BELARUS: Pentecostals raided at Pentecost
Ten state officials raided the Pentecost service of John the Baptist Pentecostal Church in the capital Minsk yesterday (27 May). Pastor Antoni Bokun was arrested, held overnight at a police station and fined 20 times the minimum monthly wage today (28 May) for holding an "unsanctioned mass meeting", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The church – which has state registration – has been refused permission to rent premises for public worship, so has to meet in a private home. Local lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18 that Pastor Bokun told the court he had broken the law only because it went against the law of God. Fellow church member Jaroslaw Lukasik, a Polish citizen married to a Belarusian, who faces deportation in early June, was also held for several hours. Although he did not preach at the service, he faces administrative charges on accusations of conducting unauthorised religious activity as a foreign citizen and hence violating laws on the presence of foreign citizens in Belarus.
Pastor Bokun was detained following the Sunday service and spent the night in custody at Minsk's Central District Police Station. On 28 May Minsk's Central District Court fined him 20 times the minimum monthly wage, or 620,000 Belarusian roubles (1,740 Norwegian kroner, 215 Euros or 290 US Dollars), for holding an "unapproved mass meeting".
Local lawyer Sergei Lukanin was present with approximately 100 other supporters at the hearing. He told Forum 18 that Pastor Bokun told the court he had broken the law only because it went against the law of God. He was prosecuted under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Violations Code, which punishes violation of regulations for holding demonstrations or other mass events with a fine of up to 30 times the minimum wage or 25 days' imprisonment. A revised version of the Administrative Violations Code was approved on 31 December 2006 and came into force on 1 March 2007.
On the morning of 28 May, a police spokesman at Minsk's Central District Police Station confirmed Bokun's detention there to Forum 18. "So what?" he remarked. Asked what charges Bokun faced, the spokesman replied, "for holding an unapproved meeting". However, he insisted that he was unaware what type of meeting it was: "How should I know?"
Under the 2003 Demonstrations Law, all public events require the advance permission of the local state authorities. Under the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, religious events outside designated places of worship – even in the home - may take place only after a corresponding decision by the local authorities.
Lukanin, the lawyer, told Forum 18 on 27 May that he was given access to Pastor Bokun, "but not immediately, and we had to insist." While Pastor Bokun signed the protocol drawn up against him, he said, he explained that John the Baptist Pentecostal Church – which holds state registration – meets at his home without official permission only because it has been refused state permission to rent other premises: "They had no choice".
Ten state representatives – two in police uniform and eight in plain clothes – carried out the raid, Jaroslaw Lukasik, who assists at John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, told Forum 18 after himself being detained for several hours at Central District Police Station on 27 May. Two young men in plain clothes – whom he presumed to be KGB secret police – were present from the start of the 11am service, he said. Neither they nor the eight who arrived during guest preacher Bishop Sergei Tsvor's sermon identified themselves, he added. The state representatives began filming while Bishop Tsvor was preaching and called those present out into a neighbouring yard after worship had finished, he said. A truck of OMON riot police was also headed for the house church, added Lukasik, but by the time it arrived both he and Pastor Bokun were already being escorted to the police station.
Lukasik believes the purpose of the raid was to prosecute him further after his public refutation of a 8 May order under which he must return to his native Poland by 8 June (see F18News 17 May 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=958).
While he witnessed and prayed at the Pentecost service, Lukasik maintained, there was "no basis" for the protocol police drew up against him since Bishop Tsvor had preached in his place. "So I refused to sign it." Nevertheless he was accused of conducting unauthorised religious activity as a foreign citizen and hence violating laws on the presence of foreign citizens in Belarus. Lukasik is due to go before an administrative commission this coming Wednesday (30 May). Once two Polish diplomats were given access to him towards the end of his Sunday afternoon detention, he told Forum 18, police officers explained that he faces a fine of up to 20 times the minimum wage or immediate deportation.
The authorities in Belarus maintain tight controls on the religious activity of foreign citizens. A Polish Catholic priest narrowly escaped prosecution after he celebrated Mass without state permission while passing through Minsk last September (see F18News 3 October 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=849). Foreign religious workers invited by local religious communities of various confessions are increasingly being barred (see F18News 18 October 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=856).
This is the first time John the Baptist Pentecostal Church has been raided. In late 2006 a local policeman and a state representative in plain clothes inspected the empty premises – the basement of a free-standing house near the edge of Minsk - but there have been no repercussions until now.
Tsvor, the Pentecostal Union's bishop for Minsk and Minsk Region, was similarly threatened with charges for unsanctioned worship in March 2006. However, he was spared punishment following the expiry of the legal deadline for his prosecution (see F18News 13 March 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=743). (END)
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=888.
A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=806.
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru
17 May 2007
Following the expulsion in March of US citizen Travis Decker in retaliation for his active work with a Baptist church in the capital Minsk, the Belarusian authorities have moved to deport another foreigner on similar grounds. Polish citizen Jaroslaw Lukasik told Forum 18 News Service he must leave Belarus by 7 June, although his wife and children are Belarusian citizens. The KGB accused him of participating in "illegal religious activity by Protestant communities and gatherings of radically inclined, politicised groupings". Both Decker and Lukasik were accused of harming national security. Other Protestants, as well as Catholic priests and nuns, have already had permission to remain in Belarus curtailed. Belarus' 2001 National Security Concept describes the activity of foreign religious organisations and missionaries as a threat. Israeli Rabbi Borukh Lamdan told Forum 18 he is still trying to get his permission to work in Bobruisk renewed.
16 May 2007
Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants in Belarus have joined together to launch a nationwide campaign to gather signatures calling for a change to the country's restrictive Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service notes. The organisers state that "the Law violates the rights of all people, even atheists." Petitions to change the law require at least 50,000 signatures to be considered by the Constitutional Court. As of this evening (16 May), more than 10,000 Belarusian citizens had signed the petition challenging state violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. The campaign organisers affirm that the rights to life, free speech and freedom of belief are inalienable, stating that "because we have them from birth, they are given to us by God and not the government. Since the government does not give us these rights, they have no right to take them away." After one Minsk-based Orthodox priest joined the campaign, the Belarusian Orthodox Church issued a statement rejecting all connection with the petition and calling on Orthodox Christians not to take part.
12 March 2007
New Life charismatic church in Belarus is no nearer securing the use of its own building and land for worship, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is due to Belarusian state procrastination, even though the church ended a hunger strike in October 2006 after a senior state official strongly indicated that a resolution could be reached through the courts. However, "the judge had all the necessary information to make a decision two months ago," the church's lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18. "There are no objective reasons for this delay." The Higher Economic Court has postponed its ruling five times since December 2006, with the next hearing being due on 19 March. Lukanin points to two possible reasons for the delays. Firstly, the late 2006 gas price dispute with Russia gives Belarus less reason to support institutions associated with Russia, such as the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Secondly, Lukanin thinks, the government is "hoping that international attention will go away." Tight state controls on property use by religious communities - particularly in the capital, Minsk – have markedly restricted Protestants and Hare Krishna devotees.