because it did not have prior approval from the city's Committee for Religious Affairs. Oganesen is currently working on the details of Minsk's city Development Plan, he told the court, in which " there is unfortunately no provision for this church." Rolling out charts of the area where New Life's building is located, he pointed out two multi-storey housing blocks due to be built on the site of the cowshed.
Asked by Sergei Lukanin whether the lack of approval by Minsk's Religious Affairs Committee was the reason why New Life's 2003 project was rejected, Oganesen replied "absolutely right" before eventually agreeing that there was technically no reason why that plan could not be executed if it had the relevant state permission, "technically it could be sited anywhere in the city."
In 2005, however, Minsk's main religious affairs official Alla Ryabitseva told Forum 18 that the city Development Plan was the reason why New Life had not been granted the relevant permission to change the designated usage of its building and convert it into a church (see F18News 21 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=516).
When Forum 18 began to ask, on 24 July, why state representatives were citing each other as being responsible for the confiscation of New Life's building, fellow Minsk religious affairs official Yelena Radchenko said that Alla Ryabitseva was currently away on holiday and that without her authorisation she could not answer any questions: "We have a certain procedure here."
Following approximately 35 minutes' deliberation on 21 July, Judge Karamyshev ruled that New Life's cowshed must be sold, according to the state's demand, for 37,581,476 Belarusian Roubles (108,656 Norwegian Kroner, 13,762 Euros, or 17,497 US Dollars), a sum which New Life Church estimates to be 35 times lower than the building's true value.
Arguing that the building is still technically a cowshed, Minsk officials have also refused to grant New Life permission - required by the 2002 Religion Law - to use it for services. The 1000-strong congregation has been worshipping at the building ever since being barred from renting a local house of culture in September 2004. As church administrator Yurevich told public prosecution officials in December 2004, New Life was earlier refused requests to rent other public facilities by district administrations throughout Minsk (see F18News 16 December 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=477).
Precisely because of its lack of state-approved worship premises, New Life has been unable to obtain the compulsory re-registration demanded by the 2002 Religion Law, which bans all unregistered religious activity. The church has now received five official warnings from Minsk City Executive Committee for continuing to hold consequently illegal worship meetings at its building. The fourth and fifth warnings were issued on the basis of large fines imposed on Yurevich as the alleged organiser of "religious gatherings with the reading of prayers and sermons" (see F18News 28 September 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=661 and 25 October 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=676). Under the 2002 Law, two such warnings are sufficient to liquidate a religious organisation.
Jews, Reformed Baptists and other evangelical Christians are amongst the individuals and communities who have been targeted, in continuing state attempts to confine all religious activity to already-state-approved places of worship (see F18News 13 June 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=798). (END)
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
29 June 2006
All Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) states are committed to "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," recognising that this is a litmus test of the state of human rights. OSCE commitments to human rights have been reiterated and enhanced. Yet some OSCE states, especially in the eastern part of the OSCE region where Forum 18 News Service works, repeatedly break their commitments and attack religious freedom. Examples include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which commit persistent and even worsening religious freedom and other human rights violations. Forum 18 here surveys the situation. The question facing the OSCE is: How, concretely, are its repeated commitments to free, democratic, tolerant societies which respect human rights to be implemented, faced with states whose concrete actions directly contradict their commitments?
13 June 2006
A Jewish kindergarten music teacher in Belarus, who celebrated the traditionally joyful Jewish holiday of Purim with Jewish children, has been threatened with criminal prosecution, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Lyudmila Izakson-Bolotovskaya is accused of "illegal and deliberate dissemination of religious dogma to young children, which could cause considerable harm to their world view, rights and legal interests." Public prosecutor Sergei Kopytov refused to talk to Forum 18 about his threat - one of several recent attempts, known to Forum 18, to restrict all religious activity to existing state approved places of worship. Minsk City Court has liquidated the Christ's Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, thus making it illegal. Earlier, its pastor, Georgi Vyazovsky, was jailed for ten days for leading worship in his home. The charismatic New Life Church in Minsk has been visited again by police, demanding confirmation of state permission to hold worship services. Also, three evangelical Christians were given official warnings for silently reading the Bible on Brest's central square, as an expression of solidarity with those arrested after March's presidential elections.
26 May 2006
In what seems to be an increasing trend, a Belarusian Pentecostal pastor has been fined for leading worship without state permission. "Divine freedom is given to us by God," Pastor Ilya Radkevich remarked to Forum 18 News Service, "but state freedom you have to pay for." Natalya Lutsenko, head of the administrative commission which fined Pastor Radkevich, totally refused to say why an individual had been punished for holding a peaceful religious service. Radkevich's fine is the latest to be imposed on some Baptist, Pentecostal and independent Orthodox groups, under a legal provision punishing violation of legislation on religion or the foundation and leadership of an unregistered religious congregation. The 2002 Religion Law bans unregistered religious activity, thus violating Belarus' international human rights commitments. A regional assistant bishop of a separate registered Pentecostal Union has told Forum 18 that the number of fines for worship by groups in private homes – which is illegal without state permission even for registered communities - would be much greater if such worship did not take place discreetly.