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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

BELARUS: Believers pressured to withdraw registration signatures

Belarusian state officials, with local Moscow Patriarchate priests, are pressuring Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) parishioners to withdraw their signatures from state registration applications, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Unregistered religious activity is illegal. Part of the registration procedure is that at least 20 Belarusian citizens must sign applications and give personal data. If even one signature is withdrawn, the application process has to start again. Officials have apparently given Moscow Patriarchate priests and parishioners, in the city of Brest, details of the signatories on ROCA parish registration applications. "Very great pressure is put on them," ROCA Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) of Odessa and Tavriya told Forum 18. Baptists and Pentecostals have described to Forum 18 similar pressures on their new communities. One Baptist described how local state officials typically threaten all 20 names on the list of founding members of a new church. "In rural places people need something from them – wood, peat or a horse for ploughing - they are afraid to lose this, so they withdraw their names."

BELARUS: Government to make U-turn on charismatic church?

Belarusian authorities may be preparing to reverse their position towards New Life Church in the capital Minsk, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A senior state official has stated that President Aleksandr Lukashenko was aware of New Life's situation, regarding them as "a normal church in need of assistance." The official then made a "strong recommendation" to New Life's Pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, that the church try another appeal to the Higher Economic Court. New Life has now done this, but the church's lawyer, Sergei Lukanin, stressed to Forum 18 that the congregation will continue public protests until it has the legal return of its land and building and the right to worship there. Previous state promises to resolve the situation have been broken. New Life's high-profile public protests over the past two weeks – including hunger strikes throughout Belarus, daily services, and international support - appear to be responsible for the president's sudden attention. New Life has been fined for meeting, as have other churches in Belarus - such as a Baptist church in Minsk, which was fined this month.

BELARUS: Foreign religious workers out?

While tight restrictions on the religious freedom of foreigners who live in Belarus were enshrined in the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, foreign religious workers invited by local religious communities are increasingly being barred from the country, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The State Committee for Religious Affairs – which has to approve all such invitations and agree that such visits are "necessary" - denied the charismatic Full Gospel Union permission to invite Nigerian pastor Anselm Madubuko to preach in three of its churches in August. One church had "no basis" for inviting him as it was not registered, while the visit to another was "inexpedient", officials declared. A foreign citizen pastoring a congregation founded a decade ago did not have his annual religious work permit renewed in early 2006, while twelve Polish Catholic priests and nuns have been told their visas will not be renewed at the end of this year. The Hare Krishna community is among those unable to invite foreign citizens as they do not have the required ten registered religious communities.

BELARUS: Charismatic church's "time has run out," official claims

The authorities in Belarus' capital Minsk think they are already legally entitled to take the building used for worship by New Life Church, Forum 18 News Service has discovered. Officials have confirmed to Forum 18 that Minsk city has transferred money for New Life's building into the church's bank account, despite New Life's strong opposition. The church continues to oppose state attempts to take its building, and insists that the price offered is 35 times lower than the building's true value. Aleksandr Kazyatnikov of Minsk Territorial State Property Fund thinks that New Life had until Thursday 5 October to get out of their building. "Their time has run out," he told Forum 18. Church lawyer Sergei Lukanin thinks that Monday 9 October is when the authorities could begin to try to take the building. However, Nina Gordeyuk of Minsk city's Moscow District Administration thinks that the payment process is not complete. Once complete, she said, officials will meet with New Life's Pastor and the head of the state concern due to receive the building "to discuss the matter further." She was unable to say when this will be.

BELARUS: 12 Catholic priests and nuns face expulsion

"No reasons whatsoever" have been given for Belarus' decision to refuse annual visa renewal for 12 Polish Catholic priests and nuns, the Dean of Grodno's Catholic Cathedral has told Forum 18 News Service. The 7 priests and 5 nuns have been working in different parishes of Grodno Diocese for about ten years, but have been ordered to leave Belarus by 2007. "This is the first time so many have been refused permission to renew their visas," he told Forum 18, adding that nothing of the kind has happened in the other three Catholic dioceses in Belarus. Grodno region's main religious affairs official did not answer Forum 18's questions. But Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk maintained that "sufficient argumentation, foundation" is necessary in order for a foreign priest to come to Belarus. Of the 350 or so Catholic priests in Belarus, more than half are foreign citizens. Two did not have their annual visas renewed at the end of 2005, and were thus forced to return to their native Poland.

BELARUS: Reprieve for Catholic priest who celebrated unauthorised Mass

Catholic priest Fr Antoni Koczko has not been charged for serving Mass without state permission in the Belarusian capital Minsk, despite a court appearance, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Fr Antoni could have faced deportation - the punishment for repeat violations or one "crude violation" of a state decree on the activity of foreign religious workers. Fr Antoni was, after saying Mass in a Minsk parish where he does not normally work, approached by a man and woman in plain clothes. They accused him of breaking the law and escorted him to a court. One Belarusian Catholic commented that the pair "are always sitting in our church. You can't fail to spot them." Another priest told Forum 18 that the authorities did check whether priests were serving only at state-approved locations. After just such a check-up, he himself had been recently fined, but he pointed out to Forum 18 that this could be regarded as support – "we know from the Bible that if this is happening you're doing the right thing" – and as a source of income for the law enforcement agencies, "they have to get it from somewhere."

BELARUS: Massive fine for "illegal" Baptisms

Baptising 70 people in a lake has led to the pastor of one of Belarus' largest Pentecostal churches being fined over 150 times the minimum wage, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is, to Forum 18's knowledge, the first time that a congregation of a mainstream Protestant Union has had such a huge fine imposed for religious activity without state permission. Judge Oksana Kusheva of Baranovichi Municipal Court imposed the fine on Pastor Sergei Poznyakovich and fined the Pentecostal Union's bishop for Brest region, Nikolai Kurkayev, a significantly smaller amount. Baranovichi's state official dealing with religious affairs, Ruslan Krutko, told Forum 18 that Pastor Poznyakovich's fine was so large because the church performed similarly unsanctioned baptisms in the same lake in 2005. Confirming that the authorities had not responded formally to a request to be allowed to perform the baptisms, Krutko nonetheless insisted that official permission must be obtained in advance. A church member commented to Forum 18 that "if we are fined again within a year, the authorities will have grounds to close the church down."

BELARUS: "We are relying on God, not the courts"

In Minsk, the embattled charismatic New Life Church has yet to receive the written verdict of a July court decision forcing it to sell the building where its thousand members worship. Neither was the church informed about another recent court hearing to consider its right to use the land beneath the building. Now, however, "we are relying on God, not the courts," the church's lawyer told Forum 18 News Service. New Life has still not been given any explanation why a city Development Plan – offered, apparently against Belarusian law, as the reason why the church must sell its building to the state – may not be altered to include a Protestant church, except that this is "not envisaged". Once New Life receives what it believes is a greatly reduced price for its building, it has ten days in which to move out.

BELARUS: "If they try to stop God one way, we'll try another"

Despite tight restrictions on missionary activity in the highly restrictive Belarusian Religion Law - and approval for such activity hard to get – religious believers still have one unexpected way of sharing their faith in public: through popular music. Salvation – a Christian group from the western region of Brest – has often won top place each week on state television's "Silver Marathon" pop music programme since the summer, while several Hare Krishna groups – among them rap artists – have performed at the prestigious annual Slavic Bazaar festival in the north-eastern city of Vitebsk in recent years. Asked by Forum 18 News Service whether the prevalence of religious themes in Belarusian popular music might be the consequence of extensive state restrictions on organised church activity, Aleksandr Patlis – lead singer of another Christian band New Generation - remarked "if they try to stop God one way, we'll try another".

BELARUS: Police, officials and soldiers disrupt church family holiday

Officials from Smorgon District Executive Committee and the local departments for Hygiene, Minors and Emergency Situations, as well as soldiers and police, have disrupted a private holiday of families from a number of Minsk charismatic churches, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. After harassing the camp from the start of the holiday, officials claimed on the second day of the camp that it breached health and safety rules and soldiers loaded families onto an inadequate bus, for them to be deported back to Minsk under police escort. As the camp – which was not an official church event - was in the grounds of a house owned by church members, "we didn't think we had to get permission for it," Andrei Frolikhin of Word of Faith Church told Forum 18. State officials in Minsk were reportedly also involved. Church members are complaining about the disruption to their holiday, noting "that the majority of the children and parents are believers of various Protestant churches is no legal basis for interference." The authorities have not answered any questions from Forum 18 about their disruption of the private holiday.

BELARUS: An Orthodox state?

Belarus' President Aleksandr Lukashenko publicly stresses the role of Orthodoxy. However, Forum 18 News Service has found little evidence that state support for the Moscow Patriarchate is more than nominal. For example, every month a network of Ideological Departments sends state policy on topics such as youth, trade or housing to every state organ in the country. However, there appears to be no insistence upon familiarity with Orthodox doctrine. One Orthodox priest commented to Forum 18 that the 12 apostles would be illegal under Belarus' Religion Law. He also noted that registered religious organisations are banned from using state school premises, even outside school hours, and that there have been no substantial moves to introduce Orthodox instruction into state education. Discussing why the state gives nominal support for Orthodoxy, rather than a more active pro-atheist policy, the priest pointed out: "You can make a reservation for it, in which it is tolerated as a museum of culture and turns into something that fulfils 'religious needs' instead of preaching the Gospel."

BELARUS: Anti-Protestant education policy persists

Belarus' state education system continues to teach anti-religious – and particularly anti-Protestant – ideas, Forum 18 News Service has found. Despite protests from religious communities, state textbooks continue to make false allegations such as associating charismatic churches and Hare Krishna devotees with the group behind the fatal gas attack on Tokyo's metro system, claiming that Adventists operate "on the same principle as any fraudster," and depicting the history of Protestantism in Belarus negatively. The impact of such textbooks varies, as does knowledge of them, Forum 18 has found. Forum 18 has spoken to schoolchildren who say that children aged 13 or younger regard one Minsk charismatic church "as a sect," with older pupils adopting a neutral attitude. Some teachers do not share the state's hostile attitude, but others do. In one Minsk school, the headteacher told teachers that 90 per cent of every class must join the Pioneers, a Soviet-style state youth organisation, "but that Baptists and satanists were permitted not to join." In another incident, one teacher told a class that "they shouldn't be friends" with a Protestant pupil.