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BELARUS: Fines on religious activity continue as pastors complain to president of restrictions

The official in the western town of Baranovichi who arranged for two local Baptists to be fined about one month's average wages each for using their home for religious worship defends his action. "They violated the Religion Law," ideology official Sergei Puzikov insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Told that the two point to Belarus' Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom, he responded: "In any country there is not only the Constitution, but individual laws." Puzikov was also involved in a fine handed down to another Baranovichi church in July. Police in nearby Malorita tried to have Baptists punished for singing hymns on the street, but the judge threw out the case. Fifty Protestant pastors – many of whom have been punished for religious activity - wrote to President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 20 August complaining of long-standing restrictions. The office of Belarus' senior religious affairs official refused to discuss their complaints with Forum 18.

BELARUS: Authorities prepare again to expel New Life church from its own building

Members of the New Life Full Gospel congregation in the capital Minsk refused to accept the latest official demands to give up the place of worship they bought back in 2002, the church's lawyer Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18 News Service. Court executors delivered an order to vacate the building by 20 August, but church members have held a series of prayer meetings to defend their building. The KGB secret police referred all Forum 18's questions to Minsk City Executive Committee, refusing to respond to church claims that it is behind moves to expel it from its place of worship. Alla Ryabitseva, senior religious affairs official at the Minsk Executive Committee, put the phone down when Forum 18 tried to find out why the church has been ordered to leave. European Union ambassadors in Minsk are due to hear the church leaders' concerns on 25 August.

BELARUS: Church fined for activity "not according to its statute"

A registered Protestant congregation in western Belarus has been fined for activity which officials claim was "not according to its statute," local Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. The church held a special prayer service in its registered building, which church members insist was within its statute. Trouble for the New Generation Church began when Baranovichi local Ideology Department officials saw posters in the town advertising the service. One official and two "witnesses" arrived at the church 30 minutes before the service, but left 10 minutes before it began without witnessing it. The official, Sergei Puzikov of the Ideology Department, refused to explain to Forum 18 what activity was outside the church's statute, as did the Department's head. In defiance of international human rights standards, Belarus bans all unregistered religious activity – including both unregistered communities and unregistered activity by registered communities. Religious activity is kept under close surveillance by the KGB secret police, and officials often issue warnings for activity they claim is illegal. Two such warnings can lead to a religious organisation being closed down.

BELARUS: Foreign pastor banned from preaching, church warned it may be closed

Belarus has warned a church in the capital Minsk that it could be closed after a foreign pastor preached at a worship service, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Pastor Boris Grisenko, a Ukrainian, was also fined. Alla Ryabitseva, head of the city's Department of Religious and Ethnic Affairs, claimed to Forum 18 that "I have been to the United States. Visitors to the country can't just go and speak at a religious service without permission." District police chief Viktor Pravilo refused to say how he had found out that a foreigner was preaching in the New Testament Pentecostal Church, religious communities having long complained to Forum 18 of KGB secret police surveillance. Asked whether the police did not have more important matters to deal with than a foreigner preaching at a religious service, Pravilo put the phone down. Foreigners engaged in religious activity have long been a target of state hostility, along with their Belarusian co-religionists. Catholic priests and nuns have regularly been expelled, but the authorities today (15 July) announced that they had completed the draft text of a Concordat. It is unknown whether this will address violations of freedom of religion or belief.

BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, June 2009

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko's repressive religious policies remain unchanged, Forum 18 News Service finds in its survey analysis of freedom of religion or belief. "Legal" restrictions include: requiring all religious activity by groups to have state permission, and be limited to one geographical area; barring meetings for worship or other religious activity in private homes that are either regular or large scale; requiring all places of worship to be state-approved; and routinely expelling both Catholic and Protestant foreign religious workers. As one Belarusian Protestant notes, "They have created conditions so you can't live by the law. We would need to close half our churches in order to operate technically in accordance with the law." By reducing religious communities' aspirations, they are being contained within an invisible ghetto of regulation. The authorities have crushed independent political, business and social organisations inside the country, and fear the potential of the largest remaining internal group of independent organisations – churches. This fear is reinforced by the fact that a number of key figures in the opposition are also committed Christians.

BELARUS: Largest fine yet for unregistered religious activity

Belarus has imposed its largest fine yet for unregistered religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A court in the eastern town of Osipovichi fined local Baptist Nikolai Poleshchuk the equivalent of almost three months' average salary in the town and another Baptist received a warning for running a Christian street library. However, Belarus' Supreme Court changed an earlier court order to destroy Bibles and New Testaments confiscated from Poleshchuk – they have been handed to the state instead. Asked by Forum 18 whether it is right to punish peaceful religious activity, Anna Zemlyanukhina, Head of Osipovichi District Ideology Department, replied: "I know my Constitution and human rights. It is all in accordance with the law." Separately, the co-ordinator of a rehabilitation programme for alcoholics and drug addicts, run by a Christian social organisation, has been fined for conducting unregistered religious activity. New Life Church in the capital Minsk also continues to face attempts by the authorities to stop it using its own building for worship and to evict the Church.

BELARUS: Ideology official targets rehabilitation programme

A Belarusian Christian rehabilitation programme for alcoholics and drug addicts run by a registered social organisation, Cliff House, has been targeted by an ideology official, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Irina Batishcheva, head of a district Ideology Department in Mogilev, has twice led police raids on Cliff House sessions escorted by police, most recently when five participants were singing Christian songs before drinking tea. "Some people got afraid after the first police visit and stopped coming," Cliff House's co-ordinator, Lyudmila Batyuk, told Forum 18. A local court has so far refused to prosecute Batyuk for leading an unregistered religious organisation. Asked by Forum 18 about her visits to Cliff House, Batishcheva insisted, "I will not comment on my actions." Belarus tries to enforce strict segregation of religious and social activity, with religious believers complaining to Forum 18 that they are barred from speaking publicly on general social issues.

BELARUS: "Your reasoning does not correspond with reality"

Belarus' Supreme Court has dismissed a challenge to the state's requirement that worship must be registered to be legal, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 2 March the Court rejected an appeal brought by a Pentecostal pastor against a fine for leading an unregistered religious organisation. Pastor Valentin Borovik had argued that the requirement to register broke both the Belarusian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a position supported by international human-rights lawyers. Dismissing the appeal out of hand, however, the Supreme Court's vice-chairman ruled that Borovik's rights to freedom of conscience "were not violated in any way." Baptist and charismatic communities are the most recent to report state harassment for unregistered religious activity, which increasingly comes from ideology officials.

BELARUS: Danes deported for praying in church

Two Danish visitors to Belarus were detained by police and are being deported as they expressed "ideas of a religious nature", in the words of the deportation order, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We were praying, reading and speaking from the Bible, greeting the people, and praying together," one of the two, Erling Laursen, told Forum 18. Neither were leading the worship service they attended. Police took video footage of the two praying in Gomel's charismatic Living Faith Church, but refused to say who had recorded it "to protect our colleague". The Church's pastor Dmitry Podlobko told Forum 18 that a young man he had never seen before filmed a worship service with his mobile phone. Pastor Podlobko said that "it's not news to us that the security organs are watching. They visit and watch us secretly." The KGB secret police closely monitors all religious communities. The deportation of the two Danes – who are banned from Belarus for one year – brings to 31 the number of foreign citizens barred from Belarus in recent years for their religious activity. The most recent people expelled were four Catholic priests and three nuns, banned at the end of 2008.

BELARUS: Charismatic church's fight pushed back to square one

Members of Minsk's charismatic New Life Church have vowed to fight on to retain their building after the Higher Economic Court threw out their appeal against moves to seize it. The state argues that the building is a cowshed and is not being used for its legal purpose, despite church attempts to have its usage changed. As the court decision comes into force immediately, the Minsk authorities have the right to demand the building "at any moment", church member and lawyer Sergei Lukanin pointed out to Forum 18 News Service. He said the church has been "deceived" as it only went to court after it was advised to do so by a senior Presidential Administration official. Another official there, Lyudmila Vorovka, refused to discuss the court decision. "The court decides this [issue], not us," she told Forum 18. Meanwhile, a Baptist leader Aleksandr Yermalitsky was fined on 8 January for hosting "a religious event at which the Bible was read" at his home, while other Baptists running street libraries have had literature confiscated and received court warnings for "singing songs of a Christian nature without permission". Catholics told Forum 18 there has been no progress in having the recent bar on seven Polish priests and nuns overturned.

BELARUS: "The views of the parishioners are nothing to us"

The Catholic Church in Belarus has appealed for the state to rescind its ban on four priests and three nuns working in the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. One of the priests, Fr Zbigniew Grygorcewicz, was told that he was being expelled for arranging a banned Christian music festival. Like his colleagues, Fr Grygorcewicz was active in serving the people of his parish, arranging for a sports pitch for local children to be built, providing humanitarian aid in the area, promoting ecumenical activity among the town's Christian churches, and lecturing in the Belarusian State University. One of the many parishioners and students who have protested against the bans, Lena Okolovicz, told Forum 18 that it is "absurd" that foreigners need special permission from the state before they can conduct religious work in the country. "I think believers should take the decision over which priest should serve where, not the state." But Mikhail Rybakov of the government's Office of the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18 that "the views of the parishioners are nothing to us."

BELARUS: Four Catholic priests and three nuns banned

Three Catholic priests in the western Grodno Diocese, and one priest and three nuns in the Minsk-Mohilov Archdiocese face a ban on religious work in Belarus from 1 January 2009, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mohilov told Forum 18 that "this makes me deeply sad. Who has been punished for this? Our faithful, citizens of Belarus who pay their taxes. As a bishop, I have a duty to take care of my flock." The bans will bring to 29 the number of foreign religious workers banned from working with local religious communities since 2004. It is unclear why the priests and nuns have been banned. However, Catholic clergy have previously been expelled for being active on social issues, and state officials have repeatedly expressed particular hostility to foreign Catholic priests. Marina Tsvilik of the state Office of the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18 that "these are not bans. They've just not had their permission to work extended."