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BELARUS: Minsk Charismatic Church loses property confiscation challenge

The embattled charismatic New Life Church in Minsk now looks set to lose its property via the courts, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, the church having failed to overturn the state's decision to confiscate its building and land. New Life has been worshipping at a disused cowshed it owns since September 2004, having repeatedly been denied permission to rent other premises in Minsk. In an appeal against an Economic Court decision to uphold the Minsk City Executive Committee's decision to force the church to sell its cowshed, New Life points out that, amongst the grounds on which the decision can be challenged, the Court ignored the fact that the church cannot use the cowshed as a cowshed as keeping cattle is illegal within city limits, and the Executive Committee has not made any legal case for withholding permission to redesignate the cowshed. Also, in a move related to the church's struggle, the head of a city department – church member Lyudmila Yakimovich – has been told that she will be fired at the end of 2005 and that her November wages will be cut by 30 per cent. New Life has announced that it will begin monthly prayer meetings for victims of injustice on Friday 16 December.

BELARUS: "Just silence" reply to UN deadline

Belarus has not met a 12 November deadline, set by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, to report its correction of a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In a decision with implications for many religious communities, Belarus was found to have violated two Hare Krishna devotees' religious freedom rights by refusing to register a nationwide Hare Krishna association. Without registration the association's activity is illegal under Belarus's harsh religion law. One of the devotees, Sergei Malakhovsky, told Forum 18 News Service that the only reply the state had given them was "just silence. They were supposed to respond and publish what they had done within 90 days, but that period is over." The devotees have formally asked the Belarusian Supreme Court to review earlier court decisions violating their ICCPR-guaranteed religious freedom. The head of the UN Human Rights Committee's petitions department told Forum 18 that Belarus "will reply – they have said that they will – but they didn't give a specific date." Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Forum 18 that his body was "examining the issues."

BELARUS: State losing its battle with religious believers?

A state report seen by Forum 18 News Service gives a rare insight into state attempts to contain religious activity, and official gloom at the state's failure. Vasili Marchenko, top religious affairs official in Brest region, is very upset that officials are not active enough in breaking up worship services and harassing, fining and controlling religious activity, writing of "an even more depressing situation." The report aims at "repairing defects" in controlling religious activity by 1 December 2005. Marchenko gloomily writes of the state's failure to return an alternative Orthodox community to the Moscow Patriarchate, failure to stop Baptists conducting two or three services a week, "freely and systematically distributing .. religious literature," and conducting "an illegal water baptism" lasting over four hours with over 300 participants. Local authorities are also castigated by Marchenko for failing to stop Eastern-rite Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, Adventist and Pentecostal activity. Forum 18 has found an apparent link between Marchenko's report and subsequent increased action against religious communities.

BELARUS: "Religious events should be in a house of worship, not on the street"

State authorities have insisted to Forum 18 News Service that religious literature was lawfully confiscated from a street library in eastern Belarus. Bobruisk City Executive Committee vice-chairman Mikhail Kovalevich told Forum 18 that the Baptists had both "ignored" and "violated" the legal procedure for holding religious events by acting without state approval. "Religious events should be in a house of worship, not on the street," he stated about the street evangelism. The Baptists have been told by the head of the local state Ideology Department that the confiscated literature - including copies of the New Testament - would be sent for expert analysis and might not be returned at all, and that a court will soon resolve the issue. In another recent case, a Baptist in Brest has been fined for leading an unregistered religious organisation. Local Baptists have protested against this, pointing out that, under Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association."

BELARUS: Orthodox parish banned from worshipping

In what its priest, Fr Ioann Grudnitsky, has described to Forum 18 News Service as "the crudest violation of religious freedom," state officials in Belarus are refusing to register a Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR - which is not part of the Moscow Patriarchate) village parish that has come into conflict with the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese. Activities of the parish are – against international human rights standards – illegal under Belarusian law. Non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Christian communities can only gain state registration with the approval of a local Moscow Patriarchate bishop, and state officials have told Fr Ioann's parishioners to attend the local Moscow Patriarchate Church instead. Belarusian authorities have imposed large fines for worship in private homes on four occasions this year, "but we will carry on praying no matter what the state does," Fr Ioann told Forum 18. In a telegram to both Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Patriarch of Moscow Aleksi II, Fr Ioann's parishioners have complained about state restrictions on their holding of "religious events," demanding to know "where is there a law banning us from praying?"

BELARUS: Will UN decision help religious communities?

Belarus has yet to meet a 12 November deadline, set by the UN Human Rights Committee, for confirming the correction of a religious freedom violation against Hare Krishna devotees, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In a decision with implications for other religious communities (such as the New Life charismatic church), the UN Human Rights Committee found that Belarus had violated citizens' rights under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights by refusing to register a nation-wide Hare Krishna association. Two devotees, Sergei Malakhovsky and Aleksandr Pikul, complained to the Committee, which set a 90 day deadline from 23 August for correcting the violation. Aleksandr Kalinov, of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, initially claimed to Forum 18 that all Krishna communities had registration, but then, questioned about the nation-wide association, claimed it did not have the right to register. Sergei Malakhovsky told Forum 18 that Krishna devotees had taken the UN Committee's decision to the State Committee and other government departments, "but they just shrugged their shoulders and said nothing."

BELARUS: Third massive fine for organising religious worship

The administrator of the Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church, Vasily Yurevich, has been fined a third time for leading unauthorised worship. The latest fine is the massive amount of 3,825,000 Belarusian roubles (11,645 Norwegian Kroner, 1,488 Euros or 1,780 US Dollars), which is well over 10 times the average monthly wage in Belarus. The official text of the local court decision, which has been seen by Forum 18, relies upon police testimony – which Yurevich and congregation members strongly dispute - identifying him as the organiser of a Sunday service "by his outward appearance." New Life's Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko – who has also been fined for unsanctioned worship – insisted that the church would continue to meet for worship. It has also been denied state permission to turn a disused cowshed it purchased into a church building, on the grounds that it is technically a cowshed. A number of other Protestant churches have also reported recent moves by state officials to limit their religious activity, on the basis of technical violations.

BELARUS: Liquidated church pledges to continue services

Pastor Ernst Sabilo – who spent 13 years in Soviet labour camps for his faith – has pledged that the Belarusian Evangelical Church he leads in the capital Minsk will continue to meet for worship despite the liquidation of its legal status by the city court on 20 September. Belarus' restrictive 2002 religion law bans unregistered religious activity. "They could fine us for gathering – but we have no other option," Sabilo told Forum 18 News Service. The liquidation came a month after the same court liquidated a Calvinist church. A whole range of other religious communities which failed to gain re-registration by the deadline remain in legal uncertainty, Forum 18 has found. The pastor of a Protestant church in Minsk region denied re-registration and ordered to "liquidate itself" told Forum 18 he is optimistic a new registration application will be successful.

BELARUS: Second massive fine for organising religious worship

On 23 September, two months after a regular Sunday morning service of the embattled New Life charismatic church in Minsk was raided by police, a court fined the church's administrator Vasily Yurevich the equivalent of 160 times the minimum monthly wage for organising an "illegal" service. Yurevich told Forum 18 News Service that Judge Natalya Kuznetsova ignored church members' insistence that he had not organised the service, while the court decision maintained that the judge "believes offender Yurevich is trying to evade responsibility for what has been committed". This is Yurevich's second massive fine and he fears further fines in the wake of a police raid on the church's 4 September service. In separate cases, one Baptist punished for organising "illegal" worship was able to overturn his fine in August, but two other Baptists have been fined in recent months. One was ordered to take down the church sign.

BELARUS: False dawn for Minsk charismatic church

Despite a 15 September promise "as an officer" from Belarus' deputy interior minister General Viktor Filistovich that he would help resolve the predicament of the embattled New Life Church at a further meeting with top religious affairs officials, the deadlock for the Minsk-based charismatic congregation has not been broken. Filistovich failed to appear for a 19 September meeting and junior officials simply repeated earlier demands that the church cannot retain use of a cow-shed it bought in 2002 which it has converted into a church. "Now state officials have no moral right to tell us that we have not exhausted all peaceful methods of resolving our problems," Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko commented. Church administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18 News Service that the congregation is currently praying about what to do next. The congregation has been denied re-registration, rendering all its worship services illegal, and church leaders have been fined.

BELARUS: Minsk authorities to confiscate church land

City authorities in the capital Minsk have told the embattled charismatic New Life church that the land it bought with its church building in 2002 is to be confiscated. The city claims the congregation is using the land on which the church stands "not in accordance with its designation", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Our members have paid 13,000 US dollars in taxes on it – they can't say that it's not ours," New Life's administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18. At a 30 August meeting, church members decided to begin a round-the-clock prayer vigil, challenge the proposed confiscation in court and launch a campaign to keep their land. The church has been denied re-registration by the authorities which under Belarusian law, in defiance of international human rights agreements, renders all activity by the 600-strong congregation illegal.

BELARUS: Protestant property obstacles continue

The Belarusian religion law's insistence on religious communities being registered at a non-residential address, as well as state approval for religious activities outside purpose-built places of worship, creates obstacles for Protestants in particular, Forum 18 News Service has found. For example, the charismatic New Generation Church's 150-strong congregation in Baranovichi faces long-running problems, caused by the authorities' refusal to allow a warehouse the church owns to be converted into a church. Reasons given vary between multi-storey housing being planned for the site, and that it will be used for a stadium's car park. Another example is the Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church, which faces continuing obstruction in using a cowshed for worship. The latest threat, Forum 18 has learnt, is that the city is considering ending the church's right to the land beneath the cowshed. Officials claim that the cowshed can only be used only for its designated purpose – even though animal husbandry is illegal in Minsk city. Forum 18 has found that other Protestant churches throughout Belarus face similar obstructions from officials.